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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Fights To Stay In Office

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling to stay in office. An upcoming vote in Parliament could usher in a new prime minister, and Netanyahu is urging his supporters to pressure lawmakers not to approve the new government. There are protests and even concerns of possible violence, as NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It's nighttime in the city of Petach Tikva, and about a hundred Israelis are standing in a parking lot outside a lawmaker's house.

NIR ORBACH: (Speaking in Hebrew).

ESTRIN: This man with the microphone is saying - Nir Orbach - come to your senses; don't support this government with terror supporters.

ORBACH: (Speaking in Hebrew).

ESTRIN: This lawmaker, Nir Orbach, is a right-wing religious Jewish nationalist. His small party got only 6% of the vote but is about to lead a government and partner with their political opposites, left-wing Jews and religious conservative Muslims. Honey Barel is here demonstrating.

Would this government be legitimate?

HONEY BAREL: From my side, no, no way.

ESTRIN: If this new government succeeds, the prime minister would be conservative Naftali Bennett. Some of his voters see him partnering with left-wing and Arab lawmakers and feel cheated. Ron Cohen says partnering with dovish and Arab lawmakers would restrain Israel's army.

RON COHEN: This time we had a war with Hamas, a small war. What will happen when you have a war with Iran, Hezbollah, Jordania (ph), Syria? It will be existential.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: The guy's saying, leftist traitors.

Leftist traitors - that's become a familiar epithet for anyone who doesn't side with Netanyahu. The rhetoric is intense because the stakes are high. The emerging government has a razor-thin majority. If just one lawmaker decides to leave, there's no new government, so right-wing protesters are gathering outside right-wing lawmakers' homes to apply pressure.

SHAUL FARBER: And in the background, you can hear the protests going on just next to me.

ESTRIN: We call Rabbi Shaul Farber, originally from New York. He lives on Bennett's block, and Bennett used to attend his Orthodox synagogue.

FARBER: My congregation is completely divided whether this next government might be a good thing or a bad thing for Israel.

ESTRIN: Rabbi Farber supports the emerging government and even advised some of its party leaders. But other rabbis, prominent hard-line conservatives, have called this new government a threat to Israel's security. Netanyahu has said the same. Rabbi Farber is worried about the rhetoric.

FARBER: To equate left with rebel is inappropriate in the best sense and, actually, can lead to much worse in the worst sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARAK RAVID: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: On local radio, Israeli journalist Barak Ravid compared it to the January 6 Capitol insurrection. He accused Netanyahu of stoking tension to prevent the peaceful transition of power. And the chief of Israel's domestic security service is warning of potential politically motivated violence. This demonstration was not violent, but it was tense.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

ESTRIN: OK, it looks like these are counterdemonstrators holding signs, and these guys are chasing them away, calling them leftist traitors.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

ESTRIN: But the thing is, the ones we met aren't from the left; they're also from the right. They're just ready for Netanyahu to step aside. Shlomo Sanders was one of those chased away. He says Netanyahu has a role in this.

SHLOMO SANDERS: Look; I don't know how dangerous these guys are. Next one will come with a gun, and then what? He'll say, I didn't know? I didn't call for them?

ESTRIN: Neighbor Pnina Weiss hopes a new government will end this divisiveness.

PNINA WEISS: The people standing here are for unity. It's not right; it's not left. It's not Jews; it's not Arabs. It's not religion. It is - what sort of state do we want to live in?

ESTRIN: The new government could be voted in within the coming days, and protesters will stay in the streets, hoping just one lawmaker will flip and help keep Netanyahu in power.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Petach Tikvah, Israel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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