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2nd election plus corruption charges place Netanyahu in jeopardy

Israelis went to the polls Tuesday for the second time this year, to determine whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's long tenure will continue. Netanyahu failed to achieve the required coalition after the regular election in April and was forced to call for a new one. He is also facing corruption allegations. Special correspondent Ryan Chilcote reports and joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is Election Day in Israel all over again. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed the unprecedented do-over after falling one Parliament seat short of forming a government last April.

    Special correspondent Ryan Chilcote is there for us, and has the story.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Election Day was deja vu, all over again, less than six months after the last go-round, prolonging the political turmoil and putting Israel's long-serving prime minister in peril.

    At the center of it all, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party, and his chief rival, Benny Gantz, his former military chief of staff, who leads the centrist Blue and White Party.

    Voters flocked to the polls, and while support for the ruling Likud Party fell, neither of Israel's largest parties may have the votes to form a government. That leaves this man, Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu's longtime-ally-turned-foe, as a potential kingmaker.

    He wants a national unity government, forcing Likud and the Blue and White to govern together. In a last-minute get-out-the-vote plea at a Jerusalem's bus station, Netanyahu warned voters about the perils of choosing his challenger.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (through translator):

    Do you want to prevent a left-wing government and a coalition with the Arab parties? You don't want that. So, go vote. Go vote Likud.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Political problems aside, Netanyahu is also in legal jeopardy. A hearing next month will decide whether he is indicted for breach of trust and accepting bribes that include champagne and expensive cigars.

    That didn't matter to some voters, like Rami Birenbaum. Netanyahu's hard line on the Arabs and Palestinians trumps everything.

  • Rami Birenbaum:

    Moses did a big mistake 2,000 years ago. Instead of going to America or to Australia, went over to the Middle East. And all around us, we're surround enemies. It's the problem, yes.

    If you ask me, the Arabs not accept us, only to throw us into the ocean. And only Netanyahu. I don't care about his wife, about his children, about if he took cigarettes or not. I don't care.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    You don't care about the corruption?

  • Rami Birenbaum:

    No, no, no.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    But it did for others, like Ruthy Ranan, who's voted for Netanyahu in the past.

  • Ruthy Ranan:

    I voted for Gantz because it needs to be a change, because Netanyahu is doing very bad things for everybody.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Gantz said this election could bring change, but only if Israelis actually vote.

  • Benny Gantz (through translator):

    Anyone who stays home doesn't take responsibility for what is going to happen. We want new hope. We vote today for change, without corruption, without extremism.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    His supporters appear to have heeded the warning. It's a day off in Israel, but, even at the beach, there was no escaping the election.

    At the White House yesterday, U.S. President Donald Trump predicted a tight race.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's a 50/50 election. A lot of people, if you look at the polls and everything else, it is going to be very close.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Israelis Arabs, who make up a sixth of the electorate, but tend to turn out in smaller numbers than their Jewish counterparts, also appear to have shaped the outcome.

    Netanyahu had directed the police to be on the lookout for fraud in Arab neighborhoods, warning his supporters, the Arabs are voting this time, and they better, too.

    Ayman Odeh heads the predominately Arab coalition of parties called The Joint List.

  • Ayman Odeh (through translator):

    We are not against a group of people. We are against a racist prime minister. But he is against a whole nation. That is the big difference.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    A polling station we visited in Kfar Qasim, an Arab town outside Tel Aviv, appeared to have an outsized police presence. One man told us the police had demanded campaign signs be taken down.

    Sabaa Taha said it's her duty to preserve Arabs' identity in an increasingly right-wing country. Arabs' representation in Parliament marginally grew.

  • Sabaa Taha:

    The more we vote, the more we change something. There's a lot of things that are going against Arabs in Israel.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Israel's election has left more questions than answers.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Ryan joins us now from Netanyahu's election night headquarters in Tel Aviv.

    So, Ryan, it sounds complicated. What happens next?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    It is a bit complicated.

    Israel's president now will sit down with the leaders of the nine political parties that look poised to get into Parliament. I say poised because all we have at this point are the exit polls, though they generally are pretty accurate.

    And he will ask the leaders of those political parties who they want to be prime minister. He will then go away, have a think, and come back and offer the — extend the opportunity to the leader of one of the political parties to try to form a coalition, to form a government.

    I say try, because, of course, that's exactly what Benjamin Netanyahu tried to do back in April, and, for the first time in the history of Israel, failed. Now, the magic number is 61. That's the number of seats that you have to have in your coalition if you're going to form a government.

    Neither of the main political — two biggest political parties right now have coalition partners that add up to 61 seats. So there's really several ways to get to 61. But the most — two most talked about are for the two political parties, the Blue and White Party and the Likud Party, to get together and form a national unity government.

    If they were to do that, they would have the 61 seats. But then, of course, the question is, who gets to be prime minister? Now, back in 1984, Israel was in this very situation, and the two political parties agreed to rotate the job.

    In other words, the leader of one political party gets to be prime minister for a couple years, then the leader of the other political party, the other coalition partner in that unity government.

    Now, there is another path forward, which is that the leader of one of the two main parties gets together with the leader of another party called Israel Our Home, and that would give them the 61 seats, though I should point out — his name is Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of that party — that Netanyahu tried to do that with him in the last election.

    He pledged his support, pledged his seats in the Parliament to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and at the last minute actually pulled out the rug from underneath Netanyahu. And that is how we got to where we are today, because Netanyahu couldn't form a government.

    So anything really is possible in Israeli politics, and it's unlikely to happen very quickly — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Complicated is an understatement.

    Ryan, so, is it clear where all this leaves Benjamin Netanyahu?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Politically speaking, he's definitely in a weaker position.

    His party, the Likud Party, got less seats, less votes, and now less seats in the Parliament than they did back in April. And, of course, two weeks from tomorrow, there will be a hearing where a judge will decide whether he is to be indicted on three charges of corruption.

    Now, if he was to be indicted, he will obviously go to trial. And if he was found guilty, he could very well go to prison. Politically, that's not very helpful for him either, even the hearing, because, if he is indicted, it is entirely possible that some people within his very own party will say, Prime Minister, we think, in the interest of our party and in the interest of the country, it's better for you to step down, sort out your legal problems, and come back later.

    So it doesn't put him in a very good position if there is some kind of national unity government, where they get to decide — they have to decide who wants to — who gets to be prime minister first, clearly, Benjamin Netanyahu is going to want to be prime minister, and he's going to want to be a prime minister first to try and push back any of his legal proceedings using the office of the prime minister.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tough to keep track of all of this.

    But, Ryan, we know, meantime, there is this stalled peace process out there. The U.S. has been involved. Where does this leave that?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    It doesn't change much.

    The reality is, while the Palestinians may want to see Netanyahu out of office, it may not really change much. The political establishment here in Israel is pretty unified when it comes to how to deal with the Palestinians. There isn't a lot of difference between the front-runners in this election and the parties that are going to have the seats in the Knesset, in the Parliament.

    The real question is, what happens when President Trump comes up with his peace plan for the Middle East? The president has billed it as the deal of the century. Now, that plan is quite likely going to be the liking of the Israelis, but the Palestinians have already rejected it.

    So then the question really becomes, what do the Israelis and the United States and other people that want to see some kind of peace deal do? Do they forge ahead without the Palestinians and force some kind of solution on them, or does the whole thing get shelved, and the Israelis just do whatever they want?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as you said at the outset, Ryan, there are more questions than there are answers right now.

    Ryan Chilcote for us at Netanyahu headquarters in Tel Aviv, thank you, Ryan.

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