Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Israel's Netanyahu Fights To Survive Election


Israel holds elections on Tuesday, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the ultimate political survivor, now faces one of the toughest elections of his career. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports that even if Netanyahu is reelection, he's expected to be weaker than he was before.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Benjamin Netanyahu has been in office for over a decade, and including a term in the '90s, he's Israel's longest-serving prime minister. But his survivor's luck may be running out, and his campaign is pulling out all the stops. In this video, his party warns of terror attacks if he's not re-elected.



ESTRIN: He appealed to right-wing voters by promising to annex a long swath of the West Bank and apply Israeli sovereignty over occupied land that's at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then he flew to Russia for his 13th meeting with Vladimir Putin. He's been campaigning on his close ties to two fellow right-wing leaders.



ESTRIN: The chorus of this campaign music video is come on, Putin. Come on, Trump. Come to us to Jerusalem. And large posters on Netanyahu's party headquarters in downtown Tel Aviv feature the Israeli leader with Putin and Trump. I spoke to people walking by.

YAEL HEFFLER: Putin is kind of a dictator, Donald Trump kind of a joke.

ESTRIN: Yael Heffler used to vote for Netanyahu's party.

HEFFLER: I keep talking about it with my mother. She votes Netanyahu, and she's just saying, OK. So who else? Who can lead this country? You know, she's right to some extent because it's hard to see other politician in his stature. But we need to try, right? After all, this is to try to change.

ESTRIN: Many swing voters want change but can't point to a better candidate than Netanyahu. Anshel Pfeffer, a biographer of Netanyahu, says he's had staying power because he convinced Israelis that the country can be prosperous without needing to make peace with the Palestinians.

ANSHEL PFEFFER: He said, no. We can have it all. We can have our cake and eat it. No need to make any concessions to the Palestinians. No need to retreat from the West Bank. Netanyahu proved that Israel can achieve prosperity, can have a decade of uninterrupted growth, and all this without making one concession to the Palestinians.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu's other secret to survival, he says...

PFEFFER: He has literally no limits. He will break every rule of politics to survive and to stay ahead.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu won a narrow victory during the last elections in April but failed to secure a majority in parliament. So he did something unprecedented - instead of following the norm and letting another party try to form the government, he forced new elections so he'd get a second chance.

AVIV BUSHINSKY: It's battle of his life.

ESTRIN: Aviv Bushinsky is a former adviser to Netanyahu. He thinks Netanyahu will finish first in the race but struggle to form a right-wing majority of 61 seats out of 120 in Parliament. Maybe he'd convince a few centrists to break away from the opposition and join his government or form a national unity government between his right-wing party and the main centrist party, led by former general Benny Gantz.

BUSHINKSY: If he won't be able to form a 61 seats government, it will be dependent on others. I can't say that his days are numbered, but no doubt Netanyahu will not end up as a strong politician, Israeli politician as he is now.

ESTRIN: I meet Yinon Melamed below the posters of Netanyahu with Putin and Trump.

YINON MELAMED: I'm proud. I'm proud that we know how to connect with all the leaders in the world.

ESTRIN: Do you think he's going to stay prime minister for very much longer?

MELAMED: This is the last round, I think.

ESTRIN: And then there's another test by the end of the year. Israel's attorney general is expected to decide whether to indict Netanyahu for corruption. Netanyahu says he's innocent, and the case won't even go to a trial. He could stay in office even if it does. First, though, he's got to do what he couldn't do six months ago - win an election and form a new government.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.