Mordechai's withdrawal was crucial because Barak is depending on the votes of the large Israeli-Arab electorate, who'll vote for him as prime minister when they go to the polls to elect their own parties to parliament. "They'd have been a lot less likely to be motivated to vote a second time when it's only for Barak," says Beyer. "But Netanyahu's core constituencies, such as ultra-orthodox Jews, are highly motivated. And a runoff would have also given Bibi two more weeks to come up with some gimmick to turn the tide." Barak may have a clear shot, but with Israel's ethnic and political divisions as fierce as ever, nobody's predicting a landslide. As in '96, it may be too close to call before the last ballot is counted.
A bit-part centrist candidate commanding only a few percentage points in the polls may have chosen Israel's next prime minister. Yitzhak Mordechai, a former defense minister who entered the campaign for Monday's election with the sole aim of unseating Netanyahu, finally withdrew Sunday, recognizing that Netanyahu would be the main beneficiary if he stayed in the race. "Barak's best chance of winning was if Mordechai withdrew and allowed him a clear shot at winning it in the first round," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. "If no candidate had won a clear majority in a three-way race, the two leading candidates would have fought a runoff election two weeks later, which would have substantially increased Netanyahu's chances."