Israeli voters punish Netanyahu but keep him in power

Wed Jan 23, 2013 12:38pm EST
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By Alistair Lyon

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Benjamin Netanyahu set about forging a new ruling coalition on Wednesday after Israeli voters fed up with state coddling of ultra-Orthodox Jews chastised him by propelling an upstart centrist party to prominence.

Tuesday's vote crystallized demands for attention to bread-and-butter issues over the ambitions of religiously fired hardliners, and largely sidelined foreign policy issues such as Iran's nuclear plans and Palestinian aspirations.

The right-wing prime minister claimed victory after his Likud party and its ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu ally took 31 of parliament's 120 seats, according to a near-final tally.

That made it the biggest single bloc, despite losing 11 of its previous seats. Overall, right-wing factions emerged with roughly half the total. Final results are expected on Thursday.

Making a virtue of necessity, a weakened Netanyahu has signaled a desire to broaden his coalition with centre-left parties that would lend it a more moderate gloss.

Such a shift could ease friction between him and U.S. President Barack Obama, himself embarking this week on a new term in office and who wants to avert an Israeli attack on Iran and restart stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

"The likelihood of a purely right-wing government has receded, along with the headaches that would cause for Obama," said David Makovsky, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "So there's a better chance for Netanyahu to find a ‘modus vivendi' with the U.S."

Israeli media highlighted the electoral setback for Netanyahu and the surprise surge of the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, runner-up with 19 projected seats in a parliament likely to include about a dozen parties in all.   Continued...

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) waves to supporters as he stands with his party members at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)