(Reuters) - Israelis vote in a parliamentary election on January 22 that opinion polls forecast will be won by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, running jointly with the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party.
The 120 seats in the single-chamber Knesset are allocated by proportional representation to party lists, which secure seats after passing a minimum threshold of winning at least 2 percent of the national vote.
Following are the main parties contending in the ballot:
LIKUD - Netanyahu’s governing party took a sharper turn to the right two months ago after two of eight cabinet ministers who form his inner circle were trounced in an internal primary election by more hawkish members highly supportive of the settlement movement in the occupied West Bank. For the first time, Likud and the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, led by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are running with a joint list of parliamentary candidates. Opinion polls predict Likud-Yisrael Beitenu will capture some 34 of parliament’s 120-seats, putting them in pole position to form a coalition government with other right-leaning parties.
LABOUR - Opinion polls have shown Labour, which ruled Israel for decades but now holds only eight seats in parliament, bouncing back to second place behind Likud under new leader Shelly Yachimovich. It is expected to take around 18 seats after a campaign focusing almost exclusively on social and economic reform - issues that drew hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets in the summer of 2011.
BAYIT YEHUDI (Jewish Home) - Naftali Bennett, leader of this far-right party, has emerged as the surprise success story of the country’s election campaign. Bennett says a Palestinian state would be suicide for Israel and advocates annexation of more than half the West Bank, offering autonomy to Palestinians. His message has struck a chord in Israel more than two years after peace talks with the Palestinians collapsed over the issue of Jewish settlements. Polls predict the party will win some 13 seats, and that a cabinet post for Bennett is likely.
SHAS (An acronym for Union of Sephardic Torah Observers) - A fixture in successive governments, the ultra-Orthodox party draws its support from the fast-growing community of religious Jews of Middle Eastern origin whose spiritual leader is the 92-year-old, Iraqi-born rabbi Ovadia Yosef. According to opinion polls, it will maintain its 11 seats in parliament.
KADIMA (Forward) - Polls see the main opposition party and largest faction in parliament heading for an unprecedented crash in Israeli politics, falling from 28 seats to perhaps none at all. Centrist Kadima has been rocked by a series of leadership upheavals. It was founded by former prime minister Ariel Sharon, and then led by Ehud Olmert after Sharon suffered a stroke in 2006. Olmert quit as prime minister in 2008 in a corruption scandal and was replaced as Kadima’s leader by Tzipi Livni. The party won more parliamentary seats than Likud in a 2009 election, but Netanyahu became prime minister after putting together a right-wing coalition. Livni was then defeated in a leadership contest by Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister who has failed so far to inspire the public.
YESH ATID (There is a Future) - Formed this year by Yair Lapid, a popular TV personality who recently turned to politics, the party is promoting secular, centrist politics and has attacked Netanyahu over rising power, water, petrol and housing prices. Lapid has promised to relieve a housing shortage and abolish military draft exemptions for Ultra Orthodox students. He also says there must be peace talks with the Palestinians. Opinion polls predict the party will take as many as 11 seats.
HATNUA (The Movement) - The party was founded just two months ago by former foreign minister and ex-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni as a centrist alternative to Israel’s right-wing leadership. Hatnua supports the revival of peace talks on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has proposed social and economic initiatives that include a higher minimum wage and public housing expansion. According to opinion polls, it could capture up to 11 seats in the legislature.
OTHER PARTIES - MERETZ a left-wing party with 3 seats in parliament, is predicted to improve to 4 or 5. HADASH, UNITED ARAB LIST and BALAD, representing the far left and Israel’s Arab citizens is forecast to keep its 11 parliamentary seats. UNITED TORAH JUDAISM represents ultra-Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazi, or European origin, has five seats in the legislature and is seen winning about the same number. (Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer)