JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's election has put a suave former TV news anchor and political novice in the role of kingmaker, and he has signaled he will use his power to try to move the next government to more centrist positions on Mideast peacemaking.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to form the coalition as the head of the largest party, but that is not a certainty. A nearly complete vote count Wednesday showed a deadlock between Netanyahu's hawkish bloc and the center-left camp.
It appears Netanyahu's future in office may depend on newcomer Yair Lapid.
Lapid's Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, emerged as the second-largest party in Israel's parliament after the prime minister's bloc, giving the 49-year-old former journalist unexpectedly strong leverage in upcoming coalition negotiations.
Lapid told cheering supporters after Tuesday's election that he wants a broad alliance of moderates, suggesting he would try to prod Netanyahu to abandon his traditional right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies.
That might be tough in Israel's cluttered political landscape of small parties with sharp ideological differences. Veteran political commentators were left scratching their heads when trying to come up with scenarios for a stable Netanyahu-led coalition.
With 99.8 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu electoral bloc won 31 seats in the 120-member parliament, remaining the largest party, but down from 42 in the 2009 election. Lapid's party won 19 seats, followed by 15 for the centrist Labor, 11 for the ultra-Orthodox Shas and 11 for the pro-settler Jewish Home.
Israeli voters do not directly elect the prime minister — that depends instead on post-election negotiations in which the party leader who has the best chance of putting together a majority coalition in the newly-chosen parliament is given an opportunity to do so, offering both Cabinet posts and policy concessions to other blocs.
That person will have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If successful, he or she becomes prime minister. In the unlikely scenario that he or she is not successful, another party is chosen to try.
Although the blocs appear evenly split, Netanyahu would likely get the first shot at trying to form a coalition government, because the center-left bloc draws 12 of its parliamentary seats from Arab parties that traditionally neither have been asked nor sought to join coalitions.
With the blocs tied, Netanyahu will likely try to woo Lapid into joining his coalition.
Lapid told reporters Wednesday he won't challenge a Netanyahu-led majority coalition by teaming up with other center-left parties, a move considered a distant possibility. Lapid has, called for "as broad a government as possible" that would include "moderate forces from the left and right," but leaving unclear which partners he prefers.
Lapid is a member of Tel Aviv's secular elite, the son of a former Cabinet minister and one of Israel's best-known faces, yet has portrayed himself as an average Israeli and champion of a middle class struggling to make ends meet.
During the campaign, he largely focused on domestic concerns, such as improving the education system, offering more affordable housing and ending blanket military draft exemptions and government stipends for ultra-Orthodox Jews.
He has said little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for a resumption of peace talks that were frozen during Netanyahu's term, but also insisting Israel keep war-won east Jerusalem. Palestinians claim the eastern sector for a future capital, and would be unlikely to agree to an accord without shared sovereignty in the holy city.
Ofer Shelah, a member in Lapid's party, said easing the burden on the middle class is a key demand, but that resuming talks with the Palestinians is also important. "We will insist on this with the same determination," Shelah said.
Such demands could place Netanyahu in a difficult bind. The Israeli leader's Likud, traditionally hawkish, became even more hard-line and pro-settlement after party primaries earlier this year and would likely balk at a government it deems too centrist.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he would only return to talks on the terms of a Palestinian state if Netanyahu freezes construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967, along with the Gaza Strip.
Lapid noted Wednesday that "we are facing a world that is liable to ostracize us because of the deadlock in the peace process," but it was not clear if he would insist on a construction freeze as a condition for joining the coalition.
In an interview last week, Lapid told The Associated Press he would not be a fig leaf in an extremist government and would make firm demands for joining, including returning to peace talks.
"I think it is crucial that we take the path of being part of the Western, civilized world and the international community," he said at the time.
Hanan Ashrawi, a PLO official, noted that Lapid has largely focused on a domestic agenda and that he wants Israel to retain control over east Jerusalem. "You are not going to have a savior, suddenly producing instant peace," she said.
Lapid's domestic agenda includes ending special privileges — notably draft exemptions — for the ultra-Orthodox. This could mean keeping ultra-Orthodox parties out of the coalition, but bringing in the pro-settler Jewish Home, which surged in Tuesday's vote and draws much of its strength from the modern Orthodox community.
Jewish Home, led by former army commando and high-tech millionaire Naftali Bennett, like Lapid seeks a more equitable military draft. Yet Jewish Home's call to annex 60 percent of the West Bank and prevent the creation of a Palestinian state appears to clash with Lapid's position.
In a sign of Lapid's new rock star status, TV stations opted for split screens when both he and Netanyahu began addressing their supporters at the same time in different locations early Wednesday. The stations switched back and forth, torn over whose words were more important.