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Will Netanyahu survive Tuesday’s election?

Will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold onto power after next week's elections? The latest polling reveals that Netanyahu's Likud party is slightly trailing the Zionist Union party, prompting questions about whether the leader will survive the early elections he called. Special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports from Israel on the challenge Netanyahu faces.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The political future of the Israeli prime minister, who dominated headlines last week with a speech to Congress, is very much up in the air tonight, as a rival political faction inched ahead of his party in the latest polls.

    NewsHour special correspondent Martin Seemungal traveled to Israel to see what the leader is up against in this coming Tuesday's election.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    One man has dominated Israel's Knesset for the last six years, Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the center-right Likud Party. In fact, if you include the three years he served as prime minister in the late '90s, he is the second-longest serving Israeli leader, behind David Ben-Gurion, known as the father of Israel.

    Netanyahu was just two years into his term when he called this election, and it will be pivotal one, a referendum on Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu.

    DAVID HOROVITZ, The Times of Israel: There will be people who say, we have to have Netanyahu. We can't trust anyone else lead this country in this fraught region.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    David Horovitz is the former editor of the influential Jerusalem Post. He now runs his own paper, The Times of Israel.

  • DAVID HOROVITZ:

    And there will be part of the electorate that says anyone but Netanyahu, the man's a disaster, he's plunging Israel into pariah status, and we need a change in leadership.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    When he campaigns, Netanyahu is, as always, confident of victory, pushing the line that Israel faces an existential threat from Iran and Hamas in Gaza, telling audiences about his responsibility to protect the nation, about national security.

    Aviv Bushinsky was Netanyahu's media adviser when he was prime minister in 1998.

  • AVIV BUSHINSKY, Former Netanyahu Media Adviser:

    Netanyahu thinks, he really thinks so, that he is the only one who can protect the country. And you say it's something — it's really strange, but that's how Netanyahu thinks.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    But Israelis are divided and undecided. The polls are close. The Labor Party, led by Isaac Herzog and his new ally Tzipi Livni, have formed a formidable alliance, the Zionist Union, sometimes called the Zionist Camp. Often campaigning together, they are going after center and center-left voters.

    Herzog and the Zionist Camp are looking to capitalize on that perception that Israel is looking for a change.

    Herzog tells potential supporters to forget about Labor's past electoral defeats, to focus on replacing Netanyahu. He won many supporters at this kibbutz near Tel Aviv.

  • WOMAN:

    People say that Bibi is strong. So what? What to take for us? He's strong, OK, but nothing is good. That's why we need someone that can make the change.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    The movement against Netanyahu also transcends parties. Tens of thousands turned out last weekend in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, not as a statement of support for any single political faction, but as a unifying call for the ouster of the prime minister. Even some former supporters are turning.

  • MAN:

    I think Netanyahu right now is the best, but still no results for the last six years.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    You're — you're thinking it's time for a change?

  • MAN:

    It's time for a change.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Who did you vote for in the last election?

  • MAN:

    The last, I voted for Netanyahu.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    And why not this time?

  • MAN:

    Because he fight with Mr. Obama.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    And you don't like that?

  • MAN:

    No, I don't like this.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Why don't you like that?

  • MAN:

    Because Obama is good for us. And it's not good that Mr. Netanyahu fights with him.

  • MAN:

    We, the younger people, we need hope. We seek hope. And it seems like the economical situation is not going any better, and the situation with the Palestinians isn't getting any better.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Despite Netanyahu's public support for two states for two peoples, the peace process remains at a standstill. Tzipi Livni, the Zionist Union's other leader, regularly attacks Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue. Livni has long experienced negotiating with the Palestinians in previous governments, including Netanyahu's most recent one.

  • TZIPI LIVNI, Leader, Zionist Union:

    Well, I do believe in the right of the Jewish people on the entire land, but I also believe that the vision of two states for two people represents the interest of Israel, not a favor to the Palestinians, not even a favor to the president of the United States. It is our interests and the only way to keep the (INAUDIBLE) democratic state.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Again, the message is clear: The Zionist Camp represents the real Israel, that victory is near.

    You think you will win?

  • TZIPI LIVNI:

    Oh, of course. Yes, of course. We should.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    But Livni and Herzog are seen to lack on that one issue that polls show Israelis are deeply concerned about: security. Herzog has impeccable political credentials, but he isn't a former general and, unlike Netanyahu, Herzog didn't serve in an elite military unit.

    The Likud ad campaigns portray the Zionist Union leaders as weak and indecisive. The center-left tries to steer away to the economy and other areas of dissatisfaction, including the sky-high cost of living and housing prices, which have left many Israelis behind. But that strategy is proving difficult.

    You will often hear people talk about social issues out on the street, but so far, those issues have not been a major factor in the campaign. Netanyahu has somehow managed to keep those issues out of the pre-election debate and keep the focus on security. It is critical to his reelection campaign.

  • Here’s why:

    The latest polling has the center-left Zionist Camp inching ahead to the center-right Likud, but many analysts believe the gap must be significant, wide enough to counter Netanyahu's strength, a better chance of forming a coalition with the smaller right-wing parties.

  • BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Prime Minister, Israel:

    It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb. It paves Iran's path to the bomb.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Analysts believe that's why Netanyahu talks about Iran, why he went to Congress, despite opposition from nearly half the Israeli population.

  • AVIV BUSHINSKY:

    Netanyahu is not talking to the entire population. He is talking now to the right-wingers. Why? Because he wants to capture the most seats, and he knows that he will not get it from the left; he will get it from the right.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Within the right wing itself, Netanyahu could face challenges from Naftali Bennett of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party or Moshe Kahlon, one of Netanyahu's former ministers, now leading his own party. Both are expected to join Netanyahu in a coalition, but nothing is a sure.

    And for the first time, Israel's Arab parties have united. They are running as one bloc and are expected to do well. Kassim Sulieman is an Arab Israeli talk show host. She says the Arab parties could end up with 12 to 15 seats, enough to influence who becomes prime minister.

  • KASSIM SULIEMAN, Talk Show Host:

    They will find a way to help, let's say, left-wing government, but without being a part of the government.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, will ultimately decide who will be prime minister, and it won't necessarily be the leader with the most seats, rather, the person best able to put together a coalition. If the results are close, there could be days of horse-trading.

  • DAVID HOROVITZ:

    The morning after, when they add up the votes, it may not be clear who these party leaders will recommend to the president as their choice for prime minister. It might take a while to play out.

  • MARTIN SEEMUNGAL:

    Israelis and the world will be watching. Will Netanyahu emerge as prime minister again, or will it be someone new?

    For the NewsHour, I'm Martin Seemungal in Jerusalem.

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