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After Tight Elections, Israel’s Netanyahu Works to Build Coalition

January 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
While Benjamin Netanyahu has kept his position as Israel's prime minister, a centrist party led by former TV personality Yair Lapid made a surprisingly strong showing at that country's recent elections. Jeffrey Brown talks to Margaret Warner about Netanyahu's plans to build a broad coalition beyond his conservative counterparts.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working to build his coalition after Tuesday’s election. The contest saw a surprisingly strong showing from a centrist party led by a former television personality.

Margaret Warner is in Jerusalem. I spoke with her a short time ago.

So, Margaret, a few days after the election, what kind of government seems to be taking shape?

MARGARET WARNER: Jeff, I’m told that Bibi Netanyahu is trying to put together a very broad coalition, not relying just on the ultra-religious and ultra-conservative and settler movement crowd that is in his current government.

So he is working with that surprise second-place finisher, Yair Lapid, to try to put together a very big coalition as well, a lot more votes than they really need, that would, if the people they’re talking about join the government, really span a range of viewpoints on everything from how to improve economic conditions for the middle class to, say, restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.

But it will take — it could take a month to actually firm up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit about that surprise second-place finisher, Yair Lapid, and his party, because it really was a surprise, didn’t get a lot of attention in the lead-up to this.

MARGARET WARNER: No, it really was a surprise, Jeff.

First of all, he is 49 years old. It was only a year ago this month that he announced he was leaving journalism to enter politics. Yet he came up with 19 seats. That was only one less than Netanyahu and his Likud Party got entirely on their own. So he is the hot new property here.

He already was a celebrity. He is the son of a Holocaust survivor who ended up in the government here.

But Lapid had gone really quite his own direction. He’s been a television talk show host and a very popular columnist. He has written thrillers and children’s books and a play. And he has even acted in a movie.

So really it was, as I said, just a year ago that he said he was leaving it all for politics. And his last column was something called “Where Is the Money?” And that is where he let out — set out forth his theme, which is the burdens of society have to be shared more equally.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Margaret, when you think about the implications of his coming government for any movement in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle or relations with the U.S., I just wonder what you have seen in Israel in terms of divisions. How divided does it feel politically and culturally?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it was — just within Israeli society, Jeff, there is much greater division culturally than I even noticed. I haven’t been here for about six years.

And that is between — and the old divide used to be over how much and how to deal with the Arabs and the Palestinians in particular and whether to give land for peace.

The new divide is very cultural, and it is between the ultra-orthodox religious and also the pro-settler nationalist movement, which aren’t the same.

But the ultra-orthodox are growing as a proportion of the population, because they have more children. And what they call the seculars, even though they are observant Jews, but they are — they separate their politics from their religion. And you really see it on the streets. In many neighborhoods, and certainly in Tel Aviv, people dress just as they do in the states.

But there are a lot of neighborhoods and especially up here in Jerusalem where you see the orthodox everywhere and men in their black hats and curls behind their ears and the women whose hair really is as covered as women in many Muslim countries.

And so there is a lot of resentment, especially among secular Israelis, about the special privileges that the orthodox and the settler movement get, everything from greater public spending to the fact that the ultra-orthodox, if their young people say they are studying the Torah, are exempted from compulsory national military service that every other young Israeli male or female has to serve.

And that is really, you know, the most striking divide that I see here in Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Margaret, give us a flavor for what is coming next week. What are you reporting on?

MARGARET WARNER: Jeff, we came here really to look at the three big issues that newly elected President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have to address.

And that’s the Iranian nuclear program, the conflict in Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And so even as we reported on the elections, we have been looking at those three issues. Of course, we have talked to a lot of Israelis.

But, yesterday, for instance, we went up to the Golan Heights, which is, you know, land that the Israelis captured from the Syrians. And that is really where the two countries meet up.

We could see how very close the conflict is. We could hear the boom of firing from the other side and looked at the defensive measures that Israeli is taking to try to prevent any spillover.

We also this week went into Gaza, just two months after the Israeli-Gaza conflict there, for example, to assess how people are feeling and in particular about how they feel about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

So we hope to have some textured stories next week that look at all three of those.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will of course look for those next week.

Margaret Warner in Jerusalem, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we will have Margaret’s story on Syria’s threat to Israel on Monday’s NewsHour. And, online, you can check out stories from her and her team on the reporting trip.