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Israel Elections Preview


Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel's longest-serving prime minister, but now he's facing a tough battle for political survival. He narrowly won elections last spring but failed to form a government. So he pushed for repeat elections, which take place on Tuesday. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem, and he joins us now. Good morning.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why did Netanyahu fail in the last elections? Remind us.

ESTRIN: Well, what happened was that some of his former allies turned against him. First of all, his former military chief of staff Benny Gantz joined the race, and he became Netanyahu's main opponent. Then what happened was that Netanyahu won the elections, but then another former ally of his turned against him - Avigdor Lieberman. He's a right-wing politician, and he refused to join Netanyahu's coalition. So Netanyahu was left without a majority. And what he did was something that hasn't been done before in Israel - he pushed for new elections.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But do they have an actual chance of beating him and becoming prime minister?

ESTRIN: Well, if anyone can replace Netanyahu, it would be Benny Gantz. He right now is neck and neck with Netanyahu in the race. He's this tall, good-looking, popular figure. He's a centrist. He's trying to run as a unifying figure for the country as an alternative to Netanyahu's divisive style. But he honestly doesn't really have a clear path to forming a government and even says he's willing to ally with Netanyahu's party.

There's this other politician I mentioned, Avigdor Lieberman. He's been gaining in popularity because he has tapped into public resentment against Netanyahu's alliances with religious parties. He will not be prime minister, but he will get enough votes, probably, to tip the scales and determine who will. So we have to see whether this time around he'll be willing to help Netanyahu keep his seat. The thing is that the polls show that we could see very similar results as the last election. And that could mean a stalemate and maybe even third elections.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What kind of campaign is Bibi Netanyahu running to try and win a clear victory this time?

ESTRIN: Well, he's poking at those divisions that you mentioned. His tactic is to energize his working-class right-wing base to actually show up at the polls. And so he is warning of terror attacks if he's not elected. He's warning that Palestinian-Arab politicians will come to power if he's not elected. He's even promising to annex land in the West Bank, which would be a very controversial move. And he's also trying to play up his status as this world statesman. So he met Vladimir Putin last week. You go around Israel, and you see these big posters of Netanyahu posing with Putin and with Trump.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: President Trump is, of course, a close ally to Netanyahu. Is the president playing a role in the Israeli elections? Is he trying to help Netanyahu win?

ESTRIN: Well, in the last election campaign, Trump did give Netanyahu a very clear boost. He hosted Netanyahu at the White House. He recognized Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights. But this time around, Lulu, it's been very interesting because the Trump effect hasn't been as effective.

Yesterday, Trump tweeted that he's discussing a mutual defense pact between the U.S. and Israel. And Netanyahu will want voters to look at that and say, wow, look at what Netanyahu can do with his close ties to Trump. But honestly, what's been dominating headlines here is a lot more like Trump's willingness to meet with Iran's leadership and the departure of John Bolton, the national security adviser who was very close to Netanyahu. These things are kind of coming at just the wrong time for Netanyahu as he runs for re-election. It suddenly doesn't look as though Netanyahu has Trump in his pocket.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thank you very much.

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