Israeli Voters Go To The Polls As Netanyahu Fights To Stay In Office

Sep 17, 2019
Originally published on September 17, 2019 5:56 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to the phones and Facebook and even a bullhorn today to rally voters as he fights to stay in office. This is Israel's second parliamentary election in less than six months. Netanyahu called for it when he failed to form a government after a vote in April. Today's vote is expected to be close again, leading to days of uncertainty over who can form a new government. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv. He joins us now.

Welcome back, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: So as we talked about, there was some last-minute campaigning by the prime minister. And you might think he would be more relaxed after an Election Day, right? He's Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

ESTRIN: Right. But you know what? He campaigned extra vigorously. He dragged a family out of their home to the polling place. He took a bullhorn, and he visited Jerusalem's main bus station and the main vegetable market. And he claimed over and over again that he could lose, that - he was claiming that right-wing voter turnout was low and left-wing and Arab voter turnout was high. Arab voters meaning Palestinian citizens of Israel, not Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. They can't vote in Israeli elections.

Then Netanyahu went back to his official residence, and he spent hours streaming live on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. He was trying to get people to go to the polls. He called it an emergency broadcast. He was taking calls from party activists. He called on TV commentators. He called them out by name and called them liars. He even appeared in a video clip with puppets. So, frankly, Audie, he overshadowed all of the other candidates on this Election Day.

CORNISH: And voters - how are they responding to it?

ESTRIN: Well, voters I spoke with today were really unhappy with this redo election. They didn't seem to change their minds, and they mostly voted for the same candidate that they voted for last time. Netanyahu's supporters were very confident in their support for him. But when it came to his main opponent, the retired general, Benny Gantz, his supporters were a lot more pessimistic about his chances. He's a centrist, and some of them are hoping that at least Netanyahu will build a coalition with that centrist party and that could moderate an otherwise right-wing government.

CORNISH: And this is a complex election - right? - with many political parties. What are people saying about the most likely outcomes?

ESTRIN: Well, in the last election, Gantz, who's the centrist, the former general, he was slightly ahead. And then Netanyahu pulled ahead. And then when the actual votes were counted, they tied. They had a 35-35 tie. And so now we're going to be looking at that same situation, it appears. If Netanyahu hangs on, he could try to build a right-wing alliance or ally with centrists, including Gantz. All of this is going to depend on one wild card, and that is Avigdor Lieberman. He's right wing, but he could tip either way.

CORNISH: What exactly should we be looking for next?

ESTRIN: Well, what's going to happen now is that the vote is actually going to be counted, and the Israeli president gets a chance to meet with the heads of all of the parties. And the parties say which candidate they recommend to try to form a coalition. And then the president taps the one he thinks has the best chances of building a 61-seat majority out of the 120 seats in Parliament. Usually, that's the party who finishes first in the race, but that's not necessarily the case. And then the candidate has several weeks of horse trading with other parties to try to join a coalition. It's going to be a very nail-biting couple of weeks.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin from Tel Aviv.

Thanks for your reporting.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

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