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Politics & Government

Israel Turns To A Centrist Politician To Try Building A New Coalition

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Israeli politics may be slowly taking an important turn. Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister for 12 years, and now someone else has been designated to try to put together a new government. Israel has been in a long deadlock - four inconclusive parliamentary elections in two years. The latest was in March. And Netanyahu, a political right-winger, had a few weeks to try to form a new ruling coalition. Yesterday, he missed a deadline, so now a centrist politician gets to try. NPR's Daniel Estrin is here with us.

And, Daniel, what is Netanyahu's status right now? Is he still prime minister while this is going on?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: He is. He remains a prime minister until someone manages to form a new government. He had a chance to form his own government. He had a month, and he failed. And the reason he failed is because he needed a majority. He needed the support of an Arab Islamist party to get that majority. And quite simply, his Jewish ultranationalist political partners refused that.

SHAPIRO: And so now this centrist politician has an opportunity to try to form a coalition. Tell us about him.

ESTRIN: Right, his name is Yair Lapid. He is a former television news anchor, a former finance minister, quite well-known here. He's a very secular, cosmopolitan kind of guy. He likes to wear all black. He used to be an amateur boxer. He has served in the opposition for the last six years, and he heads a centrist party. So now he has been given four weeks to try to build a government on his own. And what he wants is a unity government that brings together right, left and center. He's even offered to share power with a right-wing politician named Naftali Bennett. He's even offered that Naftali Bennett be prime minister first, and then they would rotate.

The right wing is very strong here. You cannot really form a government without the right wing. So that is the deal on the table. The question is if this right-wing politician, Naftali Bennett, will agree to sit in a government with left-wing lawmakers with the support of an Arab party. It's possible. He has ambitions to be prime minister, but this could upset his voters. And Netanyahu, by the way, has tried to brand this effort as a, quote, "dangerous left-wing government." This is not a done deal yet, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And so what happens if Yair Lapid's effort ends the same way Bibi Netanyahu's did? I mean, if he can't put together a coalition, what then?

ESTRIN: If he fails, the parliament then gets a few weeks to come up with a candidate that a majority of lawmakers would rally around. But if they fail to do that, then Israel would hold yet another election. It would be a fifth election in the span of two years.

SHAPIRO: Daniel, when you look at the number of elections this country has held, it's hard not to conclude that the democracy is just not working. I mean, are Israelis sick of this by now? Do they just feel like they're in a never-ending loop?

ESTRIN: They do. They are tired. They are exasperated, and they're more polarized than ever. You ask any Israeli what their opinion is of Netanyahu - it's either you love him or you hate him. That's the feeling here. Israelis are happy about a successful vaccination campaign. But now people just want a government to work, to boost the economy after the pandemic. I follow a WhatsApp group of Israelis who have been debating this question tonight. Is it really possible - a government without Netanyahu for the first time in 12 years? Or is it too soon to tell? There was a recent poll here that found that 70% of Israelis are not ready to believe that change is possible. They think another election is inevitable.

SHAPIRO: And while Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival, he's also fighting corruption charges.

ESTRIN: That's right. His corruption trial is in full swing. And it is important to Netanyahu to stay in power in order to have a strong position to fight those corruption charges. You can be sure that Netanyahu is a fighter. He's going to do everything he can to stay in office and to try to prevent his rival from forming a government without him.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, thanks a lot.

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