HAVING yawned through the most lackluster campaign in recent political memory, Israeli voters go to the polls today to cast ballots in an election that could decide the future of their country, and of the Middle East, well into the next century.
Last-minute opinion polls suggest they will evade that challenge and return an indecisive result that would most likely lead to a national unity government embracing both the ruling Likud and opposition Labor parties.
But this is far from a foregone conclusion.
Most surveys published yesterday showed Yitzhak Rabin's Labor party leading the Likud, under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, by around 42 seats to 32, a convincing margin, but still well short of the 61 seats needed to form a government.
Thus, as in every election since Israel was founded 44 years ago, coalition bargaining once the results are counted will decide who will lead the the country.
And with Likud able to count on more natural allies than Labor in the 120 member Knesset (parliament), it still has a good chance of cobbling together a majority and remaining in office.
"It seems the consensus is that Labor will win the most seats," says Peter Medding of Hebrew University. "The big question is whether they can win enough to block Likud [from forming a government] or to dictate terms in a national unity government."
As many as 15 of the 25 parties contesting the election are hopeful of winning at least one Knesset seat, making today's vote a particularly confused one.
It also opens up almost endless avenues of speculation about which small parties might be persuaded to support which of the two front runners when President Chaim Herzog begins his consultations tomorrow before choosing whom to ask first to form a government.
Pollsters have detected a clear drift away from Labor and Likud over the past few weeks toward the smaller parties on both left and right, which has added to the uncertainty. Compounding the confusion are reports that Labor officials have made secret overtures - which were not entirely rebuffed - to the extreme right-wing Tsomet Party, led by Rafael Eitan.
The shift toward the margins of Israeli politics is seen by most observers as a symptom of popular dissatisfaction with the major parties, which have conducted wan campaigns that neither engaged the voters' minds nor stirred their hearts.
The lack of public enthusiasm was clearly evident when both Labor and Likud canceled plans for mass rallies to end their campaigns over the weekend, apparently fearing that embarrassingly few supporters would show up.
But this does not necessarily signal apathy among an electorate that traditionally votes in remarkably high numbers, and will likely do so again today.
"Perhaps the campaign has been lackluster because the public does have a fundamental understanding that we stand at a crossroads, but the politicians have all been fudging the big issues," suggests Professor Medding.
The ruling Likud, which has been trailing in the polls since the campaign began in earnest six weeks ago, is pinning its hopes on a last-minute return to the fold by straying doubters.
In a television advertisement on Sunday night, leading Likud member Benjamin Netanyahu made a direct plea to Likudniks not to vote for Tsomet or for the ultra-orthodox Shas Party.
But there are few signs that he has been successful, and Likud Cabinet ministers are privately predicting a Labor landslide.
Those fears have not, however, undermined the public conventional wisdom that Mr. Rabin will most probably wind up leading a national unity government at the end of the six weeks that the law gives him to form an administration.
It is widely believed that if he emerges from today's vote strong enough to dictate terms to his Likud partners, Rabin might even prefer a national unity government to a more narrowly-based one in coalition with the left-wing Meretz grouping and a defector or two from the current government.
Clearly aware that Israel is going to have to make compromises if the Middle East peace process is to advance, "it might be good politics to have Likud inside the government, to maximize public support," says Medding, while Likud might be tempted to join so as to be in a position to restrain the Labor leader from going too far.
During their televised debate last week, a studiously courteous affair, both Rabin and Mr. Shamir were careful not to rule out the possibility of a national unity government, such as those that emerged from the last two Israeli elections.
Alternatively, Rabin might seek to chip away at the current government coalition, persuading one or more of the religious parties onto his side to bolster his alliance with the left.
Should he emerge as the leader best placed to form a government and thus to control the country's purse strings, the ultra-orthodox parties could probably be tempted to join him.
But while speculation is rife about the myriad permutations of political factions that could lead to the creation of one government or another, "it is all worthless until the numbers are on the board," and each party knows its own real strength, cautions Medding. Israeli opinion polls have been unreliable in the past, and as a local adage coined by political analyst Nahum Barnea has it, "Israelis tell the truth to opinion pollsters, but they lie in the voting booth."