STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. In Israel last night a surprisingly close election. Voters appear to have reelected Prime Minister Netanyahu for another term. That was expected. But Netanyahu's right wing alliance suffered serious losses. Centrist and left wing parties defied opinion polls and won half the seats in parliament. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports from Jerusalem, the prime minister will now have to turn these fractured results into a government.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: The gathering at Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv was supposed to be a victory celebration, a re-coronation of Benjamin Netanyahu to his third term as prime minister. In an effort secure a clean victory, Netanyahu merged Likud's slate with another right wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman.
That was supposed to help Netanyahu pass a budget. But well before the elections, the slate began to lose ground in the polls. The latest results show Likud-Beiteinu dropping from 42 seats down to just 31. That still makes the Likud-Beiteinu alliance the biggest force in parliament. But the results were still a big setback.
When Netanyahu spoke to supporters, he talked not about victory, but about the need to build a coalition.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Foreign language spoken)
ABRAMSON: Netanyahu thanked the crowd for electing him to a third term, and said, quote, "In order to lead us forward together into the future, I would like to start and try to form the widest possible coalition. I have started on this task already today."
That won't be easy. Netanyahu's slate lost votes to upstarts on the right and on the left. The attack by the right wing dominated the headlines. Naftali Bennett led his Jewish Home party to 11 seats. He outflanked Netanyahu and Avidgor Liebermann with an energetic campaign that emphasized no negotiations with the Palestinians.
Professor Reuven Hazan of Hebrew University says, Bennett took advantage of discontent within Netanyahu's traditional base of support.
REUVEN HAZAN: So this was an attack on Netanyahu and Lieberman because they merged. And the right wing, the hawks in Israel, really didn't like that.
ABRAMSON: Meanwhile, Netanyahu was outflanked on the center and left by a number of forces. The big surprise was the showing by centrist party Yesh Atid, or there is a future. It's led by Yair Lapid, a former TV news personality who remade an existing party into his own.
His message was simple and spare. He emphasized domestic issues, such as controlling the cost of living. He appealed to many young people with a message of, basically, hope and change, and he said he wanted to draft ultra-orthodox religious students into the army. Last night, Lapid said that message helped his party capture 19 seats in the 120 seat parliament.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
YAIR LAPID: (Foreign language spoken)
ABRAMSON: Lapid said: The citizens of Israel said no to the politics of fear and hate, no to the division into sector groups and interest groups, they said no to extremism and they said no to anti democracy.
Lapid has now vaulted from outsider to leader of the second biggest bloc of voters in the Israeli parliament. If Lapid is included in an eventual coalition, that will make it very difficult for Netanyahu to hold onto his traditional allies in the religious parties.
It could also cause problems on the Palestinian question. One member of Lapid's slate said last night the party would only want to join a coalition that supports resuming peace talks. Reuven Hazan of Hebrew University says Israel has had evenly split governments like this before. The lessons of history, he says, is that they tend to avoid the touchiest issues.
HAZAN: So what we could see here is a very wide government that focused on domestic politics where something can be done and very little on foreign policy and security.
ABRAMSON: With the parliament apparently split 60-60, late arriving ballots from soldiers and other absentee voters could have an impact on the shape of the final coalition. Meanwhile, Netanyahu will be have to work the phones and try to form a government that won't lead to another surprise, by falling apart prematurely. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.