(Adds fresh poll data, edits)
By Ari Rabinovitch
JERUSALEM, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Just before Israel launched its surprise offensive in the Gaza Strip, Defence Minister Ehud Barak appeared on a top-rated television satire where he was teased about his political prospects.
An actress in the sketch made clear she thought ex-premier Barak had no chance of re-election in a Feb. 10 ballot. He waved her away with an enigmatic smile -- body language that his campaign manager later paraphrased as: "Wait and see..." Now, with Israel having declared "mission accomplished" in its three-week war on Hamas Islamists, opinion polls which once wrote off Barak's Labour party show that it has dramatically gained ground -- but apparently not enough to beat its rivals.
Though surveys on Sunday predicted centre-left Labour would win 14 or 15 of the 120 seats in parliament -- almost double that previously forecast -- former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party was still the front-runner.
Likud looks set to win as many as 31 seats, with the ruling centrist Kadima party led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking between 23 and 26, according to the new polls.
The party that captures the largest number of seats is usually tapped to try to put together a government.
Kadima's popularity has been hit by public discontent over the 2005 Gaza pullout it led and corruption scandals that forced Ehud Olmert to resign as the party's leader and prime minister.
Olmert has been serving as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed after next month's election.
Israeli public support for the offensive, launched on Dec. 27 to counter Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza, has been strong, though Hamas continued with its salvoes during the air and ground operation.
"It's not enough to make Barak prime minister, but it almost guarantees him a top spot in the next government," said political scientist Hani Zubida of Israel's Interdisciplinary Centre.
"BIBI" IN THE WINGS
Wearing a black bomber jacket, Barak, a former chief of staff of the armed forces and Israel's most decorated soldier, was photographed in planning sessions with generals and widely seen as the architect of a campaign that has hit Gaza hard.
As prime minister between 1999 and 2001, Barak waged whirlwind peace talks with the Palestinians and Syria, to no avail. Many Israelis believe that his diplomatic tactics, and decision to withdraw Israeli forces from south Lebanon in 2000 after a 22-year occupation, inspired the Jewish state's foes.
The Likud's Netanyahu, popularly known by his childhood nickname, "Bibi", has been a favourite in polls since Israel's 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah guerrillas, a conflict widely regarded in Israel as a failure.
Answering what he described as an appeal from Olmert, Netanyahu gave numerous interviews during the Gaza war to foreign media as part of a campaign to counter international criticism of Israeli attacks that caused civilian casualties.
Like other political leaders, he suspended campaigning during the conflict and said nothing in criticism of the way it was conducted.
"Bibi played his cards right. The Gaza offensive was the last thing he wanted before the elections, but he stayed quiet and handled it well," Zubida said.
Much could depend on the public perception in Israel over whether the Gaza campaign has achieved its goals.
Continued Hamas rocket fire or failure to stop the Islamist group from rearming could bite into Barak's newfound popularity, political commentators said.
Livni's chances to become prime minister could depend on whether the international diplomatic support she secured for efforts to halt weapons smuggling to Hamas chokes off supply. (Editing by XX)