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Israel's prime minister announces he's stepping down, sparking new elections

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Israel is calling new elections. And if you're thinking, wait - didn't that just happen? - that's because it did. And now for the fifth time in just over three years, Israelis will head back to the polls. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is stepping down, putting an end to Israel's most ideologically diverse coalition government ever. These elections could also see the return of one of former President Donald Trump's closest allies, Benjamin Netanyahu. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv. Good morning.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So, Daniel, this coalition - it had been teetering for a while. What's led to its collapse?

ESTRIN: You know, its days were numbered from day one. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's own party members, right-wing Jewish nationalists, did not like the diverse governing coalition that he put together. They did not like partnering with an Arab party. And it was the first time in history that an Arab party helped form a coalition in Israel. They didn't like partnering with left-wing and centrist parties, which were trying to challenge the role of Orthodox Judaism in public life. And so Bennett's allies were withdrawing their support for the coalition one after the other. It reached the point where the government didn't even have enough votes to renew legal rights for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank. That would have caused major controversy. And so Bennett saw the writing on the wall. His government was collapsing. And so he's handing over power to centrist Yair Lapid. And elections will be held in a few months.

FADEL: Now, I imagine there's some voter fatigue with people going to the polls. We said five times just over three years. How are Israelis reacting to the collapse of this government?

ESTRIN: Well, think about it from the perspective of Israelis who really wanted this government to last more than just one year.

FADEL: Yeah.

ESTRIN: I met some drinking their morning coffee today. One man, Michael Raphael, told me he was part of these massive street protests against then-Prime Minister Netanyahu. Centrists, leftists - they were going to the streets. They wanted the right-wing leader out of power after more than a decade. And they finally got what they wanted. Here is what he said.

MICHAEL RAPHAEL: There was a momentum. And it seemed like things are changing. And it seems that people wanted change. And now it feels like it all petered out. And where did that all go? Where did all that energy go? I think it's just people are just exhausted after four years of this elections and changes and things and back and forth and a war.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And corona.

RAPHAEL: And corona. And I think just people just feel like they just want to run away.

ESTRIN: Now, at that cafe, a guy sitting next to him, Amir Aghbaria, is part of the 20% of Israel's citizens who are Arab. And he said, you know what? Discrimination, violence against Arabs continued this last year. He sees no difference who leads the government, Bibi Netanyahu or Naftali Bennett.

AMIR AGHBARIA: Bibi or Bennett, it's same for Arabic people. It's only talk. Nothing change. All the time, people die. All the time, kill people. Wherever you go in Israel, no security for Arabic because you are Arabic. That's it.

ESTRIN: Now, the right wing in Israel, Leila, is happy for another chance to form a right-wing nationalist government. And Netanyahu will try.

FADEL: Now, if Benjamin Netanyahu runs for office again, is he still popular among voters? How is he viewed?

ESTRIN: Well, you know, this is a polarized country. And once again, the elections will be about him. It's unclear if he can break a stalemate, the one that he faced in the last four elections. A recent poll has his party coming in first, but he's still on corruption trial. Many voters are sick of him. It depends if the left wing and Arab parties will get enough votes to tip the scales.

FADEL: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv, thank you.

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