A strong anti-clerical trend is evident among voters, particularly among the one million Russians whose votes decided the previous two elections. Polls yesterday showed Mr Barak taking the lead, for the first time, among the Russians, two-thirds of whom supported Mr Netanyahu in 1996.
Support for Yizhak Mordechai, the Centre Party candidate, appears to have fallen below 5 per cent. If he drops out of the race in the next two days, Mr Barak would probably get more than half the votes on 17 May, making a second round on 1 June unnecessary.
Mr Barak will secure 48 per cent of the vote against 35 per cent for Mr Netanyahu in the first round, according to a Gallup poll published yesterday. He would win a run-off by 54 per cent to 37 per cent.
Mr Netanyahu concedes that he is behind, but says the polls have been wrong before. He hopes that in a second round many Israeli-Arabs, who almost entirely support Mr Barak, will not go to the polls, and the ultra- orthodox, who feel threatened by the rising secular tide, will throw their formidable organisation behind him.
The election could reshape Israeli politics permanently if the secular centrist parties such as Yisrael Ba'aliyah, the main Russian party, and Shinui, a party formed to fight ultra-orthodox influence, replace the religious parties as an essential component of any Israeli government.
Israeli commentators pull no punches in their criticism of the Prime Minister. Yoel Marcus, in the daily Ha'aretz, writes that the central issue of the election is Mr Netanyahu's "dark personality, which is corrupting Israel and leading it into alleyways of cynicism, falsehood and fraud".
Less evident, but important in precipitating Mr Netanyahu's expected downfall, is his unpopularity with the Israeli establishment, notably the army, intelligence services, courts and police. They see him as having been irresponsible, demagogic and divisive during his three years in office.
Hemi Shalev, an Israeli commentator, says that "the elite has a long memory and an even longer arm". Acting within the law, it has ensured that all the breaks in recent months have gone to Mr Barak. The Labour leader's campaign began to take off when he was cleared earlier this year of allegations that he had abandoned the wounded during a training accident in 1992, which left five dead. Mr Netanyahu's party had to abandon a plan to attack Mr Barak as a man who avoided responsibility.
The Prime Minister was also damaged when the courts decided last month to sentence Aryeh Deri, leader of Shas, the ultra-orthodox party and one of Mr Netanyahu's closest allies, to four years in prison for taking bribes. The investigation and trial lasted nine years and Mr Deri asked, not unreasonably, why the verdict had to be delivered so close to the election.Reuse content