Faced with a tight race for his political life, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up the nationalist rhetoric on the eve of parliamentary elections, vowing a Palestinian state will not be established on his watch if he’s re-elected.
In an interview published Monday in the nrg news website, Netahyahu said withdrawing from occupied areas to make way for a Palestinian state would only ensure that territory will be taken over by Islamic extremists. When asked if that means a Palestinian state will not be established if he is elected, Netanyahu said "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 in 2009.
Despite that pledge, two rounds of peace talks have failed and Netanyahu has continued to expand Jewish settlements.
In a further attempt to appeal to hard-line voters, the Israeli leader also vowed Monday to strengthen construction in east Jerusalem settlements. Netanyahu tried to shore up support on several campaign stops after the latest polls showed his Likud party trailing behind the centrist Zionist party, the day before Tuesday’s Knesset elections.
Netanyahu is in a close race against the Center-Left Zionist Union party led by Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog, who confidently predicted an "upheaval" was imminent.
In recent days, Netanyahu has been on a get-out-the-vote blitz, saying a dovish government would spell disaster for the country and complaining of an international conspiracy to oust him. But Monday’s comments will 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.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials.
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.
Netanyahu 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.
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.
During a last-minute campaign stop in east Jerusalem Monday, Netanyahu visited Har Homa, a Jewish development viewed as an illegal settlement by the Palestinians and the international community. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The Islamic militant group Hamas took over two years later and escalated attacks on Israel.
"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. "Likud's victory is the only thing that can ensure the continuation of a national leadership and will prevent the establishment of a left-wing government."
While Netanyahu could still end up in the best position to cobble together a ruling coalition, the slipping support has rattled Likud -- which began the campaign all but assured that it would stay in office.
"The choice is symbolic: the Likud led by me, that will continue to stand firmly for (Israel's) vital interests, compared with a left-wing government ... ready to accept any dictate," Netanyahu said in his speech at Har Homa Monday, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Herzog has been surging in the polls on a campaign that promises to repair ties with the Palestinians and the international community and also bring relief to the country's struggling middle class.
Visiting his party headquarters, an upbeat Herzog talked about a "crucial" vote for the country and warned against splitting the anti-Netanyahu vote among the various centrist parties, including charismatic leader Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid Party.
"Whoever wants Lapid, whoever wants Yesh Atid, in the government has to vote for us. They have no other choice," he said. "Whoever wants an upheaval has to vote for us."
A majority of Israelis do not believe Netanyahu will form the next government, a Likud source said Monday, citing an internal poll. On March 9, Likud's data showed that 62.3 percent thought Netanyahu would form the coalition and 19.9 percent thought that Herzog and Livni would form the government, the Jerusalem Post reported.
But on Monday, for the first time, the number believing Netanyahu would form the government fell to 49.6 percent, while 30.4 percent thought Herzog would form the coalition. The surprising data marked the first time since the election campaign began that the number slipped below 50 percent. The polls are taken by McLaughlin and associates, the American Republican strategist working for the Netanyahu campaign.
During the Tel Aviv rally Sunday, Netanyahu chided what he called funding "from abroad" of an activist group which has pushed for Netanyahu's ouster. The group, V15, is working with Jeremy Bird, one of President Barack Obama's former campaign strategists. Netanyahu, who has strong links to U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has attributed his drop in the polls to a "worldwide" conspiracy to oust him.
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.
Since neither Likud nor the Zionist Union is expected to earn more than a quarter of the votes, the election will likely be followed by a lengthy period of negotiations over the next coalition government.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.