Israel heads to polls to decide Netanyahu’s fate

Israelis head to the polls Tuesday in hotly contested elections that are widely seen as a referendum on premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who on the eve of the vote vowed to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu also pledged to strengthen construction in East Jerusalem settlements as he appealed to hard-line voters in a frenzied, final day of campaigning Monday.While Netanyahu’s comments were election rhetoric, they nonetheless put him further at odds with the international community, boding poorly for already strained relations with the U.S. and other key allies if he wins a third consecutive term.

Netanyahu, who has governed for the past six years and has long been the most dominant personality in Israeli politics, has watched his standing plummet in recent weeks.

Late Monday night, it was announced that Herzog’s main partner, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, had given up an agreement to rotate the prime minister’s post with Herzog if their alliance wins.

As Netanyahu’s poll numbers have dropped in recent days, he has appeared increasingly desperate, stepping up his nationalistic rhetoric in a series of interviews to local media to appeal to his core base.

The strategy is aimed at siphoning off voters from nationalistic rivals, but risks alienating centrist voters who are expected to determine the outcome of the race.

Speaking to the nrg news website, Netanyahu said that turning over captured territory to the Palestinians would clear the way for Islamist extremists to take control and attack Israel. “Whoever ignores that is burying his head in the sand. The left is doing that, burying its head in the sand time after time,” he said in the video interview.

When asked if that meant a Palestinian state would not be established if he is elected, he replied, “Indeed.”

It was the latest – and clearest – attempt by Netanyahu to disavow his earlier support for Palestinian independence, which he first laid out in a landmark 2009 speech.“If we get this guarantee for demilitarization and necessary security arrangements for Israel, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, we will be willing in a real peace agreement to reach a solution of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state,” he said at the time.

Netanyahu’s tough new position is likely to worsen his already strained ties with his Western allies if he is re-elected.

It also raises questions about what kind of vision he has for solving the conflict with the Palestinians. Most demographers agree that if Israel continues to control millions of Palestinians, the country will not be able to remain both Jewish and democratic.

Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said Netanyahu’s comments were “dangerous” and could plunge the region into violence.

Earlier, Netanyahu paid a last-minute visit to Har Homa, a Jewish development in occupied East Jerusalem that Netanyahu helped build during his first term as prime minister in 1997. The sprawling district now houses more than 20,000 residents.

While Israel considers the area a part of its capital, the international community considers it an illegal settlement on occupied land.

“We will preserve Jerusalem’s unity in all its parts. We will continue to build and fortify Jerusalem so that its division won’t be possible and it will stay united forever,” Netanyahu said, explaining that Har Homa was built to contain Palestinian development in the nearby occupied West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Monday, it was Herzog, Netanyahu’s chief rival, who appeared confident and upbeat.

Visiting his party headquarters, Herzog, a trained lawyer and scion of a prominent political family, talked about a “crucial” vote for the country and warned against splitting the anti-Netanyahu vote among the various centrist parties.

“Whoever wants an upheaval has to vote for us,” Herzog said.

Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which has also focused on the plight of Israel’s middle class, received a warm welcome at a campaign stop in the coastal city of Netanya.

A potential kingmaker could be found in the new centrist party of Moshe Kahlon, who is running on an economic platform that deals almost exclusively with bread-and-butter issues while putting Israel’s diplomatic challenges on the back burner.

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