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Centrists weaken Netanyahu's grasp

| Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, 8:04 p.m.

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged weakened and facing a redrawn political map on Tuesday when Israeli television projections showed a surge for a new centrist party, Yesh Atid, in Israel's elections, making it a key element of a coalition.

Netanyahu's ticket combining his rightist Likud party with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu faction won 31 parliamentary seats, according to the projections, a sharp decline from the combined 42 seats held by the two parties in the outgoing 120-member legislature.

The faction remained the largest in parliament, but its shrunken size meant that Netanyahu will be more dependent on smaller coalition partners to cobble together a parliamentary majority.

In a message on his Facebook page after the projections were announced, Netanyahu said he would begin “efforts to put together the widest government possible,” indicating that centrist parties would be invited into his coalition.

The surprise result, according to the projections, was the surge to 19 seats of Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, a new centrist party. Its leader, Yair Lapid, a former television anchorman, based his campaign on a demand to end the exemption of tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews from compulsory military service so they can pursue religious studies with government stipends.

Lapid's campaign for equal service and easing the burden on Israel's struggling middle class resonated with many secular Israelis who pay high taxes and serve in the military. He has also called for a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians.

“The message is that there is a new agenda,” said Ofer Shelah, a Yesh Atid candidate, on Channel Two television.

“Lapid will determine how Netanyahu's government will look,” said Amit Segal, Channel Two's political reporter, adding that Netanyahu “will now have to pay a heavy price.”

The opposition Labor Party, which polls had predicted would be the second-largest faction, slid to third place, with 17 to 18 seats, according to the projections. Its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has vowed not to join a government with Netanyahu.

A religious nationalist pro-settlement party, Jewish Home, which surged in the polls, was projected to win 12 seats, making it another potentially crucial element in a governing coalition.

“We've returned to the center of the political map,” said its leader, Naftali Bennett, who extended the party's appeal to secular Israelis. Bennett opposes a Palestinian state and has called for annexation of most of the West Bank.

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