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Netanyahu Calls For Early Elections


Yesterday, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced parliamentary elections will be held in April. If he wins, Netanyahu would likely become Israel's longest-serving prime minister. He has faced controversies this year, too, including corruption charges. And here to talk with us about this past year for Netanyahu is NPR's Daniel Estrin on the line from Jerusalem. Hi, Daniel.


SHAPIRO: OK. Give us two snapshots. How would Netanyahu characterize the year he's had? And how do his critics see it?

SHAPIRO: Netanyahu says things have never been better. He says Israel has a strong military, economy, technology. He actually said last week, quote, "we are in a mighty revolution, the likes of which has not been seen in the history of humanity." He talks about expanding ties with Africa, with Asia. He claims Arab countries in the Gulf no longer see Israel as an enemy but as a partner. Here's how he summed it up, recently.


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The Arabs get it. The Muslims get it, and they're coming closer to us. Israel is a world force in global technology. Everybody gets that, everybody.

ESTRIN: So he's taking the credit. He's portraying himself as a world statesman. There is criticism of him, though. He is nationalist. He's right-wing, and he is a big supporter of far-right, authoritarian-style figures around the world - Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, Brazil's new far-right leader. And, of course, Netanyahu is facing possible criminal charges for corruption.

SHAPIRO: This has also been an interesting year in the relationship between the United States and Israel, between the Trump family and Netanyahu.

ESTRIN: That's right. Trump and Netanyahu are best buds. Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Netanyahu touted that as a major diplomatic achievement. And then, Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal, and Netanyahu says he played a leading role in persuading Trump to do that. Both of those moves were widely criticized, internationally.

And, unlike in previous administrations in the U.S., you don't hear any criticism from the Trump administration on any Israeli actions, even Israel's use of force, its troops killing Palestinians during protests and violence at the Gaza border this year. And Netanyahu - for his part, he embraces Trump, even though Trump, of course, is a divisive figure in the U.S. And so support for Israel has become much more of a partisan divided issue in the U.S.

SHAPIRO: In the last couple years, the Trump administration has postponed the date for offering a peace plan, and they now say that will be coming in the year ahead, in 2019. The Trump administration says that plan would require concessions from both sides. How seriously is Netanyahu taking this?

ESTRIN: Well, Netanyahu doesn't want to say no to Trump's plan. But Netanyahu's right-wing base won't like the plan, either, so he's kind of in a bind. Although, I think Netanyahu's betting on the Palestinians being the ones to reject the plan. They've already rejected Trump's role in peacemaking.

But, really, Netanyahu has been making an argument - we've been hearing it the last couple days and weeks - that Israel's doing fine right now without a peace deal with the Palestinians. And he argues, you know, Israel's expanding ties with rich Gulf Arab states. The Palestinians don't matter to that. And we'll have to see if Netanyahu's theory holds.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about the political strategy behind Netanyahu deciding to hold elections in April as he potentially could soon be charged with bribery and corruption offenses.

ESTRIN: Well, the two have something to do with each other. He feels that this is the right time for him, when the polls show that he will win re-election. There's no serious challenger out there. And he thinks if he wins a new mandate from the public, it can minimize the impact of any corruption charges he might have to face.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thanks, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.