Netanyahu tepid vote seen as rebuke

Tel Aviv, Jan. 23: A weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged today from Israel's national election likely to serve a third term, according to preliminary results and political analysts, after voters yesterday gave a surprising second place to a new centrist party founded by a television celebrity who emphasised kitchen-table issues like class size and apartment prices.

For Netanyahu, who entered the race an overwhelming favourite with no obvious challenger, the outcome was a humbling rebuke as his ticket lost seats in the new parliament. Over all, his conservative team came in first, but it was the centre, led by the political novice Yair Lapid, 49, that emerged newly invigorated, that suggests Israel's rightward tilt may be stalled.

Lapid, a telegenic celebrity whose father made a splash with his own short-lived centrist party a decade ago, ran a campaign that resonated with the middle class. His signature issue is a call to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the army and the work force.

Perhaps as important, he also avoided antagonising the Right, having not emphasised traditional issues of the Left, like the peace process. Like a large majority of the Israeli public, he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but is sceptical of the Palestinian leadership's willingness to negotiate seriously; he has called for a return to peace talks but has not made it a priority. Sensing his message of strength was not penetrating, Netanyahu posted a panicky message on Facebook before the polls closed, saying: "The Likud government is in danger, go vote for us for the sake of the country's future." Yesterday ended with Netanyahu reaching out again ' this time to Lapid.

Israel's political hierarchy is only partly determined during an election.

The next stage, when factions try to build a majority coalition, decides who will govern, how they will govern and for how long.

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