UPDATE 2-Ex-TV anchor Yair Lapid named Israeli finance minister

Fri Mar 15, 2013 11:33am EDT
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* Upstart centrist party joins Netanyahu coalition

* Party leader, ex-TV presenter, gets finance portfolio

* Faces budget deficit reduction challenge

By Tova Cohen and Steven Scheer

TEL AVIV, March 15 (Reuters) - A former TV anchor whose upstart political party was the biggest surprise in Israel's January election was named finance minister on Friday as a coalition deal was signed, his spokesman said.

Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid party, which champions bread-and-butter issues of the Israeli middle-class, won 19 of parliament's 120 seats, second after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud-Beiteinu alliance's 31 seats.

After nearly six weeks of negotiations, Yesh Atid agreed on Thursday to join a Netanyahu-led government. The deal, and a separate coalition pact with the far-right Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party, were signed on Friday.

Lapid, who will replace Yuval Steinitz once a new government is sworn in, ran largely on a platform of easing financial pressures on the middle class through the need to share the burden - a rejection of privileges for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The new minister faces a major fiscal challenge in trying to reduce a budget deficit that reached 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, double an initial target of 2 percent.   Continued...