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Israeli elections a referendum on Netanyahu’s political fate

Two days before nationwide elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday held a cabinet meeting in the occupied West Bank, an area he says he would annex if re-elected. Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, is in his second tight race this year after being accused of corruption. Special correspondent Ryan Chilcote joins Hari Sreenivasan from Tel-Aviv with more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Two days before nationwide elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is rallying his base of far right supporters. Netanyahu convened a cabinet meeting in the occupied West Bank today, an area that he says he would annex if re-elected. His plan includes building a new settlement in an area which would be the center of any future Palestinian state.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Officials in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned Netanyahu's plan at an emergency meeting in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi foreign minister called it a quote "dangerous escalation that endangers all of the efforts to achieve a just and lasting peace." With more on the lead up to Tuesday's election in Israel, NewsHour Special Correspondent Ryan Chilcote joins us now via Skype from Tel Aviv.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Ryan, we're two days away. What are the big issues that are driving this election, and why are you sitting where you're sitting?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Well I've just, I'm sitting in a tiki bar, yes, I know, just outside of a building where the leader of the Blue and White Party held a campaign rally. He's the biggest challenger to Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and the biggest issue that you were asking about in this campaign is Benjamin Netanyahu himself, because he is Israel's longest-serving prime minister and yet the question is, will he be able to form a government? There was an election in this country back in April just five months ago and he failed to do that. So he called this election to see if he could do it the second time around. Meanwhile, he's also facing a whole host of corruption charges and just next month, in just a few weeks time in fact, he's going to see those legal proceedings begin and he's facing the prospect of three indictments for taking bribes and peddling influence. So the real thing in this election is, do the Israeli voters care enough about that to topple him?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You've got information now that he just had a cabinet meeting inside the West Bank and he's laying out this plan that's saying, listen, I want to annex this territory if I'm elected, I want to put a settlement here. These are pretty bold statements.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    So it is a bold move to go out there and say that we're going to do this. The fact is that the benefit that the Likud Party, the prime minister could get saying this just two days before the election is greater than the cost of any potential international condemnation. You mentioned that he's saying this in the Jordan Valley, which is also in the West Bank. Well, he just a couple of days ago was talking about annexing the Jordan Valley. That amounts to about a third of the West Bank. This is something that is very popular in fact in Israel itself. And so it's a campaign move, it's a campaign promise that not everyone here takes too seriously because at the end of the day, it's not clear that you would actually do it or whether the international community and the Trump administration would allow him to. Though I have to say that the Trump administration has been more accommodating than any administration in recent history when it comes to Israel's plans in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Speaking of President Trump, does his support in tweets and otherwise, does it resonate? Does it matter with the electorate in Israel?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    I think it does. President Trump is very popular here. People like him. They consider him to be the best friend that Israel has ever had. They thought that President Obama was very hard on Israel. In contrast, in 2017, President Trump came here. And so he has a big influence on things and you know clearly Benjamin Netanyahu in the run up to this election has been banking on that. You drive around Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and there are billboards for the two of them everywhere.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, anything we should watch for this week?

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Yes, we want to watch for how many votes Benjamin Netanyahu or any of the other people running the other parties get. How many seats they get in the Parliament. It's called the Knesset, there are 120 seats in it. In order to form a government, you have to have 61 seats. Benjamin Netanyahu wasn't able to do that back in April. He's hoping to do that this time but the polls say that it's unlikely to happen. So what's going to happen, what is most likely to happen after that is a whole lot of horsetrading where either Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz, who had his rally today, try and build a coalition to get those 61 seats so they can form a government and take this country out of the political impasse it's been in for months now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Ryan Chilcote joining us via Skype from Tel Aviv tonight. Thanks so much.

  • Ryan Chilcote:

    Thank you.

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