JERUSALEM (AP) — In a frenzied last day of campaigning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday ruled out the establishment of a Palestinian state and vowed to keep building east Jerusalem settlements as he appealed to hard-line voters on the eve of Israel's closely contested general election.
The moderate opposition, meanwhile, announced a dramatic last-minute machination of its own, removing one of its two joint candidates for prime minister.
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.
Recent opinion polls show his Likud Party lagging behind Isaac Herzog's Zionist Union. Herzog, who has vowed to revive peace efforts with the Palestinians, repair ties with the U.S. and reduce the growing gaps between rich and poor, confidently predicted an "upheaval" was imminent.
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 post with him if their alliance wins. It was widely thought that the unusual arrangement was driving away voters.
Tuesday's election caps an acrimonious three-month campaign that is widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu.
While his comments Monday appeared to be 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.
The hard-line leader has portrayed himself as the only politician capable of confronting Israel's numerous security challenges, while his opponents have focused on the country's high cost of living and presented Netanyahu as imperious and out of touch with the common man.
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. Netanyahu has also complained of an international conspiracy to oust him, funded by wealthy foreigners who dislike him, and on Sunday night, he addressed an outdoor rally before tens of thousands of hard-line supporters in Tel Aviv.
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 Islamic 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 means a Palestinian state will not be established if he is elected, Netanyahu 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.
Despite that pledge, two rounds of peace talks have failed and Netanyahu has continued to expand Jewish settlements.
Reaching a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict has been a top foreign policy priority for President Obama.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki would only say on Monday that the U.S. will work with whoever wins the Israeli election.
The international community overwhelmingly supports the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, areas captured by Israel in 1967, and opposes settlement construction. 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.
"This is the real Netanyahu," she said. "From the beginning, he was attempting to carry out a grand deception by pretending to be in favor of the two-state solution. But what he was actually doing on the ground is destroying the chances of peace."
Earlier, Netanyahu paid a last-minute visit to Har Homa, a Jewish development in 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. The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as their capital.
"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 West Bank town of Bethlehem.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials.
Netanyahu dissolved his government in December and ordered the new election, two years ahead of schedule, in the belief that he would cruise to a new term.
On 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. Supporters warmly embraced him and stopped him to take selfies.
He accused both Netanyahu and Herzog of working outside deals with special interest groups and said that only he was tackling the real issues facing the Israeli middle class.
Lapid has so far refused to commit to either Herzog or Netanyahu, though he is widely seen as a natural ally of Herzog's in a future coalition.
Exit polls are expected immediately after voting stops at 10 p.m. (2000 GMT) Tuesday night. But the true victor may not be known for several weeks.
Under Israel's electoral system, no party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-member parliament. Instead, the party with the best chance of forming a coalition — usually the largest party — is given the chance to form a coalition. That decision is taken by the country's president, Reuven Rivlin.
Since neither Likud nor the Zionist Union is expected to earn more than a quarter of the votes, Rivlin will meet with party leaders to determine who should be prime minister, followed by a lengthy period of negotiations to assemble a coalition.
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.
Kahlon, who broke off from Netanyahu's Likud, is demanding to become finance minister in the next government and has given no indication as to whom he would prefer as prime minister.
The son of Libyan immigrants, Kahlon is popular with working class Israelis, thanks to his Middle Eastern background, his modest upbringing and for reforming the local mobile-phone market.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.