It is not an election which many Israelis thought Barak could win, as recently as a month ago. Netanyahu, for all his many enemies, has the reputation of being a superb campaigner and a master of television, with a lethal instinct for finding his opponents' weaknesses. By contrast, Barak, the former Israeli chief of staff, looked as if he had failed to make a smooth transition to civilian life after 35 years in the army. He was wooden on television. He had failed to end rivalries within the Labour Party, which he has led since 1997. He seemed inept at zig-zagging through the minefield of competing secular and religious interests. These generate conflicts between Israelis equal to anything felt by Israelis towards Palestinians.
But in the final days of the campaign - the election is on 17 May with a run-off on 1 June if there is no outright winner - Barak's campaign has come together. It is Netanyahu who is floundering as he tries to hold together an unruly coalition of supporters. A furious row has broken out between the 1 million Russian Jewish immigrants - who constitute 14 per cent of the electorate - and Shas, the religious party that represents the Sephardi (Jews mainly originating from the Arab world). The Shas Minister of the Interior described the Russians as mafiosi who imported call-girls, ate pork and were frequently crypto-Christians.
For the first time, Barak looks like a man who has the initiative and knows what to do with it. Conscious that the Russian vote decided the last two elections, he has offered the Interior Ministry to the Russians. He also plans to make 9 May - the day when Russian tanks traditionally roll through Red Square to celebrate victory over Germany - a national holiday.
All over Israel walls are plastered with pictures of Barak's slightly podgy face, with his close-cropped military hairstyle. His party has distributed a campaign biography modestly entitled Ehud Barak, Israel's Number One Soldier. Television commercials remind voters of his deeds of derring- do, such as when, as a major, he led a group of commandos - one of his soldiers was the young Netanyahu - to storm a hijacked Sabena airliner in 1972.
But, for all the publicity, he remains an elusive, unknowable personality, a military intellectual who plays the piano, collects watches and reads Proust. His reputation as a latter-day Marcus Aurelius has not always gone down well. Soldiers have often found Barak too much of a politician, while politicians complain that he has the brusque manners of a successful soldier.
Once, at an official reception, another guest noticed that Barak had wandered over to the orchestra and was reading the music. He commented acidly: "Being a show-off is dangerous in life; it is even more dangerous among politicians." Another Israeli commentator adds, however, that if hubris were a barrier to becoming a political leader in Israel, "we'd have to hand over government to the UN".
In many ways Barak has had a traditional - if highly successful - career within the Israeli establishment. He was born in a kibbutz called Mishmar Hasharon in 1942 and joined the army in 1959. In a sense, this makes him part of the Israeli aristocracy, whose background is almost invariably Ashkenazi (Jews from Europe), often kibbutznik, usually followed by entry into the Labour Party, which draws its support from the middle and upper classes.
He rose swiftly through the ranks, leading a reconnaissance group in the 1967 war and a tank battalion in Sinai in 1973. He became a general at the age of 37 and was deputy commander of Israeli forces operating against the Syrians during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He had a taste for small-unit actions and sudden raids, famously dressing up as a woman to lead a sea-borne commando group to kill three PLO leaders in Verdun Street in Beirut in the 1973 war.
A military career still carries high prestige in Israel, though less than it did in the early stages of the state. Two of the three main contenders to be Prime Minister in this year's election are former generals and the third, Netanyahu, served in the elite Sayeret Matkal commandos. However, even the achievement of high rank may tell little about the real capacity of a successful officer.
The reason is that the Israeli army has not won a conventional war since 1973 - and even then it was caught by surprise. The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 wholly failed to eliminate the Palestine Liberation Organisation or displace the Syrian army as the country's overlords. In the Palestinian intifada (uprising) after 1987 the army was baffled by how to cope with teenage stone-throwers. This was not its own fault. It was equipped and trained to fight a conventional high-technology war. A symptom of its dilemma, noted by one Israeli historian, is that, at the height of the intifada, an Israeli business which was accustomed to designing long-range missiles was trying to develop a telescopic pole for safely removing Palestinian flags placed by Palestinian children on electricity wires.
Barak appears to have drawn the conclusion that military strength could not be converted into political gains for Israel, as it had been in 1967. In 1991 he was appointed chief of staff, and later took part in the negotiations over the Oslo accord with the Palestinians. He also developed close relations with Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister and former chief of staff, who felt most at home in the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv. Rabin talked to him on the telephone almost every day. Already Barak was being groomed for the Labour Party leadership, though this must have seemed a long way in the future.
