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Israel Holds Unprecedented 3rd Election In Less Than A Year


Israel's democracy is being put to the test like never before. Today the country is holding its third national election in less than a year. Both of the previous two elections ended in stalemate.

NPR's Daniel Estrin is with us from the city of Rehovot in central Israel. Daniel, how did we get here?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: We got here because Israel's political system, Steve, is facing a deep crisis. First of all, the electoral system here has a major weakness because neither candidate, neither Netanyahu nor his rival Benny Gantz, have been able to build a majority coalition in Parliament, and the system here does not force a decisive winner. So they keep going round after round. And plus, you've got Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption charges, and a lot of his political allies who used to be by his side no longer are willing to stand by his side and join his government. And instead of resigning, he keeps trying and trying again.

INSKEEP: What are voters telling you?

ESTRIN: Well, I've heard from some Israelis who say, you know, what's the point of voting when you keep doing this over and over? But actually, Steve, people are energized out at the polls. Voter turnout in the last round increased from the first round. And now we're in the third round, the stakes are high, and voters want to be a part of it, even though they realize that something is pretty rotten about holding third elections. Take a listen to voter Savi Shapiro (ph).

SAVI SHAPIRO: Any normal human being that grew up in a democracy will look at this and we're just going to laugh. I think it's a joke. It's just a big joke.

ESTRIN: And he's saying, you know, there are no rules anymore. He just can hold election after election, and Netanyahu, he says, is doing that to try to win.

INSKEEP: Isn't there even more at stake for Netanyahu than just winning or losing office here?

ESTRIN: A lot is at stake for him. His corruption trial begins in two weeks, and he's going to be facing bribery and fraud charges for alleged secret dealings with media moguls. So if he actually gets to win another term this time, he'll be in a position of strength going into that trial having won a term. And, you know, if the other option is another stalemate, that also helps him because he'll still be able to start his trial as caretaker prime minister and stay in office.

INSKEEP: Daniel, just a few weeks ago, the Trump Administration released a peace proposal for Israelis and Palestinians. Has that become much of an issue in the campaign?

ESTRIN: Remarkably, Steve, it has not. The polls suggest it probably has not tilted the political map, which is fascinating. The Trump administration's proposal for peace heavily favors Israel. Netanyahu touted it on the campaign trail to win over the right wing. But a lot of people think it won't actually come to be. And actually, Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel may be motivated by that plan to show up to the polls in even larger numbers against the plan, and that could weaken Netanyahu's chances of winning.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention, Daniel, in the U.K., they had multiple elections over a period of time and finally ended up with a decisive result for Boris Johnson, now the prime minister. Is there any sign of movement in polls that would suggest this election in Israel could come out any differently than the past two?

ESTRIN: No. Quite frankly, there could be another stalemate. This country is pretty split. No candidate seems to want to compromise and join forces. We may be seeing a fourth election, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Daniel, thanks very much. Really appreciate your work.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin, who's been talking with voters in the Israeli city of Rehovot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.