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Netanyahu Maintains Focus On Iran As His Voter Support Falls


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Israelis hold national elections this Tuesday in a high-stakes race that is too close to call. It's a parliamentary system. Voters don't directly elect a prime minister but choose parties to fill seats. But as NPR's Emily Harris reports, this vote looks like a referendum on the leader of the right wing Likud Party incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, known by most as Bibi.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Twenty-two-year-old Joni Sadon knows who he'll vote for.

JONI SADON: Bibi Netanyahu.

HARRIS: Why? Sadon says Netanyahu knows security, and he just has a good feeling about the prime minister.

SADON: I don't know. I just feel he's the right man to lead us. You know, Bibi Netanyahu is the king. King Bibi.

HARRIS: Elections this Tuesday could dethrone Netanyahu. He's led Israel for the past six years, plus was prime minister for one term in the 1990s. But polls show support for him and his center right Likud Party falling. Some voters are leaning away from Netanyahu reluctantly like electrician Shai Lugassi, who worries about the economy.

SHAI LUGASSI: (Through interpreter) I've always voted for Bibi, but I feel like he's been in for a long time. And we need a change.

HARRIS: Others are pushing to see Netanyahu go, like venture capitalist Aaron Menkovski. He is not impressed with the prime minister's efforts to secure Israel from the threat of Iran. He's more worried about rockets coming from Gaza.

AARON MENKOVSKI: For the first time ever in his tenure, we got rockets to Tel Aviv. So we have problem, which is much closer before we get to Iran. And he have done nothing on Iran as well, other than talk.


HARRIS: Menkovski was in the crowd at an anti-Netanyahu in Tel Aviv last weekend. On the podium was Meir Dagan, one of a large group of former top Israeli security officials who have been publicly criticizing Netanyahu. Dagan had harsh words only.


MEIR DAGAN: (Through interpreter) For six consecutive years, Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled as Prime Minister; six years in which Israel has never been more stuck. We deserve a leadership that will stop creating fear and improve our lives.

HARRIS: Netanyahu's campaign has focused on security. In one ad, parents are waiting for a babysitter when Netanyahu shows up. He introduces himself as the Bibisitter, someone Israeli's can trust contrast with their kids.



HARRIS: But is Israeli pollster Camil Fuchs says some voters have changed their minds about what really makes them secure, especially after Netanyahu criticized President Obama's Iran policy in a controversial speech to Congress.

CAMIL FUCHS: People say, OK, his speeches are perfect and very convincing. But what we get now, it is a sense that maybe, in the security issue, Netanyahu doesn't do only good, but he may do damage in losing America.

HARRIS: In this campaign, Netanyahu has emphasized his efforts against Iran much more than his efforts to reach some kind of peace agreements with Palestinians. Udi Segal covers diplomacy for Israel's Channel 2. He says upheaval in the mid-east, from the Arab spring to ISIS, dampened any interest Netanyahu may have had for a deal with the Palestinians.

UDI SEGAL: If I want to characterize his policy in the last five years, it simply is bunker in.

HARRIS: Netanyahu might be betting that bunkering in is a good way to win this election. Many Israelis are satisfied with the status quo on security. And with no party expected to get a majority in parliament, Netanyahu's Likud could finish behind opponents to the left but still find partners for a new government he would lead.


NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

HARRIS: In last minute campaign TV interviews, Netanyahu warned of the, quote, "danger" if his center left opponents took power. Netanyahu advisor Dore Gold says the prime minister's focus on Iran may not resonate with all Israeli voters. But the messages of great leaders don't always, Gold says.

DORE GOLD: Winston Churchill won World War II and was voted out of office. So not everyone is thinking about foreign security policy. I think the prime minister will have a tough fight to get reelected. But I think he has done what he believes is the right thing.

HARRIS: Netanyahu hopes the right thing for Israeli voters is to give him a fourth term. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.