A late surge in support for Mr Barak, a soldier turned politician, saw him going into yesterday's election with a lead of 8-10 per cent in the opinion polls. Mr Netanyahu, once considered the political magician of Israel, has seen his government riven by divisions and many of its senior leaders desert him during his three years in office.
There was a massive turn-out of Israel's four million voters yesterday at the end of a five-month-long campaign. Roadsides were covered in the blue and white banners of the different parties. "I feel the people want to see a new way of governing," Mr Barak said yesterday after voting. "The people want to see change, unity and hope."
Mr Netanyahu's supporters said they did not believe the polls because they were wrong in the previous election.
Benny Shaul, a teacher driving voters to the polls in central Jerusalem yesterday, said: "Barak will give Israel to the Arabs." The prime minister was relying on ultra-orthodox Jews to turn out in large numbers in his support, but polls showed a strong anti-clerical trend among voters.
A serious blow to Mr Netanyahu's hopes of re-election was the last-minute withdrawal of Yitzhak Mordechai, his former defence minister, from the race over the weekend. He gave his support to Mr Barak saying: "I believe we must change the regime in Israel."
The campaign has focused on Mr Netanyahu's personality with many Israelis accusing him of dividing the country by his paranoid personal style, duplicity and inability to get on with his colleagues. Three of his most senior ministers, who left the cabinet in the last three years, are supporting Mr Barak.
Mr Netanyahu said he would prove the polls and the Israeli media false in their predictions of his defeat, as he did in 1996. One Israel commentator said that if this does happen it "will be the mother of all political surprises".
Mr Barak should have no difficulty putting togethor a government if he is elected because the centre and secular parties were expected to do well in the election for the Israeli Knesset, which also took place yesterday.
Palestinians have avoided doing anything during the campaign which might help Mr Netanyahu. He has tried to make relations with them a central issue in the election, but without success.
In the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, said yesterday: "Elect peace." Mr Barak has promised to get the Israeli army out of southern Lebanon, where it suffers a continuing trickle of casualties, within a year of taking office. This probably means restarting Israeli negotiations with Syria on a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israeli captured in 1967.
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