by Adam Gonn
JERUSALEM, Jan. 22 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to keep power as exit polls of the parliamentary elections showed on Tuesday that Netanyahu's hardline Likud-Beitenu bloc remained the largest bloc in Knesset (parliament).
However, the initial exit poll of Channel 2 TV news also showed the bloc of Netanyahu's Likud party and ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party suffered a stunning setback as it garnered only 31 seats, 11 seats fewer than four years ago when the two ran separately.
Exit polls also showed the ultra-orthodox Shas party, which was a key partner in the previous government, received 12 seats and the extreme right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party got 12.
Meanwhile, the center Yesh Atid party, which was only founded last year by former television anchorman Yair Lapid, came second with 19 seats. The other two centrist parties -- Labor led by Shelly Yachimovich and HaTnua under former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni -- are expected to receive 17 and 7 seats respectively.
Though the figures may change when actual votes are tallied, hawkish Netanyahu is set to be tapped to pull together at least 61 lawmakers to form a new government, given the big lead his bloc is holding in the elections. The official results are expected till Wednesday.
Analysts said that centrist parties' strong performance in the parliamentary elections defied pre-election predictions that hawkish Netanyahu's re-election would mean a coalition leaning further to the right.
The election results would force Netanyahu, who had rejected the peace process with Palestinians and faced growing diplomatic isolation and economic troubles over the past years, to invite moderate rivals into his government and back down from tough policies toward the Palestinians.
In a statement released on Facebook shortly after the polls closed, Netanyahu pledged to form a new government "as wide as possible."
Prof. Eytan Gilboa of the Bar-Ilan University told Xinhua that Netanyahu may first seek to make a deal with centrist Lapid to appease concerns of the international community and the Israeli public about an extreme rightwing government.
Another factor that may force the prime minister to reconsider his right-leaning policy pivot is the surprisingly high turnout of about 70 percent, the highest in the last three elections.
Speaking of the reasons for the high turnout, Eyal Chowers, a professor at the Tel Aviv University, said more people decided to vote to show their dissatisfaction with "the government and its policies."
Internationally, Israel is facing increasing diplomatic isolation largely due to its tough polices toward the Palestinians, which have kept the U.S.-brokered peace talks long deadlocked.
Netanyahu even found himself on a collision course with Washington, the long and staunch ally of Israel.
The Obama administration said Tuesday that regardless of the results of the election, the U.S. approach to the conflict would not change.
"We will continue to make clear that only through direct negotiations can the Palestinians and the Israelis ... achieve the peace they both deserve," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Britain also warned Israel on Tuesday it was losing international support, saying Jewish settlement expansion had almost killed off prospects for a two-state solution.
Domestically, Netanyahu is facing a shattered economy and growing grumbles.
In the summer of 2012, a small-scale rally in central Tel Aviv launched by a group of students demanding affordable housing rapidly grew into a nationwide protest against the government's economic policies and calling for social and economic equality.
Last week's data showed budget deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, doubling the original estimate and making spending cuts and tax hikes look certain.
Elections are now left behind, but headache remains. It is time for Netanyahu to heed the public's appeals for change.