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Israelis Brace For Yet Another Election


We're going to head to Israel now, where for a second time this year, leaders fail to form a government. Now they've called for what will be an unprecedented third election in less than a year. And around the country, people are trying to figure out whether they can settle things this time. Naomi Zeveloff reports from Tel Aviv.

NAOMI ZEVELOFF, BYLINE: Here in Tel Aviv's furniture district, the country's divisions are playing out in an argument between co-workers.

DAVID ZACHARIA: (Speaking Hebrew).

ZEVELOFF: "It's Bibi's ego," says David Zacharia, using the nickname for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He says that Netanyahu's ego is stopping him from stepping down over corruption charges. But his co-worker disagrees.

ASHER BEN SHUSHAN: (Speaking Hebrew).

ZEVELOFF: "I think as long as he's not proven guilty, he can do everything," says Asher Ben Shushan. He says Netanyahu has the right to stay in power.

ZACHARIA: (Speaking Hebrew).

BEN SHUSHAN: (Speaking Hebrew).

ZEVELOFF: The two continue to go back and forth. Zacharia says Netanyahu already had the chance to defend himself in a hearing. Ben Shushan says he hasn't been convicted yet.

The prime minister's legal woes are more than fodder for debate. They are one part of the story of why Israelis will be returning to the ballot box for the third time in less than a year. Netanyahu lacks the support in parliament to form a government. So does his main rival, Benny Gantz. The two leaders could make a stable coalition together, but Gantz has resisted partnering with Netanyahu over his corruption charges. Political wrangling aside, the impasse is a symptom of deeper issues.

REUVEN HAZAN: Israeli society is very much split down the middle.

ZEVELOFF: That's Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He says that another election isn't going to change the left-right divide. But that doesn't mean Israel will be stuck in election mode forever. Looking ahead, there are new factors at play.

Gantz is in a stronger position now that his co-leader gave up on a power-sharing agreement. That left Gantz as the sole head of the Blue and White Party. Netanyahu is facing a challenge from within his own party. Another politician wants to replace him as the head of Likud. The charges against Netanyahu will no doubt play a role. Again, here's Hazan.

HAZAN: We could see an election campaign that will end up with very, very different results or with slightly different results, which could be enough.

ZEVELOFF: For now, the political deadlock is more than just a social divide. It's sidelining other issues like the Israeli occupation and Palestinian rights. The standstill is also affecting the day-to-day lives of Israelis. Gabriela Attias-Glustein works at a government-funded startup that she says stopped getting support. Israel's caretaker government can only make limited decisions.

GABRIELA ATTIAS-GLUSTEIN: We have had no funding from them for half a year already, so it's definitely affecting our development.

ZEVELOFF: She believes the funds will soon be reinstated. But many others will have to wait until the new government is up and running.

Meanwhile, Israel is gearing up for what Hazan predicts will be one of the most polarizing election campaigns in the country's history. Outside the furniture store, I asked the two workers what it was like to have a colleague on the opposite side of the divide.

ZACHARIA: (Speaking Hebrew).

ZEVELOFF: David Zacharia, who supports Gantz, says, "it's a democratic country. People think differently from each other." But Asher Ben Shushan, who supports Netanyahu, strikes a dismissive tone.

ZACHARIA: (Speaking Hebrew).

ZEVELOFF: He says his co-worker has been brainwashed by the media. Israel's third election will be March 2.

For NPR News, I'm Naomi Zeveloff in Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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