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Meeting Netanyahu's Young Supporters


Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won his fourth consecutive term this week. Many of his supporters are newcomers to Israel's politics. They're young voters who, surveys show, identify with Israel's right wing. NPR's Daniel Estrin met some of them on Election Day.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: I walk into a polling station and find a 19-year-old and two 20-year-olds sitting at a table, assisting voters and cracking open sunflower seeds between their teeth. They're soldiers, like most of their peers. It was the first time they were old enough to vote. All three voted for Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu.

MAOR: Only Bibi 'cause he's the best.

ESTRIN: 20-year-old paratrooper Maor. He and the other soldiers I spoke to withheld their last names because the army doesn't let them give interviews without permission.

MAOR: He keep my family safe, of course.

ESTRIN: Nineteen-year-old infantry soldier Avi.

AVI: (Through interpreter) I voted for Bibi because he's given me a good sense of security and out of the fear that another prime minister could lead us to a worse situation or a better situation. You don't know who you're going to fall upon.

ESTRIN: Twenty-year-old Roni serves in a civilian protection unit in the army.

RONI: His relationships with the world, the way that he got Trump to get on board with Israel, Russia, China, everybody is amazing. Like, nobody has ever done this before.

ESTRIN: Israel's attorney general is preparing criminal charges against Netanyahu for his alleged bribes and backroom dealings with businessmen. It doesn't bother these young soldiers.

RONI: I don't care if he's getting presents, if he's helping his friends. He's a good prime minister.

ESTRIN: They don't remember much of anyone else. Netanyahu has been prime minister for a decade - since these soldiers were 9 and 10 years old. In a recent survey, the majority of 18 to 24-year-olds supported Netanyahu over his centrist rival. About 75 percent of them defined themselves as right or moderately right-wing. Those who call themselves left or moderate left-wing - only 9 percent. The soldiers I met don't think there will ever be peace with the Palestinians.

RONI: I think that it's very simple. We both want the same thing. They want Jerusalem. We want Jerusalem. They want to have a country, but they want it on our land. Just like two babies wanting the same candy, one will get it. One won't. We got it. There's never going to be peace. We want the same thing. They're never going to back down, and we're never going to back down.

ESTRIN: How about sharing it?

RONI: Sharing it - I think that they'll be a disgrace for the soldiers that died protecting this country.

ESTRIN: Palestinians say they feel the same way about the blood they've spilled, and they want a state like Israel has. These young Israelis mostly remember periods of violence.

YOHANAN PLESNER: Young Israelis grew into this reality, so they do not even have - cannot imagine another option.

ESTRIN: Yohanan Plesner is with the Israel Democracy Institute, which conducted the surveys of Israeli youth. He says when he was their age in the 1990s, Israel and the Palestinians negotiated the Oslo Peace Accords, and there was optimism about creating a Palestinian state next to Israel.

PLESNER: Older Israelis - while many of them are still skeptical, they still hold on to the view that separation between Israelis and the Palestinians is a desired strategy. The youngsters do not know any other reality. This is one of the reasons that it causes them to identify as right-wing.

ESTRIN: He says Israeli history shows that views do change when reality changes, like when Israelis rallied around the 1979 peace deal with Egypt. He thinks if there were a real possibility of peace with the Palestinians, these young soldiers' minds might change. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.