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Rise of Israeli centrist puts focus on peace talks


– The strong showing by a new centrist party in Israel’s parliamentary election raises the possibility of a revival of peace talks with Palestinians that have languished for four years under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Political newcomer Yair Lapid, the surprise kingmaker, is already being courted by a weakened Netanyahu, who needs his support to form a ruling coalition. Lapid has said he will not sit in the government unless the peace process is restarted.

But after a campaign in which the Palestinian issue was largely ignored, it remains unclear how hard Lapid will push the issue in what could be weeks of coalition talks with Netanyahu.

Tuesday’s election ended in a deadlock, with Netanyahu’s hard-line religious bloc of allies and the rival bloc of centrist, secular and Arab parties each with 60 seats, according to near-complete official results.

While Netanyahu, as head of the largest single party in parliament, is poised to remain prime minister, it appears impossible for him to cobble together a majority coalition without reaching across the aisle.

Lapid, whose Yesh Atid – or “There is a Future” – party captured 19 seats, putting it in second place, is the most likely candidate to join him.

Speaking to reporters, Netanyahu said the election proved “the Israeli public wants me to continue leading the country” and put together “as broad a coalition as possible.”

But Netanyahu only alluded to peacemaking in vague terms, saying coalition talks would focus on “security and diplomatic responsibility.”

Lapid, 49, a popular former TV talk-show host, has portrayed himself as an average Israeli and champion of a middle class struggling to make ends meet.

Though committed to pursuing peace, Lapid focused heavily on pocketbook issues in his campaign, raising speculation that he might abandon the peace agenda if he can extract other concessions from Netanyahu.

In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Lapid criticized Netanyahu’s handling of peace efforts, saying he was committed to restarting negotiations.

Talks have ground to a standstill during Netanyahu’s past four years in office, in large part because of his continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

But Lapid’s positions, while generous in Israeli terms, still fall short of Palestinian demands for a full withdrawal from all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Lapid says east Jerusalem, home to Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites, must remain under Israeli control. He has also refused to say whether he accepts a freeze in settlement building, a key Palestinian demand.