Centrist newcomer surprise star of Israel election

Tue Jan 22, 2013 7:19pm EST

* Yair Lapid's centrist party takes second place -exit polls

* Former TV news anchor poised for cabinet post

* Leads secular push back against growing religious clout

By Allyn Fisher-Ilan

JERUSALEM, Jan 23 (Reuters) - The surprise star of Israel's election was a former television news anchor whose centrist party soared to second place in the ballot only months after he took up active politics.

As leader of the new party Yesh Atid (There's a Future), Yair Lapid, 49, has pressed on with a fight, once championed by his late cabinet minister father, against the influence a growing Orthodox community has on many aspects of life in the Jewish state.

He has pledged to abolish army service exemptions for Jewish seminary students and widen the tax base - lightening the load on the middle-class - by bringing more of the ultra-Orthodox, who make up 10 percent of the population, into the workforce.

The silver-haired candidate's platform, chiselled looks and pledges of change attracted younger voters and normally reliable exit polls after Tuesday's voting forecast he will have 18 or 19 seats in the 120-member parliament, the Knesset.

A martial arts enthusiast, Lapid's unexpected strong showing in the vote will give him political muscle in negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on joining a governing coalition. After the vote, he urged Netanyahu to build as broad a team as possible - signalling his readiness to talk.

The right-wing premier has said he hopes to bring a wide range of parties into his cabinet after exit polls forecast a narrow parliamentary majority for his Likud-Beitenu list of candidates and its traditional right-wing and religious allies.

How far he can reconcile those with Lapid is still unclear.

The high-profile broadcaster built his own party with an unusual mix of public figures including two moderate rabbis, an array of mayors and former municipal officials, a former head of Israel's Shin Bet security service and a fellow journalist.

Supporters broke out in dance at his Tel Aviv headquarters after the exit polls: "I'm excited," a beaming Lapid told reporters. "Few people expected we would go this far."

In a pre-election interview with Reuters, he did not rule out joining his religious opponents in a Netanyahu coalition, although he set conditions that may complicate the process.

"I will be more than satisfied if I will have a share" in rebuilding social policies, Lapid said, but stressed that the reason he had quit a lucrative career as a television news anchor a year ago was "as an attempt to become a game-changer".

RELIGIOUS-SECULAR DIVIDE

Echoing his father, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, a Serbian-born Holocaust survivor, Lapid spoke of a widening rift between Israel's secular majority and the ultra-Orthodox minority. About 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men engage in full-time religious studies, keeping them out of the labour market and burdening the economy.

Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18. However, exceptions are made for most Arab citizens as well as ultra-Orthodox men and women.

Unless this policy changes, Lapid said, "I feel we're at risk that a whole generation of young Israelis - who went to the army, work hard, pay taxes - one day will look around and say hey, this country is going nowhere."

Lapid expressed support for Netanyahu's stance against Iran's nuclear programme, seeing the prospect of the Islamic republic obtaining an atomic weapon as a "disastrous scenario".

"If we will come to the point of no return, which it will be obvious that if we will not go there, Iran will have a nuclear bomb, then Israel should do something, it should go there and bomb the facility of the nuclear programme of Iran," Lapid said.

Iran denies any desire for atomic weapons and says Israel, assumed to have them itself, is the main regional threat.

Lapid also vowed to press any Netanyahu-led cabinet to renew peace talks with the Palestinians, though he sees little chance of reaching an agreement soon.

He called it "irresponsible" to have had such a long hiatus in the talks, which collapsed in 2010 over the issue of Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

"What we're doing is taking the most explosive conflict of our lives and just moving it to the next generation," said Lapid, who envisages Palestinian statehood in occupied land, and Israel removing some of the settlements it has built there.

Backing a two-state division of the land, Lapid insisted that his father "didn't come here from the ghetto to live in an Arab-Jewish country - he came here to live in a Jewish country".

He thought resuming diplomacy may take time, though.

Israelis "lost a lot of faith in the goodwill of Palestinians," Lapid said, citing rocket fire from the Gaza Strip even after a 2005 pullout and Hamas Islamists opposed to Israel's existence taking control of the territory. (Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Alastair Macdonald)