A badly weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scrambled Wednesday to keep his job by extending his hand to a new centrist party that advocates a more earnest push on peacemaking with the Palestinians after Israel's parliamentary election produced a stunning deadlock.
The results defied forecasts that Israel's next government would veer sharply to the right at a time when the country faces mounting international isolation, growing economic problems and regional turbulence. While that opens the door to unexpected movement on peace efforts, a coalition joining parties with dramatically divergent views on peacemaking, the economy and the military draft could just as easily be headed for gridlock — and perhaps a short life.
Israeli media said that with nearly all votes counted, each bloc had 60 of parliament's 120 seats. Commentators said Netanyahu, who called early elections three months ago expecting easy victory, would be tapped to form the next government because the rival camp drew 12 of its 60 seats from Arab parties that traditionally are excluded from coalition building.
A surprising, strong showing by a political newcomer, the centrist Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, in Tuesday's vote turned pre-election forecasts on their heads and dealt a setback to Netanyahu. Yesh Atid's leader, Yair Lapid, has said he would join a government only if it were committed to sweeping economic changes and a serious push to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, which have languished throughout Netanyahu's four-year tenure.
The results were not official, and the final bloc breakdowns could shift before the central elections committee finishes its tally early Thursday. With the blocs so evenly divided, there remains a remote possibility that Netanyahu would not form the next government, even though both he and Lapid have called for the creation of a broad coalition.
How Israeli elections work
Under Israel's parliamentary system, voters cast ballots for parties, not individual candidates. Because no party throughout Israel's 64-year history has ever won an outright majority of parliamentary seats, the country has always been governed by coalitions.
Traditionally, the party that wins the largest number of seats is given the first chance to form a governing alliance in negotiations that center around promising Cabinet posts and policy concessions. If those negotiations are successful, the leader of that party becomes prime minister. If not, the task falls to a smaller faction. President Shimon Peres has until mid-February to set that process in motion.
Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance polled strongest in Tuesday's election, winning 31 parliamentary seats. But that is 11 fewer than the 42 it held in the outgoing parliament and below the forecasts of 32 to 37 in recent polls. Yesh Atid had been projected to capture about a dozen seats but won 19, making it the second-largest in the legislature.
Addressing his supporters early Wednesday, when an earlier vote count gave his bloc a shaky, one-seat parliamentary margin, Netanyahu vowed to form as broad a coalition as possible. Lapid also called for the formation of a broad government.
The goal will not be an easy one, however, and will force Netanyahu to make some difficult decisions. In an interview last week with The Associated Press, Lapid said he would not be a "fig leaf" for a hard-line agenda on peacemaking.
That stance could force Netanyahu to promise overtures to get peace negotiations moving again.
But a harder line taken by traditional and future hawkish allies could present formidable obstacles to coalition building.
Tensions with the United States, Israel's most important ally, also may have factored into the shift to Lapid. President Barack Obama was quoted last week as saying that Netanyahu was undermining Israel's own interests by continuing to build Jewish settlements on occupied lands the Palestinians want for a future state.