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Netanyahu Faces Primary Challenge

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a test today in his struggle to remain in power. His right-wing Likud Party is holding a primary vote, and he is facing a serious challenger. Plus, Netanyahu - let's remember - is under indictment for corruption. Even with a win today, the results might show whether Netanyahu is strong or weak heading into March elections.

NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us from Jerusalem. And Daniel, you've been out at the polls. What are people feeling like?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, I heard a lot of only Bibi, only Bibi - that's Netanyahu's nickname. I was at a poll in Jerusalem. And only one woman I met seemed to be voting for his challenger, Gideon Saar. She didn't even want to say it out loud, it seems, because Netanyahu's supporters were all around. I heard one of them calling Saar a traitor for challenging Netanyahu. But still, several of Netanyahu's supporters I met did acknowledge that, you know, Bibi Netanyahu won't be around forever. They just don't want him to leave quite yet. Listen to this voter, Deborah Adlit (ph).

DEBORAH ADLIT: He's not only the best; he's just the only one that can really take Israel to the next step.

ESTRIN: And why not Saar?

ADLIT: Gideon Saar, I think that he can be after Bibi - after the Bibi time. But it's not - it is still Bibi time.

ESTRIN: So she's saying it's still Bibi time. But that's the question. Is this still Bibi time? His challenger, Gideon Saar, says no, not anymore.

GREENE: It's amazing. That one question kind of captures the big, looming question over the whole country. Is it still Bibi time or not? So he's - Netanyahu the longest-serving prime minister. Can you tell me more about Saar, who's kind of stepped up to challenge him within the party?

ESTRIN: He's a former cabinet minister, a young face. And he's not challenging Netanyahu as a leader. He says Netanyahu is a great leader but that he simply can't win. He couldn't achieve a victory despite two elections this past year. So Gideon Saar is saying, why should Netanyahu be expected to win a third national election that's coming up in March?

Saar says if he heads the Likud Party, that right-wing party will remain in power. And he'll be able to break up the political deadlock in Israel and form a coalition with the Likud's rivals, the centrist party.

GREENE: OK. So even if he does win this primary, he's facing indictment. I mean, do we know how much longer he could stay prime minister?

ESTRIN: Well, that's the big question. I mean, Netanyahu is going into these primaries trying to show major, major support. I mean, listen to some of the campaign rallies that he was at this week. He had incredible support. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED NETANYAHU SUPPORTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

ESTRIN: "Netanyahu," they're saying, "I love you." And the crowd is chanting - calling him king of Israel and a magician. So you know, Netanyahu is coming at this saying, I am embattled; you know, I'm facing charges, criminal charges, but the judiciary is out to get me; the media is out to get me. So he's trying to say to his supporters, come out and fight for me at the primaries.

Of course, this is the question. How long will he actually stay - stick around in office? Anything can happen, David. I mean, he's facing criminal charges. The Supreme Court may rule that he cannot run for reelection. But if he goes to these March elections and there is no clear winner again for a third time, it may force his centrist party challengers to compromise and form a government with him.

So he is definitely weakened. But there is a difference between being weak and being out of there. And he's still there, and he's still managing to hold on.

GREENE: NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting from Jerusalem. Daniel, thanks.

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