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Results Are Still Too Close To Call In Israel's Election

NOEL KING, HOST:

The results of Israel's third national election in a year are coming in. Most of the votes have been counted, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting closer to a win. But can he put together the coalition that he needs to stay in office? He's failed twice so far, hence the three elections.

NPR's Daniel Estrin is on the line from Jerusalem. Hi, Daniel

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So does it look at this point like Benjamin Netanyahu will win this election?

ESTRIN: He is in the lead, Noel. At least 90% of the votes have been counted so far. And so far, he has won a few more parliamentary seats than his main rival, Benny Gantz. But this does not mean he will be able to form a government. And that's the name of the game. First of all, they're still counting votes. By the way, that includes the votes cast at special quarantine polling stations for almost 6,000 Israelis in home quarantine who are there out of an abundance of caution in case they're carrying coronavirus. So there's a lot of vote-counting still to do, and those extra votes could tip the scales. But yes, right now, it looks like, with his right-wing allies, Netanyahu is just a couple seats short of 61 out of the 120 seats he'll need for a majority in parliament.

KING: He did speak publicly last night. What did he say?

ESTRIN: I think the takeaway from his speech last night was that Netanyahu is emboldened. Listen to the crowds he addressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He thanked them, and they are chanting, "king of Israel." He called it an enormous victory for the right wing. He said, our opponents say the Netanyahu era is over - not true. He says he'll be the prime minister of all Israelis. And he also reiterated a campaign promise to annex lands in the occupied West Bank, which most countries would oppose. But he has President Trump's blessing to do that. And now the question is whether he'll be able to build a stable government to be able to carry out such a step.

KING: I mean, the really interesting wrinkle here is that this is a leader who has been indicted on charges of fraud and bribery. Why are so many people sticking with him?

ESTRIN: That's a great question. I mean, it's - we're talking about Israel's longest-serving prime minister. He has a very fired-up base, like you just heard. And when you speak to Netanyahu voters, they tell you, yes, we know that he's facing corruption allegations. But he excels in international diplomacy. He's got Trump and Putin on speed dial, as it were. He excels in Israel's security concerns, they say. And so a lot of voters told me they were going with their heart. They were going with their belly. They were sticking with Netanyahu.

KING: His main challenger is a man named Benny Gantz, who has sort of been a thorn in Netanyahu's side for a while now - right? - or at least his main rival. Let's say that Netanyahu wins. What - how does Israel's future look different than if Benny Gantz wins? Like, what policies is he going to focus on that will really be distinctive?

ESTRIN: It's the right question to ask because many people will say Netanyahu and Gantz don't differ that much in their ideologies. Although, I do think that there is a difference - first of all, what we talked about with possible annexation of land in the West Bank. Netanyahu says he would push forward on that; Gantz says he doesn't want to rush into that kind of controversial move.

And then a key thing to look at here is what happens in two weeks. Netanyahu is scheduled to appear in court to face his corruption charges. The Supreme Court will undoubtedly be asked to rule on the question of whether an indicted prime minister can form a new government. That would be an unprecedented thing in Israel. There's a lot of uncertainty here, and Netanyahu right now needs to focus on trying to lure people from the center-left to try to defect and go to his side. We'll see if that happens.

KING: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thanks, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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