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Benjamin Netanyahu Faces A Big Test As Israelis Head To Polls

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The last days of Israel's election campaign did not work out as Benjamin Netanyahu might have hoped. The prime minister has warned his Likud Party it may lose in today's election. The center-right Likud was trailing a center-left coalition in the final round of public opinion surveys. It turns out Netanyahu's dramatic speech to the U.S. Congress, a speech that challenged the Obama administration's engagement with Iran, gave him only a brief boost in polls, which was offset by some withering criticism at home.

NPR's Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem, and she's on the line with us for more. And, Emily, that speech to the U.S. Congress was supposed to gain Netanyahu an advantage, but it didn't quite happen that way.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: That's right, Renee. A lot of what he said in the speech on Iran wasn't news to people in Israel. And what happened was people started questioning the tensions the speech had created with the U.S. and asking, well, isn't the relationship with the U.S. part of Israel's essential security? The left wing - the central-left party led by Yitzak Herzog took advantage of this, and he said if he wins, he would make it a priority to re-establish a close relationship with Washington.

MONTAGNE: Well, another thing that's happened and just hours before the voting began, Netanyahu made what seemed like rather a stunning announcement. He said that were he to become prime minister again, there would be no Palestinian state created. What is that all about? Is that aimed at getting votes?

HARRIS: Netanyahu was asked directly in an interview, if you are prime minister again, will there be a Palestinian state created on your watch? And he began talking about how this is not the right time to give back land; it would create a launching pad for attacks on Israel. And then the interviewer interrupted him and said, so if you are prime minister, there won't be a Palestinian state created? And he said indeed.

So this is the furthest he's gone so far in actually saying he would not pursue a two-state solution. It's a change from a 2009 speech where he said he was open to the idea under certain conditions. He has been making these comments recently about this is not the time, there's chaos around Israel. So in that sense, it reflected the direction he's been going to. But he's definitely trying to get votes, especially get people further to the right wing then positions he's had to come back and vote for him and the Likud Party in this election.

MONTAGNE: Well, just lastly, despite his party's fallen opinion polls, Netanyahu could still keep this job, right?

HARRIS: That's right. He could win, first of all. And second of all, even if his Likud Party doesn't emerge with the most votes, he could be the one who could negotiate successfully among the 11 or 12 parties that are supposed to get in Parliament and build a coalition government out of that with him at the helm.

MONTAGNE: Emily, thinks very much.

HARRIS: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Emily Harris speaking to us from Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.