Jerusalem (CNN) -- A surprisingly strong showing by
centrists in Israel's national election tempered a narrow majority won
by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party.
Likud Beitenu won between 31 and 33 Knesset seats in the Israel
election, TV exit polls reported, more than any other party, as
expected. But that's a sharp drop for the bloc, a coalition of the Likud
and the Yisrael Beitenu parties that had 42 seats in the outgoing
Jewish Home, an extreme right party with a charismatic leader, Naftali Bennett, held its own, getting between 11 and 12 seats.
The Yesh Atid party, a
new centrist movement devoted to helping the middle class and halting
military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox civilians, came in a
surprising second place with at least 18 seats, according to the exit
The Central Election
Committee reported Wednesday that 99% of votes have been counted and
verified, but outstanding votes from members of the military and
prisoners won't be finalized for a couple of days.
Official results and allocation of seats in the Knesset -- Israel's parliament -- won't be announced until then.
Forming a coalition
The newfound centrist
clout will be part of Netanyahu's calculations in forming a new
government. The prime minister told weary but elated supporters early
Wednesday he plans to form a government "as broad as possible" and
pursue his goals with "many partners."
"I believe the results
of the election represent an opportunity to make changes that the people
of Israel want to see and that will serve all citizens of the state of
Israel," he said. "I plan to lead those changes and to that end we must
establish a government that is as broad as possible, and I've already
started out on that task."
He cited a number of
principles a new government will embrace: security, preventing Iran from
obtaining nuclear weapons, economic responsibility in the face of the
global financial crisis, increasing equality in sharing burdens and
lowering the cost of living, including the cost of apartments.
"It is a great privilege
but it is also a great responsibility," Netanyahu said. "I believe the
results of the elections represent an opportunity to make changes that
the people of Israel want to see and (that) will serve all of the
citizens of the state of Israel."
But the centrists and
leftists attracted waves of voters displeased with, among other things,
Israel's high cost of living, and more supportive of talks with
Palestinians. At first glance, the initial result reflects a politically
polarized electorate, with possibly an edge to the rightists.
Yossi Beilin, a
politician who is staunchly in the peace camp and one of the chief
architects of the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative called the Oslo
Accords, said it will be impossible for Netanyahu to form his own
government and he hopes none of the center-left parties join him.
"The center-left in
Israel is alive and kicking. It's almost the majority, or half and
half," he said. "All the talks about the demise of the left are over for
the time being."
Yesh Atid's leader is a
dynamic figure. Yair Lapid, a longtime prominent journalist whose late
father, Tommy Lapid, led Shinui, a onetime secularist party that took on
the influence and power of the ultra-Orthodox.
Yesh Atid also calls for
reforming the governmental system, improving education, jump-starting
the economy through small-business assistance and providing housing
assistance for military veterans and young couples.
The Labor Party, whose
leader Shelly Yacimovich campaigned solely on economic concerns,
apparently won 17 seats, according to exit polling. Before the election,
she was expected to finish in second place, so that is a surprise. She
and other centrists were working to tap into the disaffected Israelis
who took to the Tel Aviv streets in 2011 to protest frustrating economic
Is Israel's swing to the right over?
One party in Israel
never gets a parliamentary majority of more than 60 seats, so parties
must rely on coalition-building. The question is whether Netanyahu will
stay on the right or move to the center.
Will Netanyahu form a
right-wing coalition with Jewish Home and religious blocs such as Shas
-- which earned between 11 and 13 seats, exit polls show? Or will he
move to the center and try to form a coalition with Yesh Atid, for
example, and others? Or is it possible that a center-left coalition
could be cobbled together, without the right wing?
Netanyahu and his party sensed Yesh Atid's momentum. He called on his backers to come out and vote.
"The Likud government is in danger, go vote for us for the sake of the country's future," he was quoted as saying.
After the exit polls
rolled in, Netanyahu thanked Israelis on Facebook for his showing and
indicated that he wants "a very wide government" as the hard work of
coalition building begins Wednesday.
"The (election) results
observed are a great opportunity for many changes for the benefit of all
citizens of Israel. The complications ahead of us are many and wide, as
from tonight I will start my efforts to form a very wide government as
A polarized nation
Michael Singh, managing
director at the Washington institute, said the result reflects polarized
politics in Israel. The immediate consequences of the result is that
coalition building will be difficult and time-consuming, he said.
The worst-case scenario
would be government paralysis and maybe another election sooner rather
than later. While he said it's possible that a centrist coalition led by
Yesh Atid, which means "there is a future," and Labor could emerge,
Singh thinks Netanyahu and Lapid will form a government.
Likud celebrated after
the results came in. Danny Danon, a Likud party member expected to serve
in the next Knesset, was asked why the Israeli-Palestinian peace
process hasn't been front and center in the campaign.
Both talks and the issue
of Iran were not as prominent among factors as expected by many
observers. Domestic issues, in contrast, played a large role in the
Israel has no partner
among Palestinians, Danon said, and noted that peace initiatives have
been tried but haven't borne fruit. He cited the situation in Gaza,
where militants fire missiles into Israel despite the country's
departure from that Palestinian territory. Israel launched an offensive
against Palestinian militants in Gaza last year after enduring missile
fire on its territory.
The next government, he said, will reach out to Palestinians "but will also continue to make sure Israelis are strong and safe."
Israel doesn't "want to see an al Qaeda state in our backyard," Danon said.
David Makovsky, an
Israeli analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said
the election is good news for the Obama administration, which has had
prickly relations with the right-wing Netanyahu government. It comes
after a high turnout -- the percentage of eligible voters who cast a
vote was 66.6%, just 1% more than the 2009 election.
"It's unclear if Netanyahu wanted a pure right-wing option in the first place," Makovsky said.
"But Washington can
breathe a sigh of relief that Netanyahu will need to reach accommodation
with some parties at the center of the map who essentially would like
to see progress on the Palestinian issue as well as on economic issues."
CNN's Joe Sterling reported from Atlanta. CNN's Sara Sidner, Kareem Khadder and Nicola Goulding reported from Israel.
By Joe Sterling. Sara Sidner and Nicola Goulding, CNN