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Israeli Election: Exit Polls Are Too Close To Call

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Who will be Israel's prime minister? That's a question many Israelis and world leaders have not had to ask in a long time. But that is how close the votes are in Israel following its second parliamentary election in less than six months. Benjamin Netanyahu called for this election when he failed to form a government after a vote in April. But his fate as Israel's prime minister is now in limbo. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv and joins me this morning. Hi there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So what is the latest now in terms of these votes?

ESTRIN: Well, votes are still being counted, but it appears that it is really a stalemate. Netanyahu doesn't have a clear majority with his right-wing and religious allies, and his opponent, Gantz, also doesn't have a clear majority with the center left and Arab lawmakers. The kingmaker here, David, is the right-wing Avigdor Lieberman. His party is the one holdout preventing Netanyahu from a clear victory. And he wants Netanyahu and Gantz to bridge their differences and form a government together.

GREENE: Well, what are the possible implications here for Netanyahu and his future? I mean, not only does his position of prime minister seemed to be uncertain, but he's also facing these possible indictments on multiple charges of corruption, right?

ESTRIN: That's right. The attorney general is likely to make a final decision on a possible criminal indictment by the end of the year. The best scenario for Netanyahu would have been for him to build a right-wing majority government to help him secure immunity from prosecution and possible jail time. But it seems that Netanyahu no longer has a right-wing majority in his corner to ensure him immunity.

GREENE: Daniel, when we spoke yesterday, you said that a lot of Israeli voters actually agreed on one thing, it's that they just wanted this to be over and to stop voting. I mean, what is their mood right now as there is all this uncertainty?

ESTRIN: There is still a lot of frustration. We spoke with Maor Swisa (ph). He's a longtime supporter of Netanyahu's Likud Party. Listen to what he says.

MAOR SWISA: And I'm very, very disappointed from the last night's outcome of the elections. The results are inconclusive, and we don't have a prime minister right now. I think the Likud Party needs a new candidate for a new, you know, a new era, maybe.

ESTRIN: And some other Netanyahu supporters told us they still hope Netanyahu can pull off a surprise feat - you know, maybe strike some deal for a few opposition lawmakers to defect and join his majority. Voters who did not vote Netanyahu told us they're happy he doesn't have a clear victory, but they're cautious because, you know, it ain't over yet.

GREENE: But couldn't this have a real impact on global politics? I mean, during the campaign, Netanyahu said he was going to annex a large part of the West Bank. He boasted about his ties with President Trump, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with other world leaders. If Gantz replaces him, how would Israeli policies, in theory, change?

ESTRIN: Well, Gantz is a centrist, but he's not a leftist. He's a former army general, but he's unlikely to pursue immediate annexation of West Bank land that Palestinians claim - that was a vow that Netanyahu made. But Gantz still is very security-focused. I think the biggest change would be in domestic politics. He would keep religious parties out of government. That would be a big change. It would reduce their influence on the daily life of secular Israelis. And another thing to note here is that the party representing Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel - I'm not talking about the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, they don't have voting rights in Israel - but the Arab party is poised to be the third-largest party in the Parliament. And its head is thinking that he could be the lead - opposition leader. And that would be a first in Israel's history. He'd get regular security briefings, he'd get bodyguards, prominent speeches in Parliament. And he's claiming that as a symbolic victory against Netanyahu.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Daniel, thanks.

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

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