Netanyahu's Likud leads Israel poll amid centrist surge
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party leads in Israel's parliamentary elections, exit polls indicate. The vote also showed a surprise surge in support for the centrist Yesh Atid and the far-right Jewish Home party.
Benjamin Netanyahu's right wing Likud-Beitenu coalition won a narrow majority in Tuesday's election but was weakened by an unexpectedly strong showing by the centrist Yesh Atid party, according to Tuesday’s exit polls.
The polls, released by Israel's three main television stations, showed Netanyahu's Likud, running on a joint list with the hardline Yisrael Beitenu, winning just 31 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, followed by Yesh Atid with 18-19 and Labour in third place with 17.
The far-right nationalist religious Jewish Home party led by 40-year-old Naftali Bennett, which had been widely expected to take second place, came fourth with 12 seats.
Although Israel's political system does not specify that the party with the most votes is guaranteed to form the next coalition, Netanyahu is widely expected to be handed the task of pulling together 61 MPs to form a majority.
Polls have consistently predicted Netanyahu's re-election, with pundits suggesting he would preside over a coalition leaning further to the right. The exit polls suggest it is now more likely to be a centre-right government.
“We haven’t witnessed the rightward lurch everyone had predicted," said FRANCE 24's international affairs editor, Leela Jacinto. "Instead, we’re looking at a centrist slide”.
Broad coalition? Centre or right?
Shortly after the polls were broadcast, Netanyahu thanked Israelis for re-electing him for a second consecutive term in office and pledged to build a coalition which was "as broad as possible."
"I wish to thank millions of Israelis who realised their democratic right today," he wrote on his Facebook page.
"Based on the results in the exit polls, it's clear the citizens of Israel determined they want me to continue as prime minister, and that I form a government as wide as possible," he wrote.
FRANCE 24 correspondent Sylvain Attal, reporting from Tel Aviv, said forming a coalition amid a wide gulf of political positions would be a formidable task.
“We are looking at days and days of discussions and negotiations,” said Attal.
FRANCE 24’s Attal also added, “The question is whether Netanyahu will reach even further to the right or whether he will look to the centre and the election’s real winner, Yair Lapid. Clearly the Israeli electorate wanted something new to happen.”
The new government will be faced with tackling two key issues: how to revive moribund peace talks with the Palestinians and how to tackle the question of Iran's contested nuclear programme, which Israel and much of the West believes is a guise for a weapons drive.
But domestic challenges will be no less pressing, with a major budget crisis and austerity cuts on the horizon, as Israelis express widespread discontent over spiralling prices.
“These surprising results actually point to a simple fact: it’s the economy, stupid,” said Leela Jacinto.
According to FRANCE 24’s Jerusalem correspondent, Gallagher Fenwick, the economic strains, coupled with differences on the left and right on how to respond to the Palestinian issue, would be a central challenge to forming a working coalition.
“While Yesh Atid and the Bennett’s Jewish Home party have broadly similar positions on the economy, there is a huge gulf between them on security issues, and in particular on the issue of a future Palestinian state, to which Bennett is firmly opposed", Fenwick said.
The charismatic 40-year-old Naftali Bennett is the new leader of the far-right national religious Jewish Home party. Bennett's success has rattled Netanyahu, with the 63-year-old premier pushing to stem the defection of voters to Jewish Home by burnishing his own pro-settlement credentials. Among settlers, who make up about four percent of the electorate, there was a clear preference for Bennett and the extremist Otzma LeYisrael party, although some remain faithful to Likud.
Israel’s various centrist and leftwing parties, seen as more open to dialogue with the Palestinians, are now in a much stronger position to counter-balance the far-right positions of Bennett and other religious conservative and settler groups, according to FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto.
“With these results anything could happen over the next few days,” she said. “You have former prime minister Tzipi Livni, whose centrist party took 6 seats, and Labour, who did a lot better than last time with 19 seats, talking of joining Yesh Atid to form a centre-left bloc.”
(FRANCE 24 with wires)