JERUSALEM — The Israeli election seemed to be tightening just before voting, injecting a measure of energy to what had been a largely listless campaign, though hard-liners were expected to have a clear edge in the horse trading that is sure to follow today's vote.
With little certainty or excitement about the results, hopes rose that before leaving office Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might cut a deal for the release of a captured Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
The return of the soldier, who was seized by Hamas and other Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid in June 2006, would burnish the reputations of Olmert, who is unpopular and often criticized as weak and corrupt, and those ministers who seek to replace him.
Signs of progress in the Shalit case are unlikely to affect the outcome of the elections today, said Yehuda Ben Meir, a public opinion expert at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, since there is a broad public consensus that the soldier's release must be obtained.
Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative Likud Party led in the latest opinion polls, with the centrist Kadima Party, led by Tzipi Livni, the current foreign minister, close behind.
But an unusually high percentage of Israelis, according to pollsters, were wavering over whom to vote for until the last moment.
The fractious coalition government likely to emerge could complicate efforts to create a Palestinian state and pose big challenges for President Obama, who has made achieving Middle East peace a top priority.
For months, Israelis assumed that a victory for Netanyahu was a foregone conclusion, based on successive opinion polls. But in the final days of the campaign, the election became too close to call.
Netanyahu and Livni appealed to their natural constituencies not to waste votes on smaller, special interest parties.
Netanyahu's former protege, Avigdor Lieberman, appeared poised to make huge gains on a platform that calls for Israeli Arabs to swear loyalty to the state or lose citizenship.
While Livni could still eke out a victory, it appears mathematically impossible for her to form a coalition without bringing in Lieberman or some other hard-line party. That would hinder her ability to pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians, as she has promised to do.