Jerusalem — Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu narrowly won an election in which disgruntled voters catapulted a new centrist challenger into second place and he now faces the daunting task of building a coalition.
Tuesday’s vote crystallised demands for attention to bread-and-butter issues over the ambitions of religiously fired hardliners and largely sidelined foreign policy issues such as thwarting 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 and religious parties emerged with roughly half the total, an erosion of the dominance Netanyahu had enjoyed during almost four years of deadlock in peacemaking with the Palestinians and jitters over Iran.
“A blow for Netanyahu,” was the headline in the biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Wednesday, echoing other Israeli media homing in on the surprise surge of the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, runner-up with 19 projected seats.
Yesh Atid and the centre-left Labour party, which came third with 15 seats, tapped into secular middle-class resentment that tax-payers must shoulder what they see as the burden of welfare-dependent ultra-Orthodox Jews exempt from military conscription.
Netanyahu, who in two terms as premier has enjoyed core religious backing, quickly made overtures to his opponents by saying he wanted to form as broad a coalition as possible, a process that is likely to take several weeks.