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Netanyahu faces tough political battle in competitive Israeli election

On Tuesday, Israel will hold hotly contested elections that will decide whether Benjamin Netanyahu wins another term as prime minister. He is facing his most serious challenger in his current 10-year tenure in Benny Gantz, a former Israeli military chief who previously served under Netanyahu. John Yang reports from Jerusalem on what’s at stake, both for the nation and for Netanyahu personally.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One leader who welcomed today's announcement by the U.S. was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

    Israel and Iran are longtime foes, and Netanyahu tweeted to President Trump in Hebrew: "Thank you for responding to another important request of mine which serves the interests of our countries and countries of the region."

    As it happens, Israel holds hotly contested elections tomorrow that will decide whether Netanyahu wins another term as prime minister.

    We sent John Yang to find out what's at stake for the nation of Israel and for the political and personal fortunes of Netanyahu himself.

  • John Yang:

    Less than 24 hours before Israeli polls open, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted voters in Jerusalem's main market.

    In the campaign's closing days, he has made full use of the stature and the perks of his office, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, helping lay to rest the returned remains of an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon in 1982, and, just this weekend, reversing course to say that the time is right for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank.

    Israelis have a term for Netanyahu's last-minute pre-election surprises. They call it his gevalt campaign, using the Yiddish expression of alarm. Netanyahu and his center-right Likud Party have dominated Israeli politics during his 10 straight years in office. Now he faces his toughest reelection challenger yet.

    He's Benny Gantz, who led supporters on motorcycles on his final day of campaigning. Gantz is a retired Israeli army general and served as army chief of staff under Netanyahu during the 2014 Gaza war.

  • Dana Weiss:

    After 10 years, there is suddenly an alternative.

  • John Yang:

    Dana Weiss is chief political correspondent for Israel's Channel 12.

  • Dana Weiss:

    When people are asked in approval rates who is fit to be prime minister, for the first time, there is a tie between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the person standing against him.

  • John Yang:

    Gantz leads a center-right coalition that includes two other former army chiefs of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya'alon, who also served as Netanyahu's defense minister.

    They hope their combined military experience offsets Netanyahu's reputation as Israel's mister security.

  • Benny Gantz:

    On my watch, Iran will not threaten Israel by taking over Syria, Lebanon or the Gaza Strip., nor will it undermine pragmatic regime in the Middle East. On my watch, Iran will not have nuclear weapons.

  • John Yang:

    Netanyahu trumpets his close alliance with President Trump. The president has boosted his Israeli counterpart's standing by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, cutting aid to the Palestinians, and during a White House visit just two weeks before the election recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 War.

    The White House even agreed to release its likely controversial Middle East peace plan after the election so it wouldn't become an issue.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu:

    Mr. President, over the years Israel has been blessed to have many friends who sat in the Oval Office, but Israel has never had a better friend than you.

  • John Yang:

    But analysts say tomorrow's vote could be a referendum on the effect on the nation of Netanyahu's policies and politics, which some call divisive.

  • Dana Weiss:

    It's not security, it's not international relationship, it's not even economy. It's what he is doing to the society inside Israel, us against them, against the elites, against the left, against the liberals, against the Arabs, in order to stay in power.

  • John Yang:

    Listen to these anti-Netanyahu voters at Jerusalem's main market. Rachel Ben-Schlomo is a physical therapist, and undecided, except about Netanyahu.

  • Rachel Ben-Schlomo:

    I want a change and wanting to be something that will contribute to societal living, you know, not only the security all the time.

  • John Yang:

    Rochali Kashivitsky says she will vote for the once powerful left-wing Labor Party. She used Netanyahu's nickname.

  • Rochali Kashivitsky:

    No, no, no, no, not Bibi. I want somebody that think about the people, that take care about the people.

  • John Yang:

    Netanyahu supporters say they're better off now than before he was prime minister, when the economy was slumping and Palestinian suicide bombers were attacking Israeli buses, the issue responsible for his first narrow 1996 election as prime minister.

    Schlomo Peretz was having coffee in the market.

  • Schlomo Peretz (through translator):

    I don't believe that someone else can come in and improve. In my opinion, Bibi is the right man in the right place.

  • John Yang:

    In this campaign season, the market sees some good-natured debates.

    Dozens of parties are fielding candidates for the 120-seat legislature called the Knesset. Some are very small and very extreme.

    Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right anti-Arab party called Jewish Power, did a little retail politicking at the market. The minor parties' results could be very important.

    Polls show voters closely divided between Netanyahu and Gantz. If each ends up with roughly the same number of seats in the Knesset, that could give small parties outsized influence in forming a coalition government.

    Analysts say Netanyahu's task of coalition-building could be complicated by looming corruption indictments. In February, the attorney general, a Netanyahu appointee, said he intends charge him with trading official favors for positive news coverage and for hundreds of thousands of dollars of cigars, jewelry and champagne.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu (through translator):

    I intend to serve you and the country as prime minister for many more years. Don't believe all the spin.

  • John Yang:

    Netanyahu denies the charges and says it's a left-wing political persecution. While the announcement didn't move Netanyahu's poll numbers, Gantz is trying to make it an issue.

  • Benny Gantz (through translator):

    The mere notion that, in Israel, a prime minister can remain in office while under indictment is ridiculous, in my view. It won't happen.

  • John Yang:

    Reelection could be Netanyahu's strongest protection from prosecution, and he would demand that coalition partners help him, suggests Dana Weiss.

  • Dana Weiss:

    This coalition is what we call the indictment coalition, because Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to make sure, you want to join my party? Please give me your promise that you're going to do what it takes to make sure I'm not going to go through my legal procedures.

  • John Yang:

    And Netanyahu refuses to rule out seeking legislation that would outlaw the indictment of a sitting prime minister.

  • Ronen Bergman:

    This is going to be very complicated.

  • John Yang:

    Ronen Bergman writes for Israel's largest newspaper and is author of "Rise and Kill First" about the country's history of targeting killings.

  • Ronen Bergman:

    Not all of these parties, maybe not even one of them, would agree to go for something that would be seen, even by their base, by their constituency, as a break of any kind of ethical, lawful, legal prosecution of the law.

  • John Yang:

    While the campaign is the subject of intense interest in Israel, just a short drive away, it is largely ignored. In the past, Israeli elections were closely watched on the streets of the Palestinian West Bank for clues about the future of the peace process, but not this time.

  • Ghassan Khatib:

    There is no partner for the peace process with the Palestinians in Israel.

  • John Yang:

    Ghassan Khatib is a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank and a former Palestinian peace negotiator.

  • Ghassan Khatib:

    The issue of the Palestinian-Israeli relations is not a major issue in this election at all, because the major parties in this election are in agreement over the need to continue the Israeli occupation over the Palestinian territories, West Bank.

    It's wise to expect that the current status quo is going to continue for a long while. And I think the Palestinians are learning that there is no solution in the horizon.

  • John Yang:

    In Israel, despite Netanyahu's standing in the polls, few are counting him out.

  • Ronen Bergman:

    He's the best campaigner and the best spinner and the best politician in Israel, by far. He understands the system. He understands Israeli electorate. He understands the public. He understands Israeli psyche and Israeli mind-set.

    He understands what he needs to do in the last few weeks, the last few days, in order to get these small fractions of votes that will give him the next coalition.

  • John Yang:

    And he may need all those skills in order to fend off Benny Gantz and win a fourth consecutive term leading Israel.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Jerusalem.

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