The 120-member Knesset voted at the end of a stormy, five-and-a-half- hour debate for early elections by 81 to 30 with 9 abstaining. A date will be set in talks between government and opposition. The favoured options are late February or late April.
The debate set the stage for the coming campaign. It will focus on the peace process with the Palestinians, which the government has suspended indefinitely, and on Mr Netanyahu's performance in his two and a half years in office. Voters will be asked to choose between Mr Netanyahu, champion of a "peace with security", and Mr Netanyahu, enemy of the 1993 Oslo accord, who did his best to sabotage it.
The Labour opposition will broaden the front to take in what it presents as the coalition's failure to deal with the crises in Israel's education, health, employment and poverty programmes. It will also attack Mr Netanyahu for surrendering to the extortion of extremists among the settlers and the ultra-Orthodox.
Last night the Prime Minister tried first to lay a trap for his critics, of the right and the left. He challenged them to endorse or reject his search for a "true peace", a peace which he said was based on reciprocity, the sanctity of agreements, the security of Israel and the unity of its capital, Jerusalem
He made it sound like a vote against apple pie and motherhood, but his increasingly disenchanted critics did not fall for it. A vote in support of the Prime Minister's position was defeated 56 to 48.
As a last-minute ploy, he appealed to the Labour leader, Ehud Barak, for a 72-hour "time-out" to explore the possibilities of a national-unity administration. Once again, the opposition said no, though Mr Barak took care not to give away propaganda points by putting personal ambition before the cherished unity of the people.
"We believe in unity," the Labour leader said, "we believe in a government for all the people. But I'm not sure this government is going, and can go, forward to peace. For that reason, I feel it is a bit too late. The right answer is to go to elections."
In the end, Mr Netanyahu acknowledged he had no choice. After hearing a string of coalition MPs vote with the opposition, the Prime Minister himself voted for early elections. His two most senior colleagues, the Foreign Minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Defence Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, joined him. The opposition greeted the result with jubilation. In a television interview immediately afterwards, Mr Netanyahu put a brave face on the vote. The people, he said, understood what he was trying to do and would back him.
At the beginning of the debate, the Prime Minister invited MPs to vote on five conditions adopted by his Cabinet on Sunday. These were that Israel would fulfil its commitments if the Palestinians fulfilled theirs; their leader, Yasser Arafat, had to abandon any intention unilaterally to declare a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital; the Palestinian Authority must halt violence and incitement to violence; Israel would not release "murderers and prisoners with blood on their hands"; the Palestinian Authority must collect illegal weapons held by the Palestinian police and by civilians.
The diplomatic correspondent of the Hebrew daily Haaretz said yesterday: "The record shows that the Palestinian Authority has fulfilled more of the second phase of the Wye accord than Israel. The cabinet decision seems to impose added conditions that were not part of the Wye Agreement."