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A member of Benjamin Netanyahu's war Cabinet calls for elections in Israel

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Polling in Israel shows two things. Israelis overwhelmingly support the country's war goal of destroying Hamas, and Israelis overwhelmingly disapprove of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now another Israeli leader is calling to set a date for elections. Benny Gantz leads an opposition party and also regularly faces the prime minister as part of the war cabinet. Polling shows Netanyahu would lose to him.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jennifer Ludden is covering this from Tel Aviv. Hi there, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: OK, so for those who don't follow this every day, what makes Benny Gantz an especially significant figure to be calling for elections?

LUDDEN: Well, for starters, he's the most popular politician in Israel and the one who polls show, if there were elections, would beat Netanyahu handily. Remember, Netanyahu's coalition depends on far-right partners. Gantz was brought in as a kind of moderating influence and to instill more public trust. He's a retired general, a former chief of the military General Staff.

Now, to be clear, Gantz is not leaving the national war cabinet. He says he wants the whole government to agree to hold elections in September. But this is a big blow for Netanyahu. It's coming on the heels of the largest anti-government public demonstrations since Israel invaded Gaza.

INSKEEP: Although we should note Netanyahu has survived indictments, election defeats, elections that didn't work out. He is a survivor. So how's he responding to this?

LUDDEN: You know, even before this, when protesters were mounting demonstrations in front of the Knesset here, the parliament, he said, look; early elections - that would paralyze the country for months. He argues a campaign would stall negotiations on releasing more than a hundred Israeli hostages that are still in Gaza and that it would set back the military's efforts to rout Hamas. But a lot of Israelis hold Netanyahu personally responsible for failing to anticipate the Hamas attack, which Israel says killed 1,200 people. Israel's military response has killed more than 33,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry there.

And I just want to note one other big issue that is simmering here. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in full-time religious study are exempt from military service. This is infuriating for many Israelis, especially with the country at war. But ultra-religious parties are a key part of Netanyahu's coalition, and so far he has not challenged their exemption.

INSKEEP: OK, you're talking about some of the domestic political disputes in Israel. There is also international outrage over Israeli airstrikes that killed aid workers - seven aid workers with the charity World Central Kitchen. What are Israelis doing about that?

LUDDEN: So Israel has repeated that, look; this was tragic. It says it was unintentional, and it's conducting a thorough investigation. We're also now hearing from World Central Kitchen's founder, Jose Andres. He says, look; Israel targeted his group's three-car convoy, which was spread out over more than a mile. Here he is talking to Reuters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE ANDRES: This was not just a bad luck situation where, oops, we dropped the bomb in the wrong place or - no. This was a very defined humanitarian convoy that had signs in the top, in the roof.

LUDDEN: And, you know, look; Andres says he hopes Israel didn't certainly intend to hit humanitarian workers. And let's just recall that World Central Kitchen was bringing this food in by sea because Israel has limited the amount of trucks that can bring it in. Israel's defense minister, Yoav Gallant, had an overnight call with his U.S. counterpart. He says Israel will expand the influx and distribution of aid in Gaza. And we'll just have to see exactly what that means.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jennifer Ludden in Tel Aviv, thanks so much.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: April 4, 2024 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of the headline misspelled Benjamin Netanyahu's first name as Banjamin.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.