Former TV anchor Yair 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.
Lapid's nine-month-old party, which campaigned on socio-economic issues and stunned the political establishment by winning 19 of the Knesset's 120 seats, has emerged as the partner of choice for Prime Minister Netanyahu after the poor showing of the latter's Likud-Beitenu list.
The premier quickly pledged to build the "broadest possible coalition," saying it would focus on internal social issues.
On Wednesday night, Lapid wrote off the option of building a blocking majority of centre-left and Arab parties, which exit polls said had won 60 seats, but was expected to drop one mandate when the final results came out Thursday as the rightwing-religious bloc's number rose to 61.
Netanyahu and Lapid met on Thursday, a statement from the Likud's spokeswoman said, in the clearest indicator yet that he was eyeing Lapid as a key player.
The statement said the two-and-a-half hour meeting at the premier's residence "was in a very good atmosphere."
Former TV anchor 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.
The two discussed "the challenges facing the state and the ways to deal with them," and "determined they would meet again," it read.
Lapid's likely inclusion in Israel's next government is expected to give a centre-right bent to the incoming administration, rather than a swing to the right long predicted by pundits.
The negotiations are being closely watched at home and abroad for indicators on how Israel's new government will handle pressing diplomatic and foreign policy issues, including the deadlocked peace process with the Palestinians and Iran's nuclear programme.
"Lapid must be the standard bearer of a sane, moderate Israel that seeks integration into the international community and promotes civic rights," said the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.
Commentators said Netanyahu wanted Lapid in government, giving their two parties 50 seats, but accommodating him would complicate efforts to build a stable coalition.
A central plank of Lapid's campaign was a more equal "sharing of the burden," a euphemism for compelling the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the military, which is anathema to the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (seven).
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement at his office in Jerusalem on January 23, 2013. Former TV anchor Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid shot to prominence in Israel's elections, has emerged as the partner of choice for Netanyahu after the poor showing of the latter's Likud-Beitenu list.
"For at least some of Lapid's supporters... a government that is based on reaching an equal sharing of the burden is synonymous to a government without ultra-Orthodox parties," said the top-selling Yediot Aharonot.
It suggested a coalition including the rightwing Jewish Home (12), the centrist HaTnuah (six) and the centre-right Kadima (two).
Some Yesh Atid members would prefer to sit in a coalition with Shas, keeping Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett in opposition.
Such a line-up could include the centrist HaTnuah and Kadima, giving it 69 seats.
"Lapid will be a decisive factor in the government's composition, and will therefore be able to demand quite a bit from Netanyahu," said Aharonot.
While campaigning, Lapid said the Palestinians would have to recognise that large Jewish settlement blocs would remain within Israel, but said there would be no new construction during negotiations, other than to accommodate "natural growth" in existing settlements.
He has also made clear he does not accept the claim that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side.
Public radio said Netanyahu could accommodate such a position by agreeing to make gestures towards the Palestinians or by accepting an interim peace agreement, although Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has ruled out accepting an interim offer.
Lapid's rise and likely inclusion as a central player in the next government mean the chances of a unilateral strike on Iran's nuclear facilities appeared to be much reduced, Haaretz defence analyst Amos Harel wrote.
"With a coalition that will squint toward the centre, it seems the chances of an Israeli attack, one that is not coordinated with the Americans, are shrinking significantly," he said.