Israel holds fifth election in four years as Netanyahu attempts to regain power

Americans are used to having a drawn-out election season, but in Israel, it has been nonstop for four years. Tuesday, the country's fifth consecutive election will get underway and Israelis will have to make a stark choice between different world views. Many voters are weary of going to the polls yet again, but that doesn’t mean this election won't matter. Special correspondent Nurit Ben reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to another major overseas election tomorrow in Israel, as that country's fifth election in four years will get under way.

    Israelis will have to make a choice between very different world views. Many voters are understandably weary of going to the polls yet again.

    But, as special correspondent Nurit Ben reports, this election is likely to have far-reaching consequences.

  • Nurit Ben:

    It's a decades-long tradition, groups of usually older Israelis getting together for coffee, maybe some pastries, and a heated political argument.

    Israelis call them parliaments, and for well over a decade, one name, love him or hate him, has been front and center, Benjamin Netanyahu. Now, with the country hours away from its fifth election in less than four years, one question still seems to be on everyone's lips: Are you with Bibi or against him?

  • Shimon Assouline, Ashkelon Resident (through translator):

    We have Bibi Netanyahu, who is one-of-a-kind.

  • Rami Matan, Anti-Netanyahu (through translator):

    Protester Bibi is dangerous to Israel. He is destroying democracy.

  • Nurit Ben:

    This time, the stakes are higher. Depending on which block comes out on top, Israel's government could be center-left or the most right-wing the country has ever seen.

    Yaakov Katz is the editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.

    Yaakov Katz, Editor in Chief, The Jerusalem Post: If you ask people from the center left, they will tell you that democracy is at stake, that there are forces within the right-wing camp that are extreme, that would like to change the rule of law and the criminal justice system in Israel.

    On the other hand, if you talk to people on the right side of the map, they fear a government with Arab parties who are believed to be extreme and anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, and, therefore, the Jewish character of Israel is at stake.

  • Nurit Ben:

    Just last summer, things looked different, a motley crew of right-wing and left, centrist and an Arab party all put their differences aside and struck a deal. Together, they unseated the longest serving prime minister in Israel's history.

    But like others before it, that fragile coalition fell apart, and Israelis are heading to the polls yet again. After a brief stint in the opposition and with a corruption trial under way, Netanyahu has been full speed on the campaign trail, trying to reclaim the coveted seat.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu, Former Israeli Prime Minister (through translator):

    Likud voters, wake up.

  • Nurit Ben:

    And he's still the one to beat. For well over a decade, the right-wing Likud has been a party of only one man. And Netanyahu supporters back him with ironclad loyalty.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu (through translator):

    I believe we have done huge things for Israel. But I think there are more things to do to block Iran for good. I think we will have peace with Saudi Arabia, and I will bring it about, and, with that, essentially bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

  • Nurit Ben:

    His biggest challenger, interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid, a former journalist who dove into politics with a splash in 2013. And in a country where left-wing parties have all but disappeared, he's become the face of the Israeli center.

  • Yair Lapid, Israeli Prime Minister (through translator):

    It's possible to fight and win in the fight over Israeli democracy because it is under threat.

  • Nurit Ben:

    But in Israel's coalition system, no one crosses the finish line without support from several other parties. This time around, the ones to watch range from far right nationalists surging in popularity to Arab faction struggling to get their own voters to turn out to.

    Take the far right head of the Jewish Power Party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist with a decades-old taste for provocation, calling for the assassination of then-Premier Yitzhak Rabin in the '90s or just this month pulling a gun amid clashes in the contested East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

    Just a few elections ago, he was shunned by Israel's right wing, including Netanyahu, for being too extreme. Fast-forward to election number five, that fringe politician could be the kingmaker and a major part of a Netanyahu government. His rise was helped by the king of the right-wing himself, who brokered a deal for a joint list of far right parties. Together, they're on track to be the third biggest party in Parliament, paving Netanyahu's path to victory and backing highly controversial changes to the legal system that will put a quick end to his trial.

    But in a campaign speech last week, Lapid those changes are just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Yair Lapid (through translator):

    What's truly important to them is to annex three million Palestinians, to limit women's rights, to limit LGBT rights, a dark, extremist, racist nation with no legal limits.

  • Nurit Ben:

    On the other side of the political spectrum are Israel's Arab parties, who also play a crucial role in how it all pans out. Arab citizens of Israel make up about 20 percent of the population. How they vote and if they vote could stop Netanyahu or help hand him the top job.

    Israel's short-lived government included an Arab party, Ra'am, for the very first time, but there's a lot of frustration that they didn't change much. And less than half of all Arab voters are expected to cast a ballot. Still others feel too much is on the line to stay home.

  • Hussam Abu Ahmad, Nazareth Resident (through translator):

    We in the Arab sector have to vote so that we can effect change. If we don't vote, we will have racists, and we can't live together with them.

  • Nurit Ben:

    Aida Touma-Suleiman, a member of one leading Arab party, told us what it would take for them to join the next coalition.

  • Aida Touma-Suleiman, Hadash-Ta’al Party Member:

    For the first time, we are needed in order to solve this problem. So it's our time to ask for the real, very basic, let's say, demands, not budgets, but equal citizenship.

  • Nurit Ben:

    How those parties fare will decide if it's Netanyahu or Lapid who grasps the majority in the 120-seat Parliament. But yet another stalemate could be in the cards.

  • Yaakov Katz:

    Israel has been in an endless cycle of elections for the last three years that primarily have to do with one issue. And that issue is, what will happen with Benjamin Netanyahu? And there's a lot of parties in the Israeli Parliament and in the political system that refuse to sit with him.

  • Nurit Ben:

    Those include longtime opponents and longtime allies. For them, Netanyahu has overstayed his welcome, refusing to step down while facing charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

    When polls open tomorrow, just one question will matter: How much do Israelis care? For a public dragged to the voting booth again and again, the answer might be not much, but a lot is at stake, and Israeli voters have power to help determine the course of their nation. The question is, will they use it?

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nurit Ben in Tel Aviv.

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