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Israel Election Will Decide If The Prime Minister Of 12 Years Will Serve Another Term

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Voting is over in Israel, and now, the counting is underway. The results will determine the new parliament and whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu serves another term. The right-wing leader has served for 12 years straight. He's managed to hold onto his office through three other elections in just the last two years. And this time, he's being credited by many for Israel's fast rollout of the coronavirus vaccine. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us now from Jerusalem.

Daniel, let's just start with the mood. What are you hearing from voters?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Voters are tired, Audie. This was the fourth election in the last two years here, and voter turnout was a bit lower this time. In previous elections, there was a real sense of anticipation and even excitement about a neck-and-neck race. And today, I heard none of that. I heard pessimism from voters who want change, who do not like Bibi Netanyahu - that's Netanyahu's nickname. This is Ronit Harpaz.

RONIT HARPAZ: I'm very disappointed from the government. And we hope that we don't need to be here another time and vote again. We don't want vote again. I think that Bibi will win again, and I don't want this.

ESTRIN: Here's a Netanyahu voter, Daniel Tzafar.

DANIEL TZAFAR: I think it will be a long journey. Probably Bibi will win, but for him to build a coalition to work with everybody is going to be a long journey.

ESTRIN: So there is no clear winner yet. Netanyahu is expected to win the most seats in parliament, but he'll still need to build a coalition with other parties to get a majority.

CORNISH: Daniel, fourth election now in two years. The last one was just a year ago. How unusual is this? I mean, what is this cycle of elections?

ESTRIN: Yeah. Israel is really in deadlock. And it all comes down to Netanyahu. He has been on trial for corruption, and not enough parties have been willing to join a government with him. On the other hand, the opposition has just been too weak and too divided to come together and unseat him. And that's why we've seen this deadlock.

Last year, Netanyahu had to share power with his centrist opponent, and that opponent was supposed to take over, actually, as prime minister later this year. Instead, Netanyahu forced these new elections so he would get another chance to stay prime minister. And what could help him this time are the vaccines. Many Israelis, no matter what their political affiliation is, give him credit for securing COVID-19 vaccines early, and Israel leads the world today in vaccinations per capita.

CORNISH: Looking ahead, what direction could this election take this government in terms of policy?

ESTRIN: Well, the government, no matter what happens, is going to be fairly right wing or very right wing. And it depends. I mean, the left wing is very small in Israel, so we're looking at a few options. If Netanyahu wins a majority, he would partner with ultra-nationalists, with the hard right, with Jewish religious parties. They would strengthen Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. President Biden does not support settlements like Trump did.

Now, if the opposition somehow manages to form its own government, it would also be heavily dependent on right wing parties. This vote will all come down to how the small parties come out. It's a very, very tight election, Audie.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

Thanks for your reporting.

ESTRIN: Thank you very much, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOMBOX'S "MIDNIGHT ON THE RUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.