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Lulled by pre-election opinion polls, Netanyahu may have assumed he could coast back to power at the head of a right-wing coalition enthused by his mission to halt Iran’s nuclear drive and eager to settle more Jews in the occupied West Bank.
But his Likud party and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu lost 11 of the seats they had won at the last election in 2009, punished by voters more preoccupied with problems of daily life.
Lieberman said he and Netanyahu shared with Lapid and Naftali Bennett, leader of a new far-right party, the goals of “equal burden, living costs and affordable housing”.
But Lieberman told Army Radio reaching a similar consensus on foreign policy might prove elusive. “We can start with diplomacy, but that will impair the government’s functioning,” he said. “This government must focus on domestic issues.”
In its first reaction to the election, the United States, Israel’s chief ally, renewed a call for resuming stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, but huge obstacles remain, even if the next Israeli government gains a more moderate flavour.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO executive committee, said Palestinian leaders were watching for change after a vote that had given Israel a “new and different opportunity”.
He told reporters any renewed talks must be based on creating a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 war lines.
“We are not ready to be part of the process of more political theatre or to give cover for government policy which represents the same policies as the last one, while settlements continue and we experience daily killing and repression.”
U.S.-brokered peace talks broke down in 2010 amid mutual acrimony. Since then Israel has accelerated construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem - land the Palestinians want for their future state - much to the anger of Western partners.