His performance as chief of staff gets mixed reviews. The only military conflict in which Israel was involved during his tenure was in southern Lebanon. Barak retained his liking for commando raids, aimed at killing or kidnapping leaders of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Islamic guerrillas. These were often successful, but did nothing to dent Hizbollah's growing strength.
He was also involved in an extraordinary accident, which developed into a scandal that might have ruined his career. In 1992 he went to observe a unit training for a mission to assassinate Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, at a base called Tze'elim 2 in the Negev desert. It went spectacularly wrong. A misdirected missile killed five soldiers. Three years later, when he had left the army, a newspaper quoted soldiers as saying that Barak had failed to help wounded soldiers. An official report this year said that this was not true, but other officers blamed Barak for even considering a scheme which they felt was highly risky and had little chance of success.
Once out of the army Barak was appointed interior minister in 1995, but was clearly grooming himself for the Labour leadership. It appeared a long-term bet at the time but two events, which convulsed Israeli politics, enabled him to achieve his ambition within two years. A few months after he entered government, Rabin was assassinated by a nationalist student. Barak become foreign minister. Shimon Peres, the new Prime Minister, could have won an election easily if he had gone to the polls immediately. Instead he delayed. By the time he called an election the following year the effects of the assassination had worn off. Suicide bombers were blowing up buses on the streets of Jerusalem. Peres lost by a whisker to Netanyahu and his political career was destroyed. Other Labour leaders were discredited by the disastrous election campaign, from which Barak emerged undamaged.
He easily won the Labour leadership in 1997. Conventional wisdom held that only a former military officer could give the party enough credibility on security in the eyes of the voters to win an election. His opponents within Labour criticised him as a clone of Netanyahu, but to no avail. However, having gained the party leadership he faced serious problems. Labour had won only a single election since 1973. The Ashkenazi secular elite, even backed by the votes of Israeli Arabs, are a minority at the polls. And Barak, with his cold Ashkenazi exterior, looked almost like a caricature of what a majority of Israelis dislike about the country's establishment.
Barak could see what needed to be done. He issued a public apology to the Sephardi, regretting the way that Labour treated them when they were new immigrants in the Fifties. He presented himself as tough on security, determined to keep an undivided Jerusalem and retain sovereignty over the western side of the Jordan valley. Nothing seemed to make much difference. A streak of damaging honesty showed through. On television last year, he volunteered the remark: "If I had been born a Palestinian, I would have joined a terrorist organisation." Netanyahu's party has been rebroadcasting this statement on television ever since.
Netanyahu certainly underestimated the Labour leader. He believed he could win the election with the same recipes that worked three years ago: emphasis on the Palestinian threat, and toughness on security. His party would focus its attack on Barak's failings as a leader, suggesting that he avoided responsibility and was ambivalent on key issues. It did not work. A report on Tze'elim 2 exculpated Barak. He avoided debates on television, where he was ill at ease. Netanyahu was personally damaged by the defection of his Defence Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, to run as a candidate for a centre party, whose only known principle is to get rid of the Prime Minister. The issue of relations with the Palestinians is playing little of a role so far in the election.
Barak had long tried to mask the elitist reputation of the Labour Party. He formed an alliance with two small Sephardi and religious parties and is fighting the election under the label of "One Israel". He has also made a successful pitch for the Russian vote, the most fluid part of the Israeli electorate.
Will it make a difference if Barak is elected? Palestinians often doubt it, saying both the main Israeli parties treat them equally badly. This is simple-minded. If there had been no difference, the extreme nationalists would not have killed Rabin. Barak is more likely to agree with American ideas on peace with the Palestinians. At the same time, he may not get a chance to do so. Netanyahu is relentless in political combat. A single bomb or riot could swing this closely fought election back towards him.
Origins: Born at Mishmar Hasharon kibbutz in Israel in 1942
Education: Degree in physics and mathematics from Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1968) and masters in economics-engineering systems from Stanford University, California (1978)
Family: Is married to Nava and has three daughters
Army career: Joined Israeli army in 1959. Tank commander. Led commando raids. Held General Staff positions, including head of military intelligence. Chief of staff for three years
Political career: Interior Minister 1995. Foreign Minister 1995-96. Leader of Labour Party since 1997
Pastimes: Piano, collecting watches
He says: "The alternative to a peace agreement with the Palestinians is apartheid or expulsion, and both are morally screwed up"
On Benjamin Netanyahu: "His mind is like a well-made watch, with a single bent wheel"Reuse content