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Flurry Of News Could Affect Israel's Elections Next Month


Israel votes for a new government next month. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, having won elections so many times before, faces a tough one. This vote comes amid violence in both the West Bank and Gaza. And it also comes after a court ruling. The Israeli Supreme Court banned a far-right candidate from running. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv watching all this.

Hi there, Daniel.


INSKEEP: Who's this candidate who's been banned?

ESTRIN: Michael Ben-Ari is his name. He has had links to the outlawed Kahane movement, which calls for expelling Palestinians. And the Supreme Court disqualified him from running in elections because of his racist statements against Arabs. His far-right party is called the Jewish Strength or the Jewish Power party, and it is still running in elections.

INSKEEP: Oh. So this one candidate is gone, but that party is still there. Now, how does that affect Benjamin Netanyahu who you wouldn't describe necessarily as far-right but he is absolutely on the right side of the spectrum?

ESTRIN: This actually could help Netanyahu in the polls. He has been seen as legitimizing this far-right party. He recently brokered a deal to merge the party with others on the right wing to consolidate votes and to help him win elections. His base is very fired up about the fact that this far-right candidate has been disqualified but that an Arab party is being allowed to run.

INSKEEP: Oh, well let's talk about that very briefly, if we can, because we've heard some headlines to that effect - people on the right saying if you elect this center-left coalition, it's going to bring Arabs to power. In what way, if at all, is that true?

ESTRIN: Arab parties don't traditionally enter governing coalitions in Israel, but they could help tilt the scales here so that the center-left comes to power instead of Netanyahu's right-wing bloc. So when Netanyahu warns of that, he's essentially being accused of saying, you know - hey, Arab parties are not legitimate political players in Israel. And that plays on these long-running tensions with Israel's Palestinian-Arab community, which is 20 percent of the population here.

So we are seeing Netanyahu now gaining in the polls. His main challenger is losing his lead. That's the centrist Benny Gantz. He is fighting a new scandal, reports that Iranian intelligence hacked his cellphone. All of that is distracting from Netanyahu's corruption scandal. He's accused of bribery.

INSKEEP: Oh, my goodness. That's true. And an indictment is on the way. Is that correct?

ESTRIN: Possible charges and possible indictment for bribery in a number of cases - and yet, that's not - it's barely scratching the surface here in the headlines. Netanyahu is poised to have a very strong few weeks. He is meeting Secretary of State Pompeo this week in Jerusalem. He goes to Washington next week, expected to meet Trump. Brazil's new president is visiting just days before the elections, and all of this could boost Netanyahu's profile.

INSKEEP: And of course, people are following violence in the West Bank and Gaza happening at the same time. What's happening there?

ESTRIN: Yeah. Yesterday a Palestinian stabbed a soldier, stole his gun, commandeered a car and fired shots. An Israeli soldier and a rabbi were killed. Another soldier was badly wounded. And this comes a week after two Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire. And then in Gaza, we've been seeing some rare protests against Hamas, against tax hikes there. All of this is a reminder that even though there's been a relative period of calm here, there is continuing tension. And when violence erupts, it can impact how Israelis vote.

INSKEEP: Do you notice intense interest in this election, Daniel?

ESTRIN: Absolutely. This is probably one of the most consequential elections in Israel in the last 10 years, since Netanyahu has been in power.

INSKEEP: Daniel, thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY AYER TRIO'S "THE STAR OF A STORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.