A voice for moderation, Yair Lapid hoped for a centrist coalition to oust Netanyahu.

A voice for moderation, Yair Lapid hoped for a centrist coalition to oust Netanyahu.

A voice for moderation, Yair Lapid hoped for a centrist coalition to oust Netanyahu.

A voice for moderation, Yair Lapid hoped for a centrist coalition to oust Netanyahu.

Yair Lapid, the centrist politician and former media celebrity, has emerged as Israel’s most potent opposition leader but he appears, at least for now, to have fallen short of his goal of forming a liberal coalition that could oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.

Exit polls projected that his party had won 16 to 18 seats in the 120-seat Parliament and that the broader bloc of anti-Netanyahu parties had won 59 seats. But it is made up of ideologically diverse parties with clashing agendas that would find it difficult to work together. Based on the exit polls, Mr. Netanyahu appears to have an easier path to power.

In his desire to unseat Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Lapid did what many politicians consider unthinkable.

Mr. Lapid pledged that he would not insist on taking up the premiership if doing so would prove an obstacle to ousting his opponent.

The proposal displayed a level of humility rarely seen in Israeli politics — or most any political theater. But it was not simply an act of noblesse oblige. Mr. Lapid was well aware of the difficulties he was likely to face in getting some of the other parties opposed to Mr. Netanyahu to back him as leader of an alternative coalition.

Two of Mr. Lapid’s potential coalition partners, Gideon Saar, a conservative former minister who recently quit Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud, and Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party, saw themselves as candidates for prime minister, despite the relatively modest size of their parties. Mr. Bennett pledged before the election that he would not sit in a government led by Mr. Lapid, whom he views as too left-wing. Mr. Saar said he would be prepared to take turns with Mr. Lapid in leading the government.

Mr. Netanyahu focused his own campaign as a head-to-head contest against Mr. Lapid, casting the race as one between the right and the left and dismissing him as a lightweight.

Mr. Lapid ran a quiet campaign that focused on calls for preserving liberal democracy and thwarting Mr. Netanyahu’s stated goal of forming a government made up of right-wing and religious parties, relying on ultra-Orthodox rabbis and the far right.

Speaking to party activists before the election, Mr. Lapid described the governing coalition that Mr. Netanyahu wanted to form, and that he wanted to prevent, as “an extremist, homophobic, chauvinistic, racist and anti-democratic government.” He added, “It’s a government where nobody represents working people, the people who pay taxes and believe in the rule of law.”

Mr. Lapid has also called to protect the judiciary from Mr. Netanyahu, who is standing trial on corruption charges and who, together with his right-wing and religious allies, intends to curb the powers of the Supreme Court.

As finance minister in the Netanyahu-led government formed in 2013, Mr. Lapid instituted changes meant to share the national burden more equally between mainstream Israelis and ultra-Orthodox men who choose full-time Torah study over work and army service, and who depend on charity and welfare payouts. Most of his policies were undone by successive governments.

Mr. Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, ran in the last three elections in a three-party centrist alliance called Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff. Mr. Lapid parted with Blue and White after Mr. Gantz reneged on a main election promise and joined forces with Mr. Netanyahu to form an uneasy unity government after last year’s election.

After a highly successful career as a journalist and popular television host, Mr. Lapid was the surprise of the 2013 election when his party surpassed expectations and placed second, turning him into the chief power broker in the formation of the coalition.

His father, Yosef Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and an abrasive, antireligious politician, also headed a centrist party and served as justice minister. His mother, Shulamit Lapid, is a well-known novelist.

An amateur boxer known for his casual chic black clothing, Mr. Lapid rode to power on the back of the social justice protests of 2011 by giving voice to Israel’s struggling middle class.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has stuck to the middle ground, presenting safe positions within the Israeli Jewish consensus.


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