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Prime Minister Netanyahu's Political Fate Remains Unclear After Conflict In Israel

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The fighting between Hamas and Israel came as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was already struggling to stay in office. He's facing charges of corruption and the results of another deadlocked election. The conflict reminded people of his record as a hard-line defender of Israel. But NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Jerusalem his political fate is still unclear.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In early May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political career was on the ropes. The last four Israeli parliamentary elections ended in deadlock, and a coalition was looking to oust him from power. Anshel Pfeffer, the author of the book "Bibi: The Turbulent Life And Times Of Benjamin Netanyahu", says on May 10, a key meeting was scheduled among the opposition parties.

ANSHEL PFEFFER: And if that meeting would have gone well, perhaps even in that week, there would already have been a new government replacing Netanyahu. But the meeting was canceled because of the situation.

NORTHAM: Instead, the war with Hamas broke out, raging for 11 days before a cease-fire was called. The conflict froze efforts to remove Netanyahu. As so many times in his political career, he survived to fight another day. Ghassan Khatib, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank, says the conflict could have worked in Netanyahu's favor politically.

GHASSAN KHATIB: He wanted to come out of this confrontation powerful enough because he is assuming that there is a chance that he goes for a fifth election.

NORTHAM: Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst and public opinion researcher in Tel Aviv, says the Gaza crisis allowed the right-wing Netanyahu to highlight his image as Mr. Security.

DAHLIA SCHEINDLIN: Netanyahu tends to benefit from any sort of security crisis, anything that has to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalations, broader Middle East security threats.

NORTHAM: So you would think the latest conflict with Hamas would boost Netanyahu's standing with voters. Scheindlin says recent polls show that isn't the case.

SCHEINDLIN: I haven't seen any political earthquake yet. It hasn't caused any major change yet in electoral dynamics, as far as we can see.

NORTHAM: Scheindlin says many voters on the left and right are disenchanted with Netanyahu. They see him as corrupt and divisive. Anshel Pfeffer says there's also something he calls Bibi fatigue after 12 years in office.

PFEFFER: Netanyahu's whole way of dominating the Israeli political scene is constantly controlling the news agenda and constantly making it about not allowing one news cycle to pass in which he's not somehow the dominant figure. And it's very tiring.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: Wandering through the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem is a sensory overload - the heady scent of spices, the calls of the vegetable sellers and savory lunches of hummus and eggplant. This market is also a traditional stronghold for Likud, the right-wing party Netanyahu leads. But still, a shopper, Eli Friedman (ph), who lives in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, says it's time for Netanyahu to go.

ELI FRIEDMAN: I've had enough of him. Twelve years - it's enough. The last 12 years - I don't want to continue.

NORTHAM: But Netanyahu has faced many challenges in the past and emerged victorious. About one quarter of Israelis form an unshakable core base for him, which counts for a lot in Israel's divided politics. Another shopper, Eli Marad (ph), says Netanyahu did a great job curbing COVID in Israel, and he reached a peace accord with several Arab nations. Marad says left-leaning progressives just won't cut Netanyahu a break.

ELI MARAD: (Through interpreter) The problem here is that you have the left in this country, and whatever he will do, they'll go against him. If he goes and buys a pair of shoes, they would go against him.

NORTHAM: And pollster Scheindlin says Netanyahu is a highly skilled politician.

SCHEINDLIN: He's in a very tenuous position as to whether he can actually continue in political life. And I think that he is an extremely strategic political thinker with one goal, and that is to stay in political power.

NORTHAM: Negotiations on forming the next government are ongoing. And if they fail, it could mean another election. But in the meantime, Netanyahu stays in office. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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