JERUSALEM, Jan. 22 (Xinhua) -- Israel's 5.6 million eligible voters began to cast their ballots Tuesday for the general elections while recent polls show a landslide victory for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, which are running on a joint slate with the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.
Thirty-two veteran and new lists are competing in the elections of the 120-member Knesset parliament, whose seats are allocated by proportional representation with a qualifying threshold of 2 percent.
The following are the main parties contending in the polls.
Netanyahu's ruling party in October announced a merger with former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's far-right Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Is Our Home) party, a leading partner in the current coalition government. Opinion polls predict 30-some seats in the future parliament for the joint list. With a new U.S. administration taking office and international pressure mounting on Israel to halt settlement construction, Netanyahu is gearing up for a third term in office with an election campaign that promised voters an unyieldingly tough, uncompromising security policy regarding Iran and the Palestinians.
Sidelined for years and heading toward oblivion, Labor is reclaiming its fame as the main opposition party under the leadership of Shelly Yacimovich, a former television commentator advocating sweeping social and economic reforms. Polls predict Labor to secure 18 parliamentary seats, which would make it the second-largest party in the parliament. Drawing confidence from her growing popularity, Yacimovich, in a recent address to party members, vowed to replace Netanyahu.
HABAYIT HAYEHUDI (Jewish Home)
Local and international media have crowned Naftali Bennett, founder of this new ultra-nationalist party, a rising star of Israeli politics. A former special forces soldier and multi-millionaire high-tech entrepreneur, Bennet staunchly rejects the notion of a two-state solution and seeks to annex 60 percent of the West Bank, proposing granting Israeli citizenship to Palestinians. Polls predict 14 seats for Habayit Hayehudi, and a cabinet post for Bennett, who served as Netanyahu's chief of staff when Likud led the opposition.
YESH ATID (There is a Future)
Yair Lapid, until recently a revered columnist and news anchorman, is advocating a secular, social agenda focused on curbing rising living costs and imposing military draft on the country's ultra-Orthodox students.Lapid's platform supports the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state and Israel retaining its sovereignty over large settlements blocs in the West Bank. A report in the Ma'ariv daily assessed that Lapid, whose party is expected to win 11 seats, will likely receive the education portfolio in the new government.
SHAS (Union of Sephardic Torah Observers)
An ultra-Orthodox party, a partner of both right and left-wing governments since its creation in 1984, represents a large constituency of religious Jews of Sephardi and advocates narrowing economic and social disparities as well as safeguarding the country's Jewish character. Opinion polls predict it will retain its 11 seats in the Knesset.
HATNUA (The Movement)
Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who last year lost leadership of main opposition party Kadima, announced a political comeback with the founding of the centrist Hatnua in November. Livni has increased her criticism of Netanyahu in the weeks ahead of the election, calling his government "a catastrophe" that endangers Israel. Polls predict 7-11 seats for Livni.