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Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu is gunning for a comeback in the country's next election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The leader of Israel's right wing is trying to stage a comeback. Benjamin Netanyahu was ousted last year, and he's on trial for corruption, but he's a frontrunner in Tuesday's elections. He's promising to form a government with politicians on the far right. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports on what Netanyahu hopes to achieve.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Hebrew).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: His supporters chant, Bibi, king of Israel.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

(CHEERING)

ESTRIN: Bibi - Benjamin Netanyahu - is crisscrossing the country holding campaign rallies, sometimes three a night. He's 73 years old and with boundless energy. Here, he greets a crowd in Ofakim, a blue-collar town in Israel's south.

NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He says, do you want to bring back your personal security? Do you want to bring down the cost of living? Do you want to bring back our national pride in a Jewish country? Those are the themes that resonate with his supporters - the rising cost of living, but also nationalism and security - the classic Israeli issue of Arabs versus Jews and who has the upper hand. Voter Ortal Shlomo says without Netanyahu in office this past year, she hasn't slept well at night.

ORTAL SHLOMO: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: She says those who came to power ruined the country. They gave the Arabs power and strengthened them. An Arab political party was part of the governing coalition this year, a first in Israel's history. Netanyahu offers a different vision for Israel. If he's reelected, he says he'll give a cabinet minister seat to far-right Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose campaign is to exile Arabs he deems hostile. Ben-Gvir is shunned by the pro-Israel group AIPAC, but Netanyahu's party claims he's more moderate than the past.

SHLOMO: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Shlomo says, "We need someone like Ben-Gvir in the government. We need his power of deterrence. He is moderated from his extremism. We need him just as he is. He will cause them to go back into the holes where they came from - the Arabs." Another major issue Netanyahu's allies are pushing is to strip the justice system of some of its powers. Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, and his supporters think it's a plot by left-wing justice officials. Voter Gila Dree.

GILA DREE: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: "I think it's a trial to topple a government. It cannot be the judges get to decide for the country," she tells me. Hebrew University politics professor Reuven Hazan says Netanyahu wants to return to office to exert the right pressure needed to try to shake off his trial.

REUVEN HAZAN: He truly believes that while in power, he can do the best in order to avoid his trial ending up in a guilty verdict. For that reason, I think he is dangerous to Israeli democracy.

ESTRIN: In this tight race, polls suggest Netanyahu's bloc could get just enough votes for him to build a coalition with the religious far right.

CHAZAN: He will be at the whim of the most extremist elements in his governing coalition. And those extremist elements, to put it bluntly, are non-democratic elements.

ESTRIN: Another option - Netanyahu could ditch the far right and convince some of his political opponents to partner with him instead. What doesn't seem likely is an outright win for the anti-Netanyahu bloc of parties. There could be a stalemate, and if Netanyahu doesn't win, some in his party could defect, making it hard for him to return to office again.

NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Back at the rally, Benjamin Netanyahu tells his supporters, "we are so close to victory." The message is optimistic, but this may be his last chance at a comeback. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Ofakim in Southern Israel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.