Palestinian leader reaches out to Israeli centrists

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian president wants to meet with newly elected Israeli parliament members to lay out his views on peace, hoping a political surge of centrists will provide an opening to resume long-stalled negotiations on a Palestinian state, a senior aide said Thursday.

President Mahmoud Abbas’ main target appears to be Yair Lapid, leader of the moderate Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, who is expected to be influential in setting the priorities of the next government.

Lapid has said he wants Israel to make a serious push for peace, though it is unclear how far he will press the issue in coalition negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In recent public appearances, he has barely breached the issue, focusing instead on domestic economic concerns.

In elections this week, Lapid’s party emerged as the second largest with 19 of 120 seats in parliament, after Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc that won 31 seats. Netanyahu will keep his job, but will have to bring other parties into his government to win a parliamentary majority, and Lapid’s faction is seen as key to any stable coalition.

Netanyahu and Lapid met Thursday, two days after the election, though formal coalition negotiations will only start next week, and could take up to six weeks.

Lapid has campaigned on a domestic agenda that includes ending draft exemptions and government stipends for ultra-Orthodox Jews. But two incoming legislators from his party said Thursday that making peace with the Palestinians is just as important to him.

Lapid might be forced to choose between those two issues because it seems nearly impossible to form a coalition that will deal with both issues.

Netanyahu is a hardliner and may balk at excluding right-wing parties from his coalition in order to move forward with peace talks.

At the same time, efforts to draft Jewish seminary students would likely invite the pro-settler Jewish Home party into the government. The party looks willing to cooperate on that front but wants to annex some of the lands the Palestinians want for their state.

Abbas and his advisers were surprised by the strong showing of center-left parties in the election, after opinion polls predicted a solid majority for religious and right-wing parties opposed to concessions to the Palestinians.

Instead, hawkish and religious parties won a total of 61 seats, compared to 59 for center-left and Arab parties. But Netanyahu has said he wants a broad majority to ensure stability and address domestic issues.

Hoping to capitalize on the results, Abbas will invite representatives of Israeli parliament factions to discuss prospects for negotiations, Abbas aide Yasser Abed-Rabbo said.

“We invite the Israeli parties, particularly the new ones, for dialogue on future accords,” Abed Rabbo said.

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