Opinion polls have forecast that the Likud would win roughly 29 seats in the 120-member parliament, making it the largest single party and putting Netanyahu in position to form a new coalition government. The polls predict the nationalist and religious parties that dominate his current coalition will likely control a majority of seats in the next parliament as well.
Netanyahu could be vulnerable if the focus of the campaign veers from diplomatic issues to social ones. The government has come under fire for the growing gap between rich and poor.
The dovish Labor Party has seen its support grow after mass social protests against the country's high cost of living drew hundreds of thousands to the streets in the summer of 2011. Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich tends to favor a strong government safety net and is running a campaign primarily on jobs and the economy.
In a setback for Netanyahu, one of his most popular Cabinet ministers announced late Sunday that he was leaving politics. Moshe Kahlon has been the Likud minister closest to working-class voters, and in his role as communications minister, has won accolades for taking on Israel's powerful wireless cartel and forcing them to lower prices by introducing new competitors.
Hebrew University political scientist Gayil Talshir said Kahlon's departure could hurt Likud's standing with its base of Mizrahi Jews, those of Middle Eastern descent. Kahlon, the son of Libyan immigrants, grew up in a hardscrabble town and is one of the few Mizrahi politicians in the upper echelons of the Likud.
"For the first time in an election, the economic and social issues are going to be on the top of agenda. And Kahlon could have helped with this, so it's a very, very big loss," she said.
Yachimovich is sure to capitalize on Netanyahu's image as a cold advocate of free markets and capitalism. Mofaz, the opposition leader, has seen his Kadima Party slip badly in the polls, while a new centrist party led by former TV anchorman Yair Lapid remains something of an unknown. Pressure is on the three to unite into a "superparty" that could challenge Likud.
Another issue that could hurt Netanyahu is the unresolved status of draft exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jewish males.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ordered the exemptions to stop and that alternative legislation be drafted. Mofaz even briefly joined the government in an attempt to find a solution, to no avail.
Israel's secular majority, which has to serve compulsory military service, resents these exemptions. Secular Israelis are also alarmed by ultra-Orthodox efforts to segregate the sexes in public, their widespread reliance on state handouts, and a school system that teaches religious studies but few skills for the work world.
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