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Netanyahu eyes a comeback as Israel votes in fifth election in four years


This past weekend, there was a stunning political defeat for the far right in Brazil's election. Now today, halfway around the world, Israel is holding its own consequential election.


Voting has begun and right-wing candidate Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to stage a comeback. He was, you may recall, forced out of power just last year. But he is a frontrunner in this race, in large part by aligning himself with politicians even farther right.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem. Daniel, what are you hearing so far from voters?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, I'm outside the polling place where Benjamin Netanyahu cast his vote this morning, and voters tell me they feel the stakes are really high. You have one group of voters that is really afraid Netanyahu will win and partner with far-right parties that are anti-Arab and anti-LGBTQ. Listen to one gay voter we met, Liron Gur (ph).

LIRON GUR: The right side don't like gay people, don't like Arabs. So I believe if they will be the power, my life will be very bad.

ESTRIN: Now, we've also met right-wing voters who are undecided as they're walking into the polling station. They'd usually vote for Netanyahu's right-wing allies, but this time they're hesitant. They tell us they find Netanyahu's allies now too far to the right. But we've also met a pro-Netanyahu voter here who sounds very much like Trump supporters in the U.S., believing that Netanyahu's corruption trial is a left-wing attempt to keep him out of power. This is voter Ron Hofman (ph).

RON HOFMAN: The same stuff they did to Trump with the stolen election, it's exactly like here. They tried to steal. Here, the media control the whole things. The media, for 15 years, pumped that Bibi steal, Bibi corrupted. Now you have a trial, and everything is going down the tube.

ESTRIN: And elections in Israel are really complicated. There are about a dozen main parties running. And so the game is, can Netanyahu cobble together a coalition with enough lawmakers to have a majority in parliament?

MARTÍNEZ: This is Israel's fifth election in 3 1/2 years. Daniel, why does this keep happening?

ESTRIN: You know, there's a political crisis in Israel. About half of the political map supports Netanyahu as leader. The other half opposes him. And election after election, this question has not been resolved. But do not be fooled. This is not like every other election that's come before it in the last 3 1/2 years - not more of the same. This is a dramatic election in terms of Israeli democracy.

MARTÍNEZ: What makes it so - what are the stakes for this?

ESTRIN: Israel, broadly, is torn between those wanting liberal democracy without religious Jewish monopoly over parts of public life. They want more joint partnership between Arab and Jewish citizens. And then on the other side, you have lawmakers and voters who want a more nationalistic, religious, Jewish conservative country, that - they want more control over Arab citizens. They want to weaken the justice system, which could help Netanyahu avoid conviction in his ongoing corruption trial. The stakes are very high, and a lot of it is going to depend on voter turnout. If enough Palestinian Arab citizens come out to vote, that could tip the scales away from Netanyahu winning. We could also see a stalemate. And in that case, centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid would stay in power, and we could see a repeat election. That might be the best that the anti-Netanyahu bloc could hope for in this election.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Daniel, this looks like it's going to be a close one, right?

ESTRIN: It's going to be a really close race. It's going to depend on that voter turnout. And we may not even know the results of this election in days - or it might even take weeks before there's enough political maneuvering, negotiations between parties, to make it clear who is going to be Israel's next prime minister.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. When they do figure it out, Daniel, we'll check back in with you. That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Daniel, thanks.

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

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.