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World

Unprecedented Early Elections To Be Held In Israel

NOEL KING, HOST:

Israel will hold elections - again. It seemed like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was certain to get a fourth consecutive term when his party won elections last month, but then came a stunner. He failed to form a governing coalition. At his call, Israel's Parliament voted last night to hold unprecedented new elections on September 17. NPR's Daniel Estrin is on the line from Jerusalem.

Daniel, you had a late night, huh?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: I sure did. Hey, Noel.

KING: All right. So Netanyahu failed to get what done, exactly?

ESTRIN: He failed to form a parliamentary majority. He needed just one more party to get onboard - a right-wing party led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. And Lieberman wouldn't join. And Netanyahu got furious. Have a listen to this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Netanyahu said Lieberman is dragging the country to new elections. His conditions for joining the coalition were way too high. He wanted to conscript ultra-Orthodox Jews to the military. That's what Netanyahu is saying, but that's not really the main issue. The main issue here is that Netanyahu is probably about to be facing criminal charges for corruption.

And he tried to build a coalition that would allow him to make some pretty dramatic moves so a sitting prime minister cannot be indicted. And to form a coalition that would help him do that was a really big ask. And it just complicated all these negotiations.

So when Netanyahu saw he couldn't form the government, he did something else. He pushed for new elections. He wanted to block the Israeli president from being able to pick someone else to form the government.

KING: This sounds fairly chaotic, Daniel. What is the reaction like there? What are people saying?

ESTRIN: It is chaotic, Noel. And I think people are in shock. It's the first time this has ever happened in Israel to have elections and then a month later to throw all that away and to call new ones. And there were, in the last few days, these threats of new elections and - but there was this sense that it was kind of this big game of chicken and then that at the last second Netanyahu, this brilliant tactician that everyone knew, would figure out a way to get a majority - and he didn't.

KING: Netanyahu, as you point out, has had some scandals following him around. Is he expected to win the next round of elections or is he vulnerable?

ESTRIN: I think he's in a very vulnerable position. The last election was very close. And if some of his previous voters this time around blame him for dragging the country to elections again, his party could lose votes. And let's say he does win again, it will be harder for him to form a government. He'll be even more desperate than this past round. And his political or his potential coalition partners will be even more demanding in what they want in return.

So all of this political chaos could be signaling to us that Netanyahu, with all of his legal troubles, is no longer a strong figure that a majority of lawmakers - or at least on the right wing - are willing to rally around.

KING: This is not just a shock for Israel. It's also a surprise to the White House. President Trump is a close ally of Netanyahu's. And today, members of Trump's team working on a Mideast peace deal are in Jerusalem. How is this going to affect them?

ESTRIN: Right. Well, it could be a major blow. Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt landed in Jerusalem last night to advance their peace proposal. It seems like the worst possible timing. The last time there were Israeli elections, the White House delayed its peace plan. That could happen again. And then by the time you have an Israeli government, you're in November and U.S. primary season starts, 2020 presidential election's coming up. The peace plan might be dead.

KING: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

Thanks, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.