MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It looks like a new political deadlock in Israel will lead to the country's fourth election in just two years. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will once again be at the center of attention and debate as he once again struggles to hold on to power. Netanyahu is the country's longest-serving prime minister, but a long and ongoing corruption trial continues to cast a shadow on his administration. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem. He's here now.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: It feels like I was just talking to you (laughter) about elections in Israel and whether Netanyahu would hang on. I know there's all kinds of complicated parliamentary politics in play here, but bottom line, how did we get back here again?
ESTRIN: Yeah, deja vu all over again. Well, the government just was not going to last. It was a power-sharing government. Netanyahu was supposed to hand over his job next year to his political rival, but no one really believed that he actually would because Netanyahu's interest is just to stay in power. So what he did, he resisted passing the budget, and this budget crisis led to the parliament dissolving. And now, elections are scheduled for around March 23.
KELLY: And March 23 is, you know, obviously a few months away. But any idea whether Netanyahu will hang on to the job? What's the thinking?
ESTRIN: Well, you know, he might have an advantage here because elections give him a chance to win a new term, to prolong his grip on power. That could put him in a strong position while he is on trial for corruption. It might even give him ways to get out of his trial.
He said in a speech today that he will win re-election. He's confident. He's been doing good things. He helped Israel get COVID vaccines. He's forged diplomatic ties with four Arab states.
The truth is, though, that it will be an uphill battle. The pandemic will still be around during those elections. And Israelis are out of jobs. They're unhappy during this pandemic. And some are just plain sick of Netanyahu after more than a decade that he's been in power.
KELLY: Is there an obvious challenger out there who would be able to take advantage of this moment?
ESTRIN: Several serious challenges are out there - challengers are out there. They're all right wing. They're all former Netanyahu allies. His main challenger is Gideon Sa'ar. He says Netanyahu's time has passed. He's a political liability. He's got corruption charges, he says - can't keep a government together. And polls are showing that Gideon Sa'ar and mostly right-wing parties could band together and block Netanyahu's path to re-election.
KELLY: Let's set aside politics for a moment and just consider the bigger issues at stake. What is at stake for Israel in all this?
ESTRIN: The big thing is whether Netanyahu will stay or go. I mean, he has shaped who Israel - what Israel has become in the last more than 10 years. And, you know, whether or not he wins, more likely than not, there will be a right-wing prime minister in power who supports Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, who opposes a Palestinian state. And so that could set Israel up on a rocky road with President-elect Biden.
KELLY: Oh. All kinds of interesting issues at play there in terms of future relations with the Biden administration. NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting from Jerusalem.
Thank you, Daniel.
ESTRIN: Thank you, Mary Louise.
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