JERUSALEM - After seeing two candidates withdraw from the race, Israeli voters now look toward elections for prime minister with the choice that polls show the public wanted to avoid, a contest between two former generals with rocky records as politicians, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon.
If the election scheduled for Feb. 6 were held today, Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud bloc, would bury incumbent Prime Minister Barak because of an avalanche of voter anger about failed peace efforts, a bloody three-month Palestinian uprising and unresolved rifts in Israeli society, according to polls that show Sharon ahead by 18 percentage points.
Barak's chance to hang on to power rests on the possibility of an 11th-hour Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and the national mood swing it could produce. But the more he sweetens his peace offer to the Palestinians, the more ammunition he supplies Sharon to fight the deal and its champion.
The ballot choice was made final last night at midnight, the deadline for candidates to enter the race. In the end, only Barak and Sharon met the legal conditions to run.
Polls found that Israelis would have preferred Benjamin Netanyahu, whom they drummed out of the prime minister's job in May last year, or Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres, who has twice served as prime minister but failed repeatedly to win election to the post in his own right.
Netanyahu pulled out of the race last week because he didn't want to be saddled with the fractious parliament that has frustrated Barak at every turn.
Peres was forced out last night when he failed to win the necessary backing of any party's parliamentary delegation. Lacking support from his Labor Party, he had turned to the left-wing, pro-peace Meretz Party with the pitch that he was better equipped to reach agreements with the Arabs.
Meretz spurned him, partly out of fear that if it backed Peres and split the Israeli left, Barak would scuttle the peace talks under way at Bolling Air Force Base near Washington. President Clinton hopes those talks will yield an agreement by Jan. 10.
"There is a danger that if there is a third candidate, the peace process will stop," Meretz leader Yossi Sarid told the Yedioth Aronoth newspaper. "No one can conduct real negotiations while the prime minister is busy with his personal survival."
The electoral fortunes of both Barak and Sharon depend on these talks. The election will be a referendum on clashing visions of Israel's future security.
Barak, who became Israel's most decorated soldier fighting its Arab enemies, says he wants to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for all time and break down the remaining barriers to coexistence with the Arab world.
For the past three months, he has imperiled that goal by unleashing a forceful response to Palestinian violence. Under his authority, Israeli soldiers, snipers, tanks and helicopters have killed more than 290 Palestinians, battered homes and cleared large swaths of agricultural land to protect Israeli-occupied territory in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
Now, with time running out, he is apparently prepared to give up almost all that his soldiers fought to preserve - all of the Gaza Strip, 95 percent of the West Bank, the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and control of Muslim holy sites on a plateau revered by both Jews and Muslims.
Barak is betting that voters will be prepared to accept such a deal despite, or because of, the hatred and fear stirred by the continuing violence.
"All our polls show that 65 percent of Israelis will accept a peace agreement even if it requires a heavy price," says a Labor official.
Sharon is betting that his contrasting vision - and reputation - will strike a chord. He has a record of grand, expansive actions with bloody consequences. His most notorious was the invasion of Lebanon while he was defense minister in 1982, which led to a massacre of Palestinians in refugee camps in Beirut.
His most recent was his Sept. 28 visit, surrounded by hundreds of police, to the Temple Mount, which triggered the three months of violence.
Sharon, hated in much of the Arab world, would face a near-insurmountable job persuading Palestinians that he is not their implacable enemy.
He sees no chance of a permanent peace agreement and wants a long-term interim deal that tests a Palestinian state's ability to live side by side with Israel.
Such a state's territory would be contiguous, requiring abandonment of some Jewish settlements, but it would be much smaller than what Barak is offering. Sharon wants to preserve security buffer zones circling Jerusalem, in the Jordan Valley and in the northern part of the West Bank.
"I would call it a multistage peace agreement," Sharon told Israel Radio yesterday. He would hold "areas of strategic importance in our hands as long as a danger exists."
Fighting for the votes of the Israeli right and religious, Sharon would resist dividing Jerusalem and keep Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount, while not interfering in Muslim control over their holy places.
Barak, 58, faces a big challenge in convincing Palestinians that he wants a deal, not just proof that he "left no stone unturned" to achieve it. And as the flurry of support for a Peres candidacy showed, he leaves voters doubtful about his negotiating skills.
As a politician, he has baffled colleagues and embittered lawmakers by running a one-man show, refusing to consult experienced figures and veering and backtracking on political proposals and tactics.
Sharon can point to his having carried out difficult peace deals before. To fulfill an agreement with Egypt, he demolished Jewish settlements in the Sinai desert and forcibly evacuated settlers.
"He's probably the ultimate pragmatist," says the Likud's foreign policy spokesman, Zalman Shoval.