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In Israel, elections are coming up more than a year sooner than scheduled. The vote will be September 4th. This weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the new elections, saying he wants to renew his mandate and broaden his coalition. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has the story from Tel Aviv.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: This was one of the most stable coalitions for years here, but because of both international and domestic considerations, Benjamin Netanyahu called for a new vote.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Addressing his Likud party on Sunday, Netanyahu expressed confidence that he would be re-elected; saying, quote, "I believe we will get a new mandate. God willing, we will form as wide a government as possible, and continue to lead the state of Israel." Campaign hubris aside, he's right to be optimistic. Recent polls show Netanyahu's party winning big.
Political analyst Tamir Sheafer, from Hebrew University, says Netanyahu himself is also popular, and one of the reasons is his strong stance on Iran and its controversial nuclear program.
TAMIR SHEAFER: Netanyahu is doing very well in keeping the Iranian issue on the agenda. And in - as long as this issue is on the agenda, people will vote for Netanyahu's government.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that is despite the criticism that several former Israeli intelligence chiefs have recently heaped on his aggressive posture on Iran. If Netanyahu's premiership has been marked by anything, it's by an absence of a peace process with the Palestinians. But, says Tamar Hermann from Tel Aviv University, the Jewish Israeli electorate doesn't seem to care. And that's also worked in his favor.
TAMAR HERMANN: The Palestinian issue is a nonissue right now, as far as the Israeli domestic debate is concerned. We did several rounds of polling recently. It comes fourth or fifth.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tamar says what the average Israeli is worried about is the economy. Even though Israel has managed to weather the international downturn relatively well, the cost of living here has skyrocketed. That issue has polled as the number one concern among Jewish voters. Netanyahu has struggled with this issue, and his rivals hope to use it to win seats.
DANIEL BEN SIMON: More and more Israelis are looking into Israeli society - the question of equality among Israelis, social justice, solidarity.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Daniel Ben Simon, a member of the Knesset from the left-leaning Labor Party. A few years ago, Labor was being written off as a relic. Now, the party has largely abandoned its pro-peace rhetoric, and is singing the tune of social change.
SIMON: We will have to cut the defense budget. We will have to give more to the population. There is growth in Israel. The money is not going the right way.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a message that is resonating after last summer's social protest movement here. Another key issue is what role the ultra-Orthodox will play in society. There is a clamor for them to do military service and receive less government support. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's party, which is staunchly secular, is pushing that onto the agenda, as is newcomer to the political scene Yair Lapid, a former TV host.
The only group that doesn't seem to have a clear message is Kadima, the party of former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. It's dropped dramatically in the polls after the ouster of Tzipi Livni as party chief. But, warns political analyst Tamir Sheafer, 15 to 20 percent of the Israeli electorate hasn't made up its mind yet on who they'll vote fo. So things are sure to change.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Tel Aviv.
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