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Israeli Election To Decide Netanyahu's Political Future


Many Israelis are at the polls today even though Israel had an election less than six months ago. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the vote in April, but he could not form a governing coalition at the time, so he pushed for this redo. He's now the longest serving prime minister that Israel has ever had, but he is also politically weaker than he's ever been.

NPR's Daniel Estrin is in the town of Bat Yam, which is south of Tel Aviv. Hi, Daniel.


KING: So you're outside of a polling station. What's it like there?

ESTRIN: Well, I'm seeing more police presence here than the last election. This election season's been very tense. Netanyahu has warned of voter fraud by Palestinian Arab voters. But where I am is a working-class town with many Russian-speaking voters - Russian-speaking immigrants. They usually vote for a candidate, Avigdor Lieberman, himself a Russian-speaking immigrant. But Netanyahu's been trying to attract them to his camp, and it seems to be working. From where I am, I'm seeing a lot of voters walking home with flyers and free calendars for the Jewish New Year, and they're in Russian and with Netanyahu's face on them.

KING: Oh, that's really interesting. So when you've been talking to voters today, are you getting the sense that some of them are changing their minds or moving into Netanyahu's camp?

ESTRIN: The thing is, voters say they're going to be staying with the candidates that they voted for the last time - although, this newest election season has been pretty vicious with candidates kind of attacking minority groups. And a lot of people here that we spoke with at the polls say that they are really sick of this kind of discourse - kind of picking at Israel's scabs and the divisions in society. Take a listen to one of the voters we met, Hadar Droripas (ph).

HADAR DRORIPAS: I'm sick of the fake news of the government and the press that we are not united, that we fight each other all the times. And it's not true.

ESTRIN: And another voter named Yossi (ph) also echoed that sentiment. Take a listen to him.

YOSSI: Israel needs to heal. I have children. You know? I educate them to love everybody, to respect everybody - doesn't care if he's religion or if he's non-religion, if he's Arab, etc. There is a lot of hate.

ESTRIN: He says he's voting for Netanyahu's centrist opponent, Benny Gantz, even though he's pessimistic. He doesn't think he's going to win, and he thinks Netanyahu will continue to stay in power.

KING: Yeah, he sounds mostly optimistic, actually. Let me ask you, Daniel, if voters are not changing their minds and Benjamin Netanyahu wants a different result, is there anything that could actually change the result this time around?

ESTRIN: Well, one thing people are looking at very closely is the voter turnout in the Palestinian Arab community. They had a very low voter turnout last time, but there are efforts to get them to the polls. And if their community votes in larger numbers, that could tip the scales away from Netanyahu. And we've seen in this campaign that Netanyahu's party and Netanyahu himself have been singling out Palestinian Arab voters and talking about possible Arab voter fraud. And so there's been a lot of focus on that community, which could help swing this election.

KING: Just quickly, Daniel, is there anyone running who could beat Netanyahu?

ESTRIN: If anyone could, it would be Benny Gantz. He's the centrist candidate, a former military chief of staff. But honestly, Noel, he doesn't have a very clear path to victory, and we could see deadlock like we saw last time.

KING: Not great for Netanyahu. NPR's Daniel Estrin in the town of Bat Yam south of Tel Aviv. Thanks, Daniel.

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

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.