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Ahead of yet another Israel election, Netanyahu's far-right allies could gain power


Now to Israel, which holds national elections Tuesday. And the question is, could Benjamin Netanyahu and the far-right rise to power again? You may remember that Netanyahu was ousted as Israel's prime minister last year, after more than a decade in power. But now he's trying to stage a comeback. We're going to talk about his chances with NPR's Daniel Estrin, who's with us now from Tel Aviv. Daniel, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Oh, thanks for your interest, Michel.

MARTIN: So, first of all, it's hard to believe that Israel is having yet another election. How many has it been now?

ESTRIN: It's going to be the fifth election in 3 1/2 years.

MARTIN: Why so many?

ESTRIN: It's because Israeli politics are paralyzed. And this is all about one man - Benjamin Netanyahu. The political map is split down the middle between a bloc of parties that fervently wants him in power as a nationalist strongman, and then there's a bloc of parties that says no, Netanyahu has polarized the country, and he's on trial for corruption. He's unfit to rule. And rounds and rounds of elections have not resolved this debate. There was a coalition that did finally replace him last year. It was this big mix of parties, including Arab lawmakers and nationalist Jewish lawmakers. They couldn't put aside their differences, so the coalition fell apart. And here we are again - another election, except this time, the stakes are very different.

MARTIN: So what are the stakes here, or what are the main issues?

ESTRIN: There is a big possibility that the far-right could rise to power. Netanyahu is not far-right, but he has allies that are even further to the right of him. And polls show that together, their bloc is very close to winning a majority in parliament. If that happens, Netanyahu would be prime minister again, and he has promised a cabinet minister role to far-right Itamar Ben-Gvir. Now, this is a man who used to be the fringe of the fringe, he was affiliated with an outlawed anti-Arab group, now he has become the star of this election campaign. He's been campaigning to exile Arabs he deems hostile. His party is called Jewish Power. AIPAC, the pro-Israel group in the U.S., calls his party racist and reprehensible. And here in Israel, many are concerned about him. That's motivating a lot of people on how they're voting.

But I was at a Netanyahu campaign rally where one voter who supports Netanyahu said, yeah, you know, Ben-Gvir is kind of too extreme, even for me. But another said, we need him in the government to deter Arabs. So that's one huge issue. And then there's another major issue, which is that Netanyahu's allies want to strip the justice system of some of its powers of oversight. And remember, Netanyahu is still on trial for corruption. This is what Hebrew University politics professor Reuven Hazan told me.

REUVEN HAZAN: He truly believes that, while in power, he can do the best in order to avoid his trial ending up in a guilty verdict. For that reason, I think he is dangerous to Israeli democracy.

MARTIN: So, Daniel, how does it look? Does it seem that Netanyahu is going to be the likely winner, or is there another likely outcome?

ESTRIN: Well, what doesn't look likely is an outright win for the anti-Netanyahu bloc. A possible outcome could be a stalemate, yet again. And then the centrist current prime minister, Yair Lapid, would stay in office as a caretaker leader. And then there would be repeat elections. And then that's when things can get interesting. The question would be, will Netanyahu's allies abandon him? That's why a lot of people here think this may be Netanyahu's last chance to return to office.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv, talking about Israel's upcoming elections on Tuesday. Daniel, thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.


Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.