As Israelis vote, Netanyahu rules out Palestinian state
A screen shows an exit poll estimation of the first results of Israel's parliamentary election with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin's Netanyahu Likud party and Herzog Isaac centre-left Zionist Union neck-and-neck in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
KIRYAT YEARIM, ISRAEL - MARCH 17: An Orthodox Jewish man casts his ballot at a polling station on election day on March 17, 2015 in Kiryat Ye'arim, Israel. Israel's general election voting has begun today as polls show on that Chairman of the Zionist Union party, Isaac Herzog stands as the only rival to current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 3:
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before joint session of Congress, on March, 03, 2015 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went neck and neck with Zionist Union Party leader Issac Herzog but ultimately pulled away in the election.
Co-leaders of the Zionist Union party, Israeli Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog (L) and Israeli MP Tzipi Livni, speak to the media in Modiin, near Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2015 as Israelis vote in a close-fought election pitting the centre left against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is fighting for his political survival after six years in power. AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN (Photo credit should read GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on February 1, 2015. AFP PHOTO / POOL / GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
As Israeli soldiers cast early votes in Israel's upcoming election, the outlook for sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not good. Challengers Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni -- whom Netanyahu booted from the government late last year -- and their Zionist Union look likely to win the most seats in Israel's parliament, with Netanyahu's Likud Party about four seats behind.
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - MARCH 17: Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrate as election results come in at his election campaign headquarters on March 17, 2015 in Tel Aviv, Israel. After the ballot boxes were closed at 10 P.M. Tuesday, exit polls showed the two main contenders, Netanyahu of Likud and Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union party, were neck and neck with 27 Knesset seats each, with a slight lead for Likud. Netanyahu has announced a 'great victory'. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 3: Anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews protest Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress outside the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Netanyahu will speak to Congress on Iran's nuclear ambitions and President Obama's emerging deal with Tehran. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 3: An Anti-Zionist Orthodox Jew protests Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to Congress outside the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Netanyahu will speak to Congress on Iran's nuclear ambitions and President Obama's emerging deal with Tehran. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)
Israeli Likud Party supporters react to the exit polls while they wait for the announcement of the first official results of Israel's parliamentary elections on March 17, 2015 at the party's headquarters in the city of Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party is neck-and-neck with the centre-left Zionist Union in the general election, exit polls said. AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
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JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israelis were voting in parliament elections Tuesday, after a heated three-month campaign that focused on economic issues but ended with a dramatic last-minute pledge by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu's comments marked a reversal of long-standing promises to the United States and were seen as a last-ditch effort to appeal to hard-line voters as he fights for his political survival in a close race.
He claimed that any state established alongside Israel would be controlled by Islamic extremists who "will attack us with rockets."
"Who wants such a thing?" Netanyahu said in a phone interview with Israel TV's Channel 10 after casting his ballot early on Tuesday.
Netanyahu appeared to be appealing to his hard-line base with these comments, after polls indicated his Likud Party is trailing slightly behind the Zionist Union of centrist challenger Isaac Herzog.
Herzog has said he would revive peace efforts with the Palestinians, repair ties with the U.S. and reduce the growing gaps between rich and poor.
"Whoever wants to follow Bibi's (Netanyahu's) path of despair and disappointment will vote for him," Herzog said after casting his vote. "But whoever wants change, hope, and really a better future for Israel, will vote the Zionist Camp lead by me."
Israelis vote for a 120-member parliament, casting ballots for a party list, rather than individual candidates. After an election, it typically takes weeks of negotiation to form a governing coalition and determine who will be prime minister.
Several smaller centrist and religious parties that have not pledged support for either Netanyahu or Herzog will play an oversized role in such negotiations.
Netanyahu has governed for the past six years and has long been the most dominant personality in Israeli politics.
He has swung further to the right in the final stages of the campaign, appealing to his base.
In his interview with Channel 10, he ruled out a coalition with Herzog and said he would seek an alliance with the ultra-national Jewish Home party, which also opposes Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu portrayed Herzog as someone who would easily give up territory for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
"We have a different approach," Netanyahu said. "They (the Zionist Union) want to withdraw. I don't want to withdraw. If I put together the government, it will be a nationalist government."
Netanyahu's comments marked a political gamble.
For years, he assured the international community that he accepts the idea of Palestinian statehood and that he is ready to negotiate the terms of such a state. Netanyahu has portrayed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the main obstacle to a peace deal.
If Netanyahu were to be re-elected, it would be more difficult for him to argue that Israel is a partner in U.S.-led peace efforts. Washington views the establishment of a Palestinian state as a pillar of its Mideast policy.
Herzog, meanwhile, signaled he is going back on what had been perceived as an unpopular power-sharing deal with the co-leader of the Zionist Union, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Under that deal, Herzog and Livni would each have served as prime minister for two years if they won the elections.