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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Is Mostly Absent In Israeli Election Campaign

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Israelis are headed to the polls Tuesday for elections for parliament. From the West Bank, NPR's Daniel Estrin reports that one of the big issues facing the country, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is not a major issue on the ballot. And yet the vote will most certainly affect Palestinians.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Metal barricades encircle Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence as demonstrators gather every weekend for the last nine months demanding he leave. Netanyahu has been in office for 12 straight years, longer than any other Israeli leader. Now he's on trial for corruption. But Bibi, as he's called, will not resign. Noah Rubin is an urban planner.

NOAH RUBIN: No more Bibi. That's what we all talk about. So we have no time to think of anything else. Of course I have - you know, I have my political views. I want peace. I'm - you know, I'm left-wing. I want, you know, better conditions for my Arab neighbors. But we need to make this change first. We need to change our prime minister. We need to make a radical change in our politics.

ESTRIN: Last year, right-wing Netanyahu campaigned on a promise of annexing the occupied West Bank, a move Palestinians and most countries opposed. Instead, Netanyahu pivoted to new diplomatic agreements with Arab countries. And now...

CAMIL FUCHS: That is not an issue in the election. No one wants to touch it.

ESTRIN: Pollster Camil Fuchs.

FUCHS: Everybody has an opinion about the Palestinian issue. But when we ask how important it is in your decision for whom to vote, very little. People say that we have other things to deal with.

ESTRIN: The election does impact Palestinians, and you see it in the West Bank in the way candidates are campaigning for the votes of Israeli settlers there.

So now we're driving along the main highway in the Israeli-occupied West Bank - Palestinian villages on either side of the road and election posters for Netanyahu and for his right-wing competitors.

The other day, Netanyahu visited a small West Bank outpost, one of more than 100 Israeli settlements built without government permission, and he vowed to legalize them if he's reelected.

ABDULLAH HAJJ MOHAMMED: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: We visit Abdullah Hajj Mohammed, Palestinian mayor of Jalud. He takes us to the edge of his village, where Israelis have built homes on the nearby hilltops. Some are even advertised on Airbnb. We see the burn marks where he says settlers sneaked into the village at night and torched a Palestinian's car several days ago.

MOHAMMED: (Through interpreter) What concerns me and is more important than anything for me is Israeli elections. To me, my concern is the coming of a rightist government that would legalize these outposts and increase the siege around our villages.

ESTRIN: He cannot vote in the Israeli elections to decide the fate of the land he lives on. He could cast a vote in Palestinian elections his leaders promised this spring, but he doesn't see how that will make things better. The last Palestinian elections 16 years ago led to bloody infighting. Many Palestinians had placed hope in the new Biden administration to reign in whoever wins the Israeli elections and stop Israeli settlement expansion, but Mayor Mohammed doesn't think that'll happen.

MOHAMMED: (Through interpreter) I think Biden will not be able to impact anything in the West Bank because they've already established a status quo regarding the settlements and the outposts.

ESTRIN: We pause to watch a bright orange bulldozer at work, clearing land for more building in the neighboring settlement. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jalud, the West Bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.