By ARON HELLER and JOSEF FEDERMAN
JERUSALEM (AP) - The unexpectedly strong showing by a new centrist party in Israel's parliamentary election has raised hopes of a revival of peace talks with Palestinians that have languished for four years under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Political newcomer Yair Lapid, the surprise kingmaker, is already being courted by a weakened Netanyahu, who needs his support to form a ruling coalition. Lapid has said he will not sit in the government unless the peace process is restarted.
But following a campaign in which the Palestinian issue was largely ignored, it remains unclear how hard Lapid will push the issue in what could be weeks of coalition talks with Netanyahu.
Tuesday's election ended in a deadlock, with Netanyahu's hard-line religious bloc of allies and the rival bloc of centrist, secular and Arab parties each with 60 seats, according to near-complete official results. Opinion polls had universally forecast a majority of seats going to the right-wing bloc.
While Netanyahu, as head of the largest single party in parliament, is poised to remain prime minister, it appears impossible for him to cobble together a majority coalition without reaching across the aisle.
Lapid, whose Yesh Atid _ or There is a Future _ captured 19 seats, putting it in second place, is the most likely candidate to join him. In a gesture to Netanyahu, Lapid said there would not be a "blocking majority," in which opposition parties prevent the prime minister from forming a government. The comment virtually guarantees that Netanyahu will be prime minister, with Lapid a major partner.
Netanyahu said Wednesday he would work to create a wide coalition stretching across the political divide.
Speaking to reporters, he said the election proved "the Israeli public wants me to continue leading the country" and put together "as broad a coalition as possible."
He said the next government would pursue three major domestic policy goals: to bring ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, who are routinely granted draft exemptions, into the military, to provide affordable housing and to change the current fragmented multiparty system, which often gives smaller coalition partners outsize strength.
But Netanyahu only alluded to peacemaking in vague terms, saying coalition talks would focus on "security and diplomatic responsibility." He took no questions from reporters and immediately walked out of the room.
Netanyahu's comments were clearly aimed at the 49-year-old Lapid, a popular former TV talk-show host who has portrayed himself as an average Israeli and champion of a middle class struggling to make ends meet.
Though committed to pursuing peace, Lapid's campaign focused heavily on pocketbook issues, raising speculation that Lapid might abandon the peace agenda if he can extract other concessions from Netanyahu.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Lapid criticized Netanyahu's handling of peace efforts, saying he was committed to restarting negotiations and would not serve as a "fig leaf" in a hard-line government.
Dov Lipman, a lawmaker in Lapid's party, said Yesh Atid was serious about resuming talks with the Palestinians. He said the party's strong performance "clearly says the people of Israel, while focusing on internal issues ... do understand we have to be in negotiations, exploring solutions and have to be trying to get to the two-state solution."
"We feel that with a sincere approach from the Israeli side, showing we're serious, we can make progress," he said. "We don't feel it's responsible leadership to be in a government which is not trying to move forward in negotiations."
Talks have ground to a standstill during Netanyahu's past four years in office, in large part because of his continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in 1967, for a future state and refuse to negotiate while the construction continues.
Under Israel's election laws, President Shimon Peres must formally charge Netanyahu with the task of forming a new coalition within six weeks.
If he reaches a power-sharing deal with Lapid, it remains far from clear whether it would be enough to restart talks. While Netanyahu has grudgingly accepted the idea of establishing a Palestinian state, his Likud Party is dominated by hard-liners who oppose Palestinian independence.
Another potential coalition partner, Naftali Bennett of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, has called for annexing large parts of the West Bank, the heartland of a future Palestine. Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to balance the competing visions of Bennett and Lapid, and resumption of negotiations would likely spark a revolt within his hard-line base of support. A continued 60/60 deadlock would trigger new elections.