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Netanyahu Speech: The View From Israel

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Benjamin Netanyahu may be in Washington, but he's present here in Israel, too. You see his face on campaign posters and billboards. He's appearing also in Internet ads promising strength he says his opponents cannot deliver. His re-election campaign is of course one big reason the speech in Washington is so controversial. So we've been asking what Israelis are thinking about their prime minister. And we're joined now by NPR's Emily Harris who is based here in Jerusalem. Hi, Emily.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. It's so great you're here.

INSKEEP: We're here in a lovely stone courtyard. And let me just ask - his critics have said this speech is an election ploy. So what is the political effect of Netanyahu going to Washington right now?

HARRIS: Some of it is going to depend on what he says. The big political question in Israelis' mind is not so much about what he's going to say about Iran because his stance on Iran is well, well known in Israel. And most Israelis agree that Iran is a threat that Israel needs to take very, very seriously.

But the speech since the beginning raised a lot of concerns in Israel about the relationship with the United States, and if that will sour, and if it does how deeply - not just tensions with the Obama White House, but also if Israel becomes a partisan issue in Congress, many Israelis will see that as a negative.

INSKEEP: Of course we have the partisan situation in Washington and the partisan situation here in Israel. Has Netanyahu made this election essentially about Iran, about national security issues by doing this?

HARRIS: Certainly about national security issues. The message on Iran, like I'm saying, is not going to significantly change people's views here because they already know what he's going to say, unless he has some surprises. And there's been some hints that he may say some things that were new. We'll have to see. But he has definitely tried to make security the issue in this campaign and remind Israeli voters that bottom line - no matter what their concerns about the economy are, or relationships with the United States, or diplomatic relationships, whatever - the bottom line is the neighborhood and the threats to Israel. And that's where he finds his strength.

INSKEEP: What would Israelis be talking about in this election season if they weren't talking about security?

HARRIS: They are talking about some other things. The economy is a big one. Housing prices are very, very high here. It's very difficult for young people to buy an apartment. That's a concern. The economy is difficult to be successful in, and there's a concern of a brain drain here. But there are other issues of concern as well. Israel is increasingly finding tensions within itself between, for example, religious communities and secular communities - the issue of Israel's relationships. The Palestinians isn't playing a huge role in this election, although the left has made it clear they will be trying to restart negotiations. And it's not clear if Netanyahu stays in power what the path forward will be.

INSKEEP: You said something there about Israelis concerned about their identity or the future of the country. What do you mean?

HARRIS: Israel is a really diverse place, even if you just look at the Jewish population, which is over 70 percent, close to 80 percent of the population - in Israel, proper Israeli citizens. There are Jewish people from many different cultures around the world. Increasingly, there's a rich-poor gap in Israel. And within also the Jewish population, there are really different religious streams. And there are concerns among secular groups that the religious Rabbinate controls too many personal freedoms still. There's lots of froth and churn within the Israeli society itself. Twenty percent of the population is Arab, Israeli citizens, and so that is also part of the mix of this country. So there's a lot of things that keep Israelis concerned simply about their own future, even when you don't start taking into consideration the neighborhood.

INSKEEP: So is this a moment of severe anxiety for this country you've covered the last couple years?

HARRIS: You know, Prime Minister Netanyahu has focused a lot of the anxiety around Iran with his congressional speech and everything. And Iran is definitely a source of anxiety for Israelis. They see it as a very real threat and something that Israel's politicians need to and they expect will take care of. But there are some other anxieties here. One, as we talked about, is the economy. Another that I've heard mostly political analyst types talk about is this question of stability of governance in Israel. It is a coalition system, which is different from the United States' system.

INSKEEP: Nobody ever wins a majority in parliamentary setting, in the Knesset.

HARRIS: No one - in recent years, no one has won a majority in the Knesset. And so that means that the party that gets the most votes gets maybe a fifth of the seats in the Knesset, and then they've got to find buddies in the rest of the political system. And that can lead to a really unstable political system, where a small party has a disproportionate amount of power. And when there are policy disagreements, even a couple years into governing, that can lead to collapse of the government. This election is two years early. If Israel has another election a year from now, two years from now, political people here are starting to wonder if - what that will mean and how Israel will be seen at that point.

INSKEEP: Emily, thanks very much.

HARRIS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Emily Harris based here in Jerusalem. And we're here in Jerusalem in this election season to do some stories connected with the push and pull, the battle over land in Israel. Our stories will begin broadcasting next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.