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Originally published January 22, 2013 at 10:00 PM | Page modified January 23, 2013 at 5:48 AM

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Israeli TV star leads centrist surge against Netanyahu

A strong election showing by a new centrist party founded by a television celebrity who emphasized middle-class issues dealt a blow to Israel’s prime minister.

The New York Times

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TEL AVIV, Israel — A weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged Wednesday from Israel’s national election likely to serve a third term, according to preliminary results and political analysts after voters on Tuesday gave a surprising second place to a new centrist party founded by a television celebrity who emphasized kitchen-table issues like class size and apartment prices.

For Netanyahu, who entered the race an overwhelming favorite with no obvious challenger, the outcome was a humbling rebuke as his ticket lost seats in the new Parliament. Overall, the prime minister’s conservative team came in first, but it was the center, led by the political novice Yair Lapid, 49, that emerged newly invigorated, suggesting that at the very least Israel’s rightward tilt may be stalled.

Lapid, a telegenic celebrity whose father made a splash with his own short-lived centrist party a decade ago, based his campaign on issues that resonated with the middle class.

Perhaps as important, he also avoided antagonizing the right, having not emphasized traditional issues of the left, like the peace process.

Like a large majority of the Israeli public, Lapid supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but is skeptical of the Palestinian leader’s willingness to negotiate seriously.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu reached out to Lapid, offering to work with Israel’s newest kingmaker as part of the “broadest coalition possible.”

Israel’s political hierarchy is only partly determined during an election. The next stage, when factions try to build a majority coalition, decides who will rule, how they will rule and for how long. While Lapid has signaled a willingness to work with Netanyahu, the ultimate coalition may bring together parties with such different ideologies and agendas that the result is neither a shift to the right nor the left, but paralysis.

Still, for the center, it was a time of celebration.

“The citizens of Israel today said no to politics of fear and hatred,” Lapid told an upscale crowd of supporters that had welcomed him with drums, dancing and popping Champagne corks. “They said no to the possibility that we might splinter off into sectors, and groups and tribes and narrow interest groups. They said no to extremists, and they said no to antidemocratic behavior.”

Lapid harnessed the frustration of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who took to the streets in the social-justice protests of the summer of 2011. When he founded Yesh Atid (There is a Future) the next spring, he adopted and sharpened the popular demands for a more equal sharing of the burden, meaning an end to automatic military exemptions for thousands of ultraorthodox students who opt for full-time Torah study, as well as demands for better public education and an end to rising taxes that choke the working population.

Israel Radio reported that Netanyahu’s conservative Likud-Beiteinu ticket was poised to take 31 of Parliament’s 120 seats, with Lapid’s party, There Is a Future, coming in second with 19, far more than polls had predicted. The right wing and religious parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition garnered a thin majority of perhaps 62 seats, pushing him to try to join with Lapid instead and possibly embrace other center and left-leaning groups. Labor took 15 seats in early returns and Jewish Home, a new religious-nationalist party, 11.

The results were a blow to the prime minister, whose aggressive push to expand Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank has led to international condemnation and strained relations with Washington. The support for Lapid and the left-leaning Labor Party showed voters responded strongly to an emphasis on domestic, socioeconomic issues that brought 500,000 people to the streets of Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011.

Erel Margalit, a venture capitalist and first-time candidate who was elected to Parliament as No. 10 on Labor’s list, described the high turnout as a “protest vote” and “a clear demonstration of how many Israelis feel like something needs to be done and something needs to change.”

Turnout was nearly 67 percent, higher than the 65 percent in 2009 or the 63 percent in 2003.

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