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Netanyahu retracts support for 2-state solution in appeal to hard-line base

| Monday, March 16, 2015, 11:40 p.m.

JERUSALEM — 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.

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 United States and reduce the growing gaps between rich and poor, confidently predicted an “upheaval” was imminent.

Late Monday, 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.

The election caps an acrimonious three-month campaign that is widely considered a referendum on Netanyahu.

While Netanyahu's comments appeared to be election rhetoric, they nonetheless put him further at odds with the international community, boding poorly for strained relations with America 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.

As Netanyahu's poll numbers have dropped, he has appeared increasingly desperate, stepping up his nationalistic rhetoric in a series of interviews to appeal to his core base. Netanyahu has complained of an international conspiracy to oust him, funded by wealthy foreigners, and Sunday night, he addressed an outdoor rally before tens of thousands of hard-line supporters in Tel Aviv.

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

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 a website 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.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki would say only that the United States will work with whoever wins the Israeli election.

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.”

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