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Israel votes in tightly contested election

Benjamin Netanyahu is struggling to hang on to power as the center-left Zionist Union is mounting a strong challenge in parliamentary elections. About 15 percent of voters are undecided according to polls.

Millions of Israelis were casting their votes Tuesday in parliamentary elections that could oust current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office.

Opinion polls indicated a lead for the center-left Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog, which has sought to

refocus the county's agenda on the economic issues

in contrast to Netanyahu's nationalist, security-first agenda.

"Whoever wants to follow (Netanyahu's) path of despair and disappointment will vote for him," Herzog said shortly after casting his vote. "But whoever wants change, hope, and really a better future for Israel, will vote for the Zionist Union led by me."

Meanwhile, in a dramatic appeal to his right-wing base before election day, Netanyahu pledged to

prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state,

reversing an endorsement he made of a two-state solution in 2009. He also accused his opponents of endangering the security of Israel.

"In order to prevent the left-wing parties from governing, there is just one thing that needs to be done: to close the gap between Likud and Labor and vote for Likud," Netanyahu said after voting.

Netanyahu warned his allies of Arab voters flocking to cast their votes.

"Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are going to the polls in droves. Left-wing organizations are bringing them in buses," Netanyahu said in a video statement posted on his Facebook page.

Netanyahu's opponents accuse him of playing on Israelis' fears and endangering the nation's close relationship with the United States. The prime minister recently

addressed the US Congress in a controversial speech,

in which he warned against a potential nuclear deal with Iran.

Israelis are voting Tuesday for a 120-member parliament, casting ballots for a party list. No party has ever won a majority, so forming a governing coalition of parties can take months following an election.

Even if the Likud party finishes second in the balloting, observers say Netanyahu will be in a strong position to form a majority because he has the support of other right-wing and religious parties.

bw/kms (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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