JERUSALEM - On the final day of his reelection campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu said that as long as he serves as prime minister of Israel, there will not be an independent Palestinian nation.
His declaration marks the second time in a month that Netanyahu has chosen to confront Washington directly: first by opposing, in a speech before Congress, President Obama's possible deal to try to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions and now by opposing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Secretary of State John Kerry spent nine months pursuing.
Netanyahu's assertion, made on camera to an Israeli news website, appeared to reverse his previous declarations of support for a sovereign Palestinian state.
"I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel," he said in a video interview published Monday on the NRG site.
"Anyone who ignores this is sticking his head in the sand. The left does this time and time again," Netanyahu said. "We are realistic and understand."
Netanyahu was then asked specifically whether he meant that a Palestinian state would not be established if he were reelected prime minister. He answered, "Correct."
In a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, Netanyahu famously said that he supported a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as long as Israeli conditions were met and Israel's security was guaranteed. That speech and two rounds of U.S.-brokered peace talks since then led many to assume that the prime minister was prepared to see a Palestinian state arise in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
On Monday, Americans and Israelis were left unsure whether Netanyahu was just speaking off the cuff in the heat of a very close race or whether he was signaling a real change in policy.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to comment except to say, "There are many things said leading up to elections." She added: "Obviously, our view continues to be that the only way to have peace and stability in the region is for there to be a two-state solution."
Erel Margalit, an opposition leader in the Labor party, called Netanyahu's statements "outrageous," telling the Washington Post: "It undermines the direction that Israel has declared it is striving for during the last three prime ministers. We need to build trust with the Palestinians again and make sure they do not continue with their unilateral steps."
Saeb Erekat, who was the chief Palestinian negotiator during Kerry's peace talks, said he was not surprised to hear the remarks. "Netanyahu has done everything possible to bury the two-state solution," he said.
Netanyahu's words hit the Internet soon after the prime minister visited a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem on Monday and warned that if it were not for him and his right-wing Likud party, residents there would be next-door neighbors with the Islamist militant movement Hamas.
At a news conference at which journalists were not allowed to ask questions, Netanyahu stood at a lectern on the terrace of Yaron and Sigal Hakoshrein's new condominium, framed by building cranes over his shoulder, towering above units under construction. He called his host to stand beside him and asked on camera, "Do you want to see Hamastan over there on that mountaintop?" He then pointed in the general direction of Bethlehem, the Palestinian city in the West Bank where the Bible says Jesus was born.
Yaron Hakoshrein, a Likud activist, shook his head and said no.
"Then there is only one answer. Then you have to put the voting slip for Likud in the ballot box," Netanyahu said.
Israelis who fear that Hamas will take over the West Bank, as it did the Gaza Strip in 2007, have adopted the shorthand "Hamastan" to express that concern. Hamas is branded a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. Israel and Hamas fought a 50-day war last summer.
On Sunday, Netanyahu warned supporters at a rally in Tel Aviv that he may not win Tuesday's election, a potentially dramatic fall for a consummate political survivor whose nine years in office transformed him into the public face of contemporary Israel.
The final round of opinion polls Friday showed Netanyahu and his Likud party facing a surprisingly strong challenge by Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Labor party, and his running mate, former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, who hold a small but steady lead.
For the last five days, Netanyahu has been working to bulk up support among members of his nationalist right-wing base, warning Israelis that his challengers would "give away land for peace" to the Palestinians, would divide the "eternal capital of Israel," and would turn over the eastern sections to the Palestinians for a future state.
Netanyahu's campaign staged its Monday news event at the Jewish settlement of Har Homa in East Jerusalem for a reason. During his first term as prime minister, he approved construction there. Netanyahu said settlement construction at Har Homa was not only to provide housing for residents but also to deny Palestinians territory and contiguity.
ELECTIONS IN ISRAEL
Voters cast ballots for party tickets instead of individual candidates. Twenty-five parties are running. Parliamentary seats are allocated in proportion to the number of votes a party wins.
No single party has ever won a parliamentary majority, and polls show Israel's next government will again be a coalition of factions.
It may take weeks before the real winner of the election emerges, as party leaders maneuver to forge the alliances needed to build a coalition with a parliamentary majority. - BloombergEndText
The Key Players in Israel
Led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud holds tough positions toward Palestinian independence and largely opposes ceding territory for a future state. Netanyahu grudgingly accepted the idea of Palestinian independence in the past but has recently hardened his stance.
The main opposition party and challenger to Netanyahu's lengthy rule. Headed by Isaac Herzog, it is a blend between his Labor party - which governed the country from its founding in 1948 until 1977, and twice since - and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's centrist Hatnua party. The new alliance has pledged a renewed push for peace with the Palestinians and for mending relations with Israel's most important ally, the United States.
Founded by former TV personality Yair Lapid, the centrist party represents secular, middle-class interests and focuses mostly on economic issues - saying less money should be spent on settlements and stipends for the ultra-Orthodox. The party was the surprise of the previous vote in 2013 and then joined Likud as its senior coalition partner.
The new party headed by former Likud government minister Moshe Kahlon is shaping up to be the kingmaker of this election. Kahlon is running on an economic platform that deals almost exclusively with bread-and-butter issues, while all but ignoring Israel's diplomatic challenges. He is demanding to become finance minister in the next government and could tip the scales in favor of either Netanyahu or Herzog.
The Joint List
A recently established alliance of four small, largely Arab-backed parties representing Israel's 20 percent Arab minority that could emerge as the third-largest bloc. Despite deep differences between socialists, Palestinian nationalists, and traditional Islamists, the list's leader, lawyer Ayman Odeh, 40, says the unprecedented union could dramatically increase Arab turnout at the polls and clout in Israel's parliament.
The far-right secular party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman takes a hard line against Israel's Arab minority and says it will push for the death penalty for terrorists. The party has shrunk in the polls since breaking up an alliance with Likud and following a series of corruption scandals that forced out several key players.
Representing modern Orthodox Jews, the party has strong ties with the West Bank settlement movement. Considered a natural partner of Likud, its charismatic leader, high-tech millionaire Naftali Bennett, has been looking to broaden his appeal to secular Jews.
- Associated Press