Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to media on January 23, 2013 outside his home in Tel Aviv, Israel
Israeli actor, journalist and author Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid ) party, speaks to journalists on January 23, 2013 outside his home in Ramat Aviv, northern Tel Aviv. Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid shot to prominence in Israel's elections, was Thursday at the heart of Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition talks, after rejecting a centre-left alternative. © Jack Guez - AFP
Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, speaks to media on January 23, 2013 outside his home in Tel Aviv, Israel
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Jean-Luc Renaudie, AFP
Last updated: January 25, 2013

Israeli coalition talks centre on kingmaker Lapid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Israel's newest political star, the post of foreign minister or finance minister in a new government, a newspaper reported on Friday.

Yesh Atid, a centrist party formed only nine months ago, stunned the political establishment by winning 19 seats in Tuesday's election, taking second place to Netanyahu's Likud-Beitenu list which suffered which a major blow, securing only 31 of the 120 seats in parliament.

The far-right Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett won 12 seats, making it also a potential coalition partner.

The result transformed Lapid, a polished former TV anchor, author and boxer, into a kingmaker likely to play a central role in the next coalition government that Netanyahu is expected to form.

Quoting sources close to both men, who held secret talks at Netanyahu's Jerusalem home on Thursday, the top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily said Lapid had been offered the position as Israel's top diplomat or as head of the Treasury.

Foreign affairs, the Treasury and defence are the most senior cabinet positions, although Lapid was not thought to be interested in taking the defence job.

"It is now Lapid who will call the shots," commentator Ari Shavit wrote in the left-leaning Haaretz daily on Friday.

"If he prefers to turn his back on his campaign promises, take the foreign affairs portfolio and lead Israel into a peace process, he has the ability to leave Bennett out of government.

"However, if he prefers to focus on changing the electoral system, address the issue of equal sharing of the military-service burden and improve the situation of the middle class -- he will need Bennett as a partner," Shavit added.

A central plank of Lapid's campaign was a more equal "sharing of the burden," a euphemism for compelling ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military, which is anathema to the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (seven).

Israel's next finance minister will have to tackle a major budget crisis and a rash of harsh austerity cuts likely to spark widespread anger among a public already deeply unhappy over spiralling living costs.

Yediot said Lapid was more likely to be interested in the housing or interior ministries, in keeping with his party's socially-oriented election campaign.

Also on Thursday, Netanyahu called a raft of other party leaders, including Labour's leader Shelly Yachimovich whom he invited for talks on joining the government.

Although Yachimovich has vowed not to join a Netanyahu-led coalition, she accepted the invitation, Yediot said.

"It is our intention to be a strong opposition (in the face of) steps you intend to take," party sources quoted her as telling Netanyahu, in remarks reported by Haaretz.

"With regard to everything related to peace negotiations, which must be urgently resumed, the Labour party will support any such move and back it from opposition."

Yachimovich ran a campaign almost entirely devoid of reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although it is an issue the next government will have to address in light of expected renewed diplomatic pressure.

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