- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 22, 2013

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party emerged as the largest faction in a hotly contested parliamentary election Tuesday, positioning the hard-liner to serve a new term as prime minister, according to exit polls. But a lackluster performance by Likud, along with surprising gains by a centrist newcomer, raised the strong possibility that he will be forced to form a broad coalition.

The exit polls aired on Israel’s three major TV stations all forecast that Likud and its traditional hard-line and religious allies had a shaky majority of just 61 or 62 seats in the 120-member parliament.

In a statement posted on his Facebook page, Mr. Netanyahu said he would reach across the aisle to try to form a broad-based coalition.

“According to the exit polls, it is clear that Israel citizens decided that they want me to continue to serve as prime minister of Israel, and that I form the widest possible majority [coalition],” he said.

According to the exit polls, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc captured just 31 seats, far below forecasts of recent opinion polls. The two parties, running separately, had 42 seats in the outgoing house.

In the biggest surprise, the centrist Yesh Atid party headed by political newcomer Yair Lapid, captured as many as 19 seats, well above the forecasts. That would position Mr. Lapid to become either opposition leader or seek a major Cabinet post if he decides to join Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Mr. Lapid campaigned on a platform calling for an end to the generous subsidies and draft exemptions given to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. He also has said he would not serve as a “fig leaf” for a hard-line government.

Mr. Lapid would likely seek deep concessions from Mr. Netanyahu in exchange for joining the government.

‘Last chance’ with Palestinians

The Obama administration said Tuesday that regardless of the results of the election, the U.S. approach to the conflict would not change. President Obama has had a turbulent relationship with Mr. Netanyahu, and the two leaders could find themselves on a collision course in their new terms.

“We will continue to make clear that only through direct negotiations can the Palestinians and the Israelis … achieve the peace they both deserve,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney, adding that the complexity of the conflict, not Mr. Obama’s relationship with the Israeli leader, is the main impediment.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Mr. Obama to make the Middle East peace process his top priority.

“We are approaching the last chance to bring about such a solution,” Mr. Hague warned.

For the first time in decades, the conflict with the Palestinians was not the defining issue in the election campaign after many Israelis came to believe a peace deal is impossible.

That deprived Mr. Netanyahu’s more moderate opponents of their traditional focus for elections, and the fractured center-left camp failed to unite behind a viable alternative candidate, practically ensuring another Netanyahu victory.

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