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Questions over Netanyahu as polls close in Israel

Polls have closed in Israel. Millions of people have cast their votes in parliamentary elections that could oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office.

Before Tuesday's polls closed, Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, 65, made a last-ditch appeal to his hard-line supporters, warning that a high turnout by Arab voters would endanger the dominance of his right wing party. Polls of Israel's 5.9 million eligible voters had shown a close race heading into the vote, with Netanyahu's main opponents, Isaac Herzog's centrist Zionist Union, in a slight lead.

Those polls had also shown gains by a list that unified various Arab legislative factions - nationalists, Islamists and the Jewish-Arab Communist Party, for examples - which could win 13 seats and emerge as a kingmaker. Netanyahu claimed that the "droves" of Arab voters had put the rule of his Likud Party "in danger."

The prime minister's final plea on Tuesday warned of a "significant gap" between the hard-line faction and the centrist Zionist Union and blamed unnamed foreign interests for working against him. "We are in a fateful campaign," he added.

Herzog's Zionist Union had promised to revive peace efforts with Palestinians, repair ties with the US and reduce the growing gaps between rich and poor. "Whoever wants to follow his path of despair and disappointment will vote for him," Herzog said of the current prime minister on Tuesday.

'Racist'

Dissatisfied with centrists in his ruling coalition, the prime minister had called Tuesday's early elections in December, two years ahead of schedule. In the campaign, Netanyahu pledged to prevent an independent Palestine, reversing the endorsement he made of a two-state solution in 2009. The prime minister has said that he would seek an alliance with the ultranationalist Jewish Home party, which also opposes Palestinian statehood.

The prime minister has rallied supporters through fear in the past. However, his comments about Arab voters proved remarkable because they targeted Israeli citizens, and quickly drew accusations of racism. Israel's Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population, have long complained of discrimination.

The Zionist Union's Shelly Yacimovich tweeted that few leaders would use a "racist" remark: "Imagine a warning that begins with 'the rule is endangered. Black voters are heading in droves to the polls'."

No single faction has won a majority in the 120-member parliament, so it could take until May to form a governing coalition, though final results will come on March 25. At least 10 parties should win seats in the Knesset on Tuesday.

mkg/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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