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Israel coalition agrees to dissolve and hold early elections

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Israeli voters are heading to the polls again. In a joint statement released today, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid say they have agreed to hold a vote next week to dissolve parliament and hold early elections, quote, "after exhausting the efforts to stabilize the coalition." NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You must be having a sense of deja vu right now. You have reported on many elections in Israel. What happened this time?

ESTRIN: That's right. I mean, this was the most diverse Israeli governing coalition in history. It lasted just about a year, and it just could not hold together. This was a very unlikely partnership of right-wing religious Jewish nationalists. There were left-wing lawmakers, pro-Palestinian lawmakers. There was a secular party headed by a gay politician and a conservative Muslim party that ran on an anti-LGBTQ platform. So they stuck together because they didn't want Benjamin Netanyahu to stay in office, but they didn't really agree on much else.

And in recent months, some of Naftali Bennett's right-wing allies withdrew their support for this coalition. The final straw was actually about one of Israel's most controversial topics - settlers in the occupied West Bank. There were not enough votes to renew some legal protections for settlers, rights that Palestinians don't have. These legal rights have to be renewed every few years, and they expire in just ten days. And so on TV today, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER NAFTALI BENNETT: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said if these rights aren't renewed for settlers, Israel will endure heavy security damage and chaos that he could not allow. So he's stepping down. Parliament dissolves, and these settler protections will be frozen in place.

SHAPIRO: As you know, this is the fifth Israeli election in just over three years. I'm thinking of that quote about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. What does this say about Israeli politics right now?

ESTRIN: I mean, I think that's very apt. It resurrects Israel's political crisis. The country is polarized. And Benjamin Netanyahu plays a huge role here. He has a strong base, but he faces corruption charges. And we saw again and again in elections he doesn't have enough support to form a government, but neither does the opposition. The big question is, can Netanyahu return to power? He's going to try. He has framed the failure of this government on its partnership with an Arab party. He calls it terror supporters, which is a slur. And so I think a major question in these elections are going to be, will Arab-Jewish political partnership and even more equality for Arab citizens be possible in the future?

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, President Biden is scheduled to visit next month. Is that going to go forward, and can anything be accomplished under these circumstances?

ESTRIN: The U.S. embassy says their working assumption is that the trip is still going forward. Israel does have some hopes for this trip. They hope that Israel and the U.S. can build an alliance with Arab countries to confront Iran. But you know what? If President Biden does come to Israel as planned, he'll just be meeting a different prime minister, the future prime minister, Yair Lapid.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv reporting on another Israeli election. Thank you, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.