JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A former television news anchor whose new centrist party stormed to second place in Israel's election may well be the kingmaker holding the keys to the next coalition government.
The Yesh Atid (There's a Future) party led by Yair Lapid, 49, landed 19 seats in parliament in Tuesday's vote, second only to the bruised victor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud-Beitenu party plummeted to 31 seats from 42.
Only months after he took up active politics, Lapid can now aspire to a powerful new role as a senior partner in Netanyahu's next coalition and tie-breaker in a 120-seat parliament split roughly down the middle between right and left.
As leader of the fledgling party, Lapid has pressed on with a fight, once championed by his late father, a cabinet minister, against the influence Israel's growing ultra-Orthodox Jewish community wields on many aspects of life in the diverse country.
The salt-and-pepper-haired politician's platform, chiseled looks and pledges of change attracted younger and middle-class voters who resent the exemptions from military service granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews and their reliance on state welfare.
"Where's the money?" his simple campaign slogan asked, pointing to the ultra-Orthodox, business monopolies and state investment in far-flung Jewish settlements as the answer.
Lapid has pledged to abolish army conscription exemptions for Jewish seminary students and widen the tax base by bringing more of the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 10 percent of Israel's 7.8 million people, into the workforce.
A martial arts enthusiast, Lapid's surprisingly strong showing in the vote will give him political muscle in negotiations with Netanyahu on joining a governing coalition.
After the election, he urged Netanyahu to build as broad a team as possible, signaling his readiness to talk.
The right-wing premier has said he hopes to bring a wide range of parties into his cabinet. How far he can reconcile those other potential partners with Lapid is still unclear.
Lapid built his secular-minded party with an unusual mix of public figures, including two moderate rabbis, an array of mayors and former municipal officials, an ex-head of Israel's Shin Bet security service and a fellow journalist.
In a pre-election interview with Reuters, he did not rule out joining his religious opponents in a Netanyahu-led coalition, but set conditions that may hamper the process.
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 labor market and burdening the economy and state resources.
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 of Israel, 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."
"DIVORCE" FROM PALESTINIANS
Lapid expressed support for Netanyahu's stance against Iran's nuclear program, seeing the prospect of the Islamic Republic obtaining an atomic bomb as a "disastrous scenario".
"If we will come to the point of no return, (beyond) which it will be obvious that ... Iran will have a nuclear bomb, then Israel should do something, it should go there and bomb the facility of the nuclear program 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 has vowed to press any Netanyahu-led cabinet to renew talks with the Palestinians. Backing a two-state division of the land, he has often described such a solution as a divorce from the Palestinians, rather than a pursuit of peace with them.
Lapid has called it "irresponsible" to have had such a long hiatus in negotiations, 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.
But he acknowledges that resuming diplomacy may take time.
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.
Echoing Lapid's comments, Yaakov Perry, a former head of Israel's Shin Bet internal security service and now a Yesh Atid lawmaker, told Army Radio on Wednesday that the party had made readiness for renewed talks with the Palestinians a condition for joining any Netanyahu-led coalition.
"It is a strategic matter for Israel. We want to settle a divorce with our neighbors. We want the two-state solution," Perry said.