Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Thursday with Yair Lapid, the surprise runner-up in an election last month, to try to draw him into a broad government that could bridge Israel’s religious divide.
In the Jan. 22 ballot, centrist candidate Lapid’s rallying cry, “equal sharing of the burden”, touched a nerve among voters angered by military exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox students and state stipends for large, religious families.
Lapid, a former TV anchorman who leads the new middle-of-the-road Yesh Atid, has been publicly sparring with Netanyahu, even suggesting that he could become Israel’s next leader within 18 months should Netanyahu fail to form a stable government.
Netanyahu, looking to clear the air just days after the president asked him to form the next government, held a two-hour session with Lapid to lay out his vision for a coalition of centre, rightist and religious parties.
“The meeting … was conducted in a very good atmosphere. It was a agreed that another meeting between the two would be held soon,” Yisrael-Beitenu and Yesh Atid said in a brief joint statement.
In a major political surprise, Yesh Atid captured 19 of parliament’s 120 seats, compared with 31 for Yisrael Beitenu, which had 42 legislators in the previous Knesset.
Netanyahu needs at least 61 seats for a parliamentary majority and has 42 days to do it. He has several options, ranging from a narrow coalition with traditional right-wing and religious partners to broader alliances with centrist parties.
A government with centrist partners could help Netanyahu project a more moderate image as he prepares for a visit to Israel this spring by U.S. President Barack Obama, with whom he has had a testy relationship.
Two major international issues - frozen peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and possible Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear programme - were eclipsed during much of the election campaign by domestic social and economic concerns.