Israelis vote amid threats
Some Israeli Arabs have boycotted the vote while Palestinians have declared Tuesday a day of rage and Israel Defense Forces have reported soldiers coming under fire in Gaza.
About 15,000 security personnel are on duty across Israel trying to ensure the vote is not disrupted by the threatened violence. The West Bank and Gaza had been sealed off.
Opinion polls have consistently given Sharon a strong lead over the incumbent Barak, who called the election after his coalition government lost its majority in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
Sharon cast his vote at a Jerusalem school saying: "(People) should vote for me because I will preserve Jerusalem, united and undivided as the capital of the Jewish people, the capital of Israel, forever."
As Barak cast his vote he said: "This is a choice between extremism ... and putting an end to the conflict (with the Palestinians)."
Voting began at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and was to close at 10 p.m. (2000 GMT). An initial outcome is expected close to 2.00 a.m. on Wednesday (0000 GMT) and the Israeli Central Election Committee will announce the official result in a week.
No matter who wins, Barak will remain in a caretaker role until a new government is formed by the 45-day deadline.
CNN correspondent Jerrold Kessel said people had been flocking to polling booths in Gilo, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
But at Umm el Fahm, an Arab-Israeli town of about 18,000 people in northern Israel, polling officials said only 10 votes had been cast by midday.
There are just over 4.5 million voters eligible to cast ballots in the election, the first in which Israeli voters are electing only the prime minister.
Just under 80 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 1999 when Barak defeated then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, pollsters said the turnout this time could be much lower.
Israelis were given the day off to vote, and both sides were making a concerted effort to get their supporters to actually go out and vote.
A CNN analysis of polling data has shown voters from Israel's center and left wing are disillusioned with Barak's failure to clinch a peace deal with Palestinians.
The Sharon camp say they are confident their man will win but say they are concerned that voters -- believing the result is already settled -- will not turn out.
Barak is remaining upbeat in public that the opinion polls will prove to be wrong and that a last minute change of heart by the electorate will secure his victory.
He said: "There has been a dramatic shift in the last 24 hours to the peace camp. People who were disappointed in me are realizing what the alternative is.
"They are coming back to me in their tens of thousands."
But the latest opinion poll, by the Dahaf Institute, gave Sharon would a 56-37 percent lead over Barak, with seven percent of the electorate still undecided. Palestinians declared a day of rage to coincide with the ballot as the four-month-old violence continued overnight.
An Israeli soldier died Monday in a gun battle near Rafah and the IDF reported further gunfire in the area on Tuesday.
Sharon, long reviled by Arabs for military assaults that included Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, has tried to shake off his warlike image during the campaign, casting himself as a kindly grandfather.
He has ruled out any peace talks until the violence stops.
At least 323 Palestinians, 52 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since the Intifada erupted in September after Sharon visited a hotly contested Jerusalem shrine called al-Haram al-Sharif by Muslims and Temple Mount by Jews.
Whichever candidate wins he will have to deal with a fractious parliament. CNN correspondent Fionnuala Sweeney in Tel Aviv said the real work will begin once the result is known and the winner tries to form a government in a divided Knesset.
Sharon has said his goal is to form a unity government that would include Barak's Labor Party.
But Barak, 58, has said he would not be part of what he called an "extremist government."
If Sharon cannot form a unity government, his option would be to form a coalition made up of right-wing and ultra-religious parties.
That coalition would have only a narrow majority, limiting his ability to govern and negotiate with the Palestinians.
Barak tries to coax Israeli Arabs to polls as vote nears
Israeli Prime Minister's Office
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