Israel's Netanyahu Makes Dramatic Campaign Pledge Ahead Of Election
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Israelis go to the polls tomorrow, and voters are faced with one main question - should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stay in power? He has been in office for a decade, and if he's re-elected, he'll be on track to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history. Netanyahu is, however, facing some big challenges this go-round, corruption charges against him, and his toughest competitor in years, former Military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. As the race entered its final days, Netanyahu made a dramatic campaign pledge. He promised to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.
NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem with more. Good morning, Daniel.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So Netanyahu wants to extend Israel's control over the West Bank. What exactly did he say about this?
ESTRIN: He said he's going to gradually impose sovereignty over Jewish settlements there. In other words, we're keeping Israelis in the West Bank forever - no negotiating on that. Is he serious? It's a last-minute campaign pledge. He wants to rally votes. It would cause an uproar in the world, but his party really wants him to do it. And if he wins re-election, he could take steps towards doing that. But for Palestinians looking at this, it's just another example of how far peace seems.
MARTIN: How are his odds? I mean, is he expected to win, despite these challenges we mentioned?
ESTRIN: It's a really close race. There's a former military general trying to beat him, and he's a centrist. But the polls are showing that most Israelis are going to be voting for right-wing parties, and that would give Netanyahu the best chance of forming a coalition and winning. I was speaking to some voters last night in the market, some young voters, who said, well, Netanyahu's done a good job. We're just sick of him after 10 years. And they are going to be voting for candidates even further to the right of him.
I also met a young high school civics teacher, Yahov Shudmi (ph), who, he says he teaches at an elite high school in Jerusalem that tends to be more liberal, but in their mock elections, there was strong support for right-wing candidates.
MARTIN: That's so interesting. I mean, and this is because of Netanyahu, right? I mean, he has steadily moved Israel to the right under his leadership. What have been the broader consequences of that?
ESTRIN: Well, attitudes toward democracy have changed a lot here. Israel has always considered itself both Jewish and democratic. But Netanyahu's government has been prioritizing Israel's Jewish character. Trust in the Supreme Court has dropped. A lot of Israelis are seeing the court as too left-wing. And calling someone a leftist here is a curse word, almost.
Netanyahu has also embraced many nationalist populist leaders around the world. You might call a lot of them bordering on authoritarian. But a lot of Israelis will say, you know, Israel has had a great 10 years. Unemployment is down, the economy's doing well. And yet, society has really changed. And I think Yedidia Stern from The Israel Democracy Institute - I spoke with him, and he summed this up really well.
YEDIDIA STERN: While he was doing such great things for us in order to sustain his position, he was dividing society. This is tragic.
ESTRIN: And he's referring to Netanyahu there.
MARTIN: Right. He also has had a famously close relationship with President Trump. For Israeli voters, does that help, hurt, or do they not care?
ESTRIN: Well, Trump appears in Netanyahu's campaign ads. And I think many Israelis are impressed by Netanyahu's ties with Trump. But I think what they're thinking about more in these elections is if they want someone new, or do they want more Netanyahu?
MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin from Jerusalem for us. Thank you so much, Daniel. We appreciate it.
ESTRIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.