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Will the far right rise to power in Israel's election? Here's what to know

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks from a modified truck during a campaign event in Hadera, Israel, on Oct. 6. Israel will hold a national election Tuesday, after its coalition government collapsed in June.
Amir Levy
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Getty Images
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks from a modified truck during a campaign event in Hadera, Israel, on Oct. 6. Israel will hold a national election Tuesday, after its coalition government collapsed in June.

TEL AVIV — Benjamin Netanyahu, ousted as Israel's prime minister last year, is trying to stage a comeback.

As Israelis head to elections Tuesday — for the fifth time in three years — they face the very same question of all the previous votes: whether the populist leader of Israel's right wing, on trial for corruption, should lead the country.

Haven't we been here before? Many voters seem to think so. The past four elections did not change much in Israel's sustained political gridlock.

This time around, though, commentators caution against apathy.

"There is an almost intolerable gap between the repulsive boredom these elections elicited from the moment they were announced, and their enormous potential for destruction," writes Ravit Hecht in the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz.

A frontrunner in the race, Netanyahu is allied with Israel's most far-right politicians in a quest to subdue the Arab community, take more control over the justice system and — critics fear — to dismiss his corruption trial.

Here are some possible outcomes in the Nov. 1 election.

Netanyahu is close to forming a coalition with the far right

The coalition that replaced Netanyahu last year was narrow and ideologically diverse. It fell apart this year over policy disagreements.

Public opinion polls consistently show Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party and ultra-Orthodox Jewish and far-right parties just shy of the 61 seats they need for a majority coalition in the 120-seat parliament.

From left, far-right Israeli lawmakers Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power party, and Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, attend a rally with supporters in Sderot, Israel, last Wednesday.
Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
From left, far-right Israeli lawmakers Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Jewish Power party, and Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, attend a rally with supporters in Sderot, Israel, last Wednesday.

If Netanyahu's bloc of parties manages to win 61 seats, Netanyahu would become prime minister. He has promised to appoint far-right figures as key Cabinet ministers, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has become the most influential right-wing figure in Israel besides Netanyahu.

A far-right activist with roots in an outlawed extremist movement, Ben-Gvir was previously convicted for supporting terrorism by calling for Arabs to be expelled. Today, he calls to exile those Arabs he deems to be actively against Israel, including Arab lawmakers.

The U.S. pro-Israel group AIPAC continues to shun him and his Jewish Power party, which it has called "racist and reprehensible." But Netanyahu's Likud party says Ben-Gvir has become more moderate.

"We need someone like Ben-Gvir, with his power of deterrence," says Netanyahu supporter Ortal Shlomo from Ofakim, a blue-collar town in Israel's south. "He has moderated from his extremism. We need him just as he is ... He will cause them to go back into the holes where they came from — the Arabs."

Netanyahu and his allies want to subdue the justice system

Another senior Netanyahu ally, the pro-settler, anti-LGBTQ Bezalel Smotrich, has proposed a raft of new laws to strip the justice system of some of its powers, including overriding the Supreme Court — known for ruling in favor of Palestinian and minority rights — and changing the criminal code, which would drop the charges of fraud and breach of trust from Netanyahu's corruption trial.

Netanyahu's goal in returning to office, his critics argue, is to manipulate the justice system in order to drag out or cancel his trial.

"He truly believes that while in power he can do the best in order to avoid his trial ending up in a guilty verdict," says Hebrew University politics professor Reuven Chazan. "For that reason, I think he is dangerous to Israeli democracy."

Alternatively, Netanyahu might be able to ditch the far-right and convince some of his moderate right-wing political opponents to partner with him instead. Those defectors would tell their voters they had to partner with Netanyahu in order to save the country from the far-right.

The best the center-left might get is a stalemate

Centrist Defense Minister Benny Gantz is also seen as a possible prime minister candidate who could break the impasse and form a coalition with elements of both pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu camps.

What doesn't seem likely is an outright win for the anti-Netanyahu bloc of parties — a hodgepodge of moderate right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties. Some are ideologically opposed to each other and would refuse to sit together in a coalition.

The best that current centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid might be able to hope for is a stalemate. Polls show this is a likely outcome, one that would keep Lapid in office as a caretaker prime minister for several more months — before yet another round of elections.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, chairs a Cabinet meeting to approve the U.S.-brokered deal setting a maritime border between Israel and Lebanon, at in Jerusalem last Thursday.
Ronen Zvulun / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, chairs a Cabinet meeting to approve the U.S.-brokered deal setting a maritime border between Israel and Lebanon, at in Jerusalem last Thursday.

What is not being debated in this election is Israel's policies toward the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Human rights groups accuse Israel of practicing apartheid against Palestinians. Unlike Netanyahu, Lapid believes in creating an eventual Palestinian state, but that is not in the offing in the near future.

Both men support Israel's ongoing military campaign in the West Bank, which has included partial blockades on Palestinian areas, nighttime arrest raids and clashes with Palestinian militants and civilians throwing stones, resulting in the deadliest year for Palestinians in the territory in many years. Palestinian attackers killed at least 25 Israeli civilians and soldiers this year as well.

This may be Netanyahu's last chance for a comeback

If 73-year-old Netanyahu doesn't win this election, it will be the fifth election in a row he loses. In that case, some in his party could defect — leaving it harder for him to return to office ever again.

Supporters of Israel's Likud leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a campaign rally in Tirat Carmel, Israel, last Tuesday.
Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of Israel's Likud leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a campaign rally in Tirat Carmel, Israel, last Tuesday.

"I believe we might see significant figures from the Likud leaving the party and establishing a coalition with other parties," Ariel Kahana, a journalist with the traditionally pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom, told the Jerusalem Press Club.

At a recent campaign rally, Netanyahu told his supporters, "We are so close to victory." The message was optimistic, but this may be his last chance at a comeback.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.