Election setback for Netanyahu as Lapid emerges as kingmaker
Jerusalem: A political rookie, Yair Lapid, has emerged as a kingmaker in Israeli elections spoiling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's victory celebrations, as undecided voters rallied behind the former scribe at the last moment in polls marked by plummeting support for the ruling Likud party.
Pollsters were swept by surprise as the change in public mood at the last moment saw exit polls throwing a major surprise with the right wing bloc losing popular support and in the end centre-left bloc ending up very close at 61-59 mark raising speculations that some of Netanyahu's natural allies may be left out of the next coalition.
All the Israeli news networks projected the joint Likud-Yisrael Beteinu list to have won 31 Knesset seats, a sharp drop from the 42 mandates that two parties currently hold, but enough for Netanyahu to be invited again to form the next government.
Netanyahu put up a brave front saying he viewed the results as an endorsement of his leadership, vowing to immediately start working on forming a coalition that would include parties on the Right, Left, and Center.
He also immediately called Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid (There is Future) party, who won an unexpected 18-19 seats in exit polls, and asked him to cooperate with him in his next government.
"The exit polls clearly indicate that the citizens of Israel want me to continue to serve as prime minister of Israel and form the widest possible government," the Prime Minister wrote on Facebook.
"The results are a great opportunity to make many changes for the benefit of the citizens of Israel," he added.
Labour party stood third in the exit polls at 17 seats. It's leader, Shelly Yacimovich, another former scribe, in her address to party workers vowed "to do all in her strength to prevent Netanyahu from becoming the next Prime Minister".
She called on Lapid not to join a Netanyahu government and to instead join her in trying to form an alternative coalition focusing on socioeconomic issues.
Yesh Atid officials said they would not hurry to make a decision. The party was formed only last year and opinion polls showed it garnering only about 10 seats till about three days ago.
One of the biggest losers in the race was former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, whose newly formed party is predicted to win only 6-7 seats, far short of providing an alternative to Likud-Beytenu.
Livni vowed to remain in politics and said that she was glad that the Center-Left had grown.
Political analysts believe that Religious right wing Shas party may be left out of the new coalition if Yesh Atid would be included in it.
Aryeh Deri of Shas, making a political comeback, called for Netanyahu to form a national-unity government with Labour, rather than with Yesh Atid.
"If Lapid wants to sit in a stable government that will make compromises, we can sit with him," Interior Minister EllieYishai of Shas party said.
"If he wants to continue with political spin, it won't happen," Yishai whose party is expected to retain its strength in the 19th Knesset (parliament) said.
The turnout in the election was slightly higher than expected and compared to the last two general elections.
The central elections committee said turnout was 66.6%, numbering some 3,767,000 people, an increase over the 64.7% of the 2009 election.
The biggest loser of the polls is the Kadima party which was the single largest party in the current Knesset with 28 seats and is projected not to win even a single seat.
Left wing Meretz party also did well in doubling its size from three seats in 2009 to six or seven, according to the exit polls.
If the exit polls hold true, more than half of the parliamentarians who served over the past four years will not be returning to the Knesset.