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What An Ousted Benjamin Netanyahu Could Mean For Israel

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start the program in Israel, which could soon see the end of a political era. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be facing his final days in office. His longtime right-wing ally Naftali Bennett has announced that he will try to form a new government without him. This follows two years of political turmoil in Israel in which Netanyahu clung to office while election after election ended in stalemate. There are still several days ahead to see if a new coalition will be formed that will put an end to Netanyahu's record-breaking 12 years in office.

We have NPR's Daniel Estrin on the line from Jerusalem to explore what this potential change means for Israel. Daniel, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So I take it this isn't quite a done deal yet?

ESTRIN: Not official yet, right? This will play out for a few more days. Naftali Bennett will try to form a government and try to make deals with other parties. You can be sure that Netanyahu himself will be playing every card that he has to try to scuttle this. But yes, this is a major move toward ending Netanyahu's grip on power.

MARTIN: So could you tell us just a bit more about Naftali Bennett? Who is he?

ESTRIN: He's the son of American immigrants. He is a former settler leader in the West Bank, then became a defense minister. And he's a hard-right politician. In 2018, for instance, he said that he would want to see Israel embrace a shoot-to-kill policy toward Palestinians who try to cross from Gaza into Israel. He's always wanted to be prime minister. He only got about a 5% of the vote in his last elections, but because of the Israeli parliamentary system - very complex - but that still makes him a kingmaker.

MARTIN: But would you have any sense of what kind of government would it be if he's successful? Like, what direction would it take Israel? How would it affect the fate of the Palestinians?

ESTRIN: This would be a diverse group of parties coming together. We're talking of right-wing parties, left wing, even likely an Arab party, which would be a first in Israel - to have an Arab party actually actively joining a coalition or that a government would be formed dependent on them. And it would be a power-sharing agreement. So Naftali Bennett would be rotating as prime minister. First, he would be prime minister and then would let a centrist politician, Yair Lapid, take the helm.

This government, though, would not change much in terms of policy. Because it is such a diverse group of of parties, the right-wing side and the left-wing side would have vetoes on the other side, on big questions like the ideologies and the fate of the West Bank. Should Israel give up land? Should they talk with the Palestinians toward a peace deal? Naftali Bennett today said that he promised a new government would not give up land or not dismantle settlements in the West Bank and would launch military campaigns if necessary. But the big existential issues, Michel, will remain the same. The goal here is just one thing, to try to boot out Netanyahu.

MARTIN: I do want to acknowledge that there was just a war between Israel and Gaza. Did that affect Netanyahu's chances of staying in office?

ESTRIN: It seems like the conflict did not impact things much. Israelis don't see much of a change. People here don't really see it as victory on Israel's side. Instead, they see all the strife that has been ignited among Arab and Jewish citizens within Israel in recent weeks, and Bennett criticized Netanyahu for that lack of law and order.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, Daniel, what is Netanyahu saying, if anything, about the prospect of him leaving office? And is he trying to do anything to prevent that?

ESTRIN: He warns that this alternative government would be a leftist, dangerous government to the security of Israel. So he'll try, perhaps, to lure members of other parties to form a government with him instead. We have a few more days to see whether a Wednesday deadline will be met to form a new government. The parliament has a week after that to give its vote of confidence. That gives Netanyahu several more days to try to prevent this.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thank you so much.

ESTRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.