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Israel Election: Netanyahu Headed For Win In Close Race


It appears Benjamin Netanyahu has survived a close election and is headed to his fourth consecutive term as Israel's prime minister. Both Netanyahu and his rival, Benny Gantz, declared victory last night. But with nearly all the votes counted and a mix of right-wing parties ready to join with Netanyahu, he clearly has the best chance of forming a government. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem this morning and joins us now. Hi, Daniel.


MARTIN: So clearly, this is very close. Is Netanyahu going to pull it out?

ESTRIN: Well, it does look like Netanyahu has the best chances. This morning, when nearly all of the votes were counted, Gantz and Netanyahu - Gantz is Netanyahu's centrist rival - both of them were tied in the number of seats that they are expected to win in Parliament. So Gantz has not yet conceded the race. But it appears that there is, as you said, a clear majority of right-wing and nationalist and religious Jewish parties that won. And that would make it easiest for Netanyahu to form the government.

MARTIN: You were out and about, talking with Israelis when they were voting yesterday. What'd you hear?

ESTRIN: Well, I started by visiting the polling station where Netanyahu himself cast his ballot. And one of the first people I saw walking into that polling station was a former government minister in Netanyahu's own party, Dan Meridor. And I asked him this question.

Can you tell us who you're voting for?

DAN MERIDOR: Yeah, I vote (foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said he was voting for Netanyahu's rival. He is upset with Netanyahu's corruption scandals. And as he was saying that, a woman named Shoshana Tal (ph) was walking out of the polling station. And she heard what he had to say, and she said this.

SHOSHANA TAL: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: She was saying, what is so bad about this country? What? Things are so good right now. When did people have - travel so much abroad? You hear a lot from Netanyahu supporters that the economy's doing really well, and they feel great in Israel, so why change?

MARTIN: So what about Palestinians, I mean, especially those living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip? What are they saying about the potential of a fifth Netanyahu term?

ESTRIN: Right. Well, Palestinians in the Palestinian territories do not have the right to vote in Israeli elections. Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said that the results look quite bad for the prospects of ending Israel's occupation in the West Bank. Here's what he said.

SAEB EREKAT: They want their occupation to be endless. And they want us to live under a continued, deeper apartheid system than the one that existed in the darkest hours of South Africa's apartheid.

ESTRIN: And just days before elections, Netanyahu vowed to begin annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank if he's re-elected, which is a dramatic promise. And if he does so, that could make it impossible for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a peace deal. And another thing to remember here is that President Trump's team has promised to release its peace plan after elections - shortly after elections. We'll see if that happens.

But the Palestinians have already rejected Trump's role as peacemaker. And the question is, will the new government expected to be formed by Netanyahu - that government will be right-wing and far-right, made up of far-right parties as well - will that government be amenable to such a Trump peace plan?

MARTIN: Right, or do they even have an appetite for it at all?

ESTRIN: Right.

MARTIN: So that - I was interested - that first clip you played from that man, he actually referenced the corruption charges against Netanyahu. So clearly, if he pulls it out, it didn't matter enough to voters to deny him a victory. But, I mean, could it hamper his ability to govern?

ESTRIN: Well, that's the great question. And this could pose a threat. Let's say Netanyahu does form the next government. Within months, Netanyahu is expected to face an indictment for bribery and for other charges. And then once that happens, it could spell the beginning of the end for Netanyahu because there are questions here.

Will all of the parties in such a Netanyahu government stand by his side? Will Netanyahu's own party start preparing for the day after and maybe even hold a leadership contest within the party? And maybe there will be even new national elections next year. That's what some legal experts are forecasting. So this could be Netanyahu's shortest term if he does, in fact, secure the government.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Daniel Estrin for us in Jerusalem this morning.

Thanks so much.

ESTRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.