UPDATE: The final polls before Israel's parliamentary elections show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing bloc with a healthy lead over the center-left opposition.
A Dialog service poll from Friday predicted that the group led by Netanyahu's Likud party (which includes hawkish and religious parties) will win 63 seats compared to the opposition's 57, according to the Associated Press.
Since this original article was published, Israel's foreign minister and leader of ultra-nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Leiberman, has resigned. Before Leiberman was found guilty of breach of trust in a case brought against him, he and Netanyahu had merged their parties in order to contest the elections.
The Likud-Beiteinu joint ticket is now at its weakest since the campaign began, Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted, predicted to win 32 Knesset seats. The closest center-left party, Labor, is predicted to win 17 seats.
The original piece was published on December 10, 2012:
Israel has scheduled parliamentary elections for Jan. 22 to elect the 19th Knesset, Israel's legislative body. The Middle Eastern democracy has a constantly changing political landscape with a myriad of parties gaining and losing power.
To understand the shifting sands of Israeli politics and what they mean for the rest of the world, we turned to GlobalPost Senior Correspondent in Israel Noga Tarnopolsky. She noted that Israel's international standing seems a lot more precarious now compared to any other election. These are also the first elections taking place since the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East, changing the political and diplomatic landscape in the region.
"Israel will now be electing a leader who urgently needs to shore up important international ties (Europe, Turkey, even the US), and who will also find him/herself navigating the very choppy waters of the evolving Arab Spring," Tarnopolsky said.
As for how unpredictable Israeli elections can be, Tarnopolsky said, "For now the bloc Netanyahu leads has a very comfortable lead – but it's an unstable, multi-party parliamentary system and, odd as it sounds, electioneering has not really started."
"Shas, the party Netanyahu made a pre-electoral deal with in the last elections, is now in disarray. Livni, who actually won the largest number of votes last time, is suddenly running. Netanyahu is respected by many but liked by very few. He remains the favorite, but lots could change," she said.
GlobalPost has created this guide to help the international reader understand the Israeli elections, which could have a significant impact on the entire region in the coming years. Here are some of the major political parties and their key players.
Likud & Yisrael Beiteinu
Leader(s): Benjamin Netanyahu & Avigdor Lieberman
Current number of Knesset seats: 27, 15
Predicted number of Knesset seats: 39
The current Israeli government is led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the conservative Likud party. In recent party primaries, the Knesset list chosen by Likud party members moved right of center, leaning toward more hawkish and right-wing politicians, noted the Jerusalem Post.
The rightward shift was cemented in late October, when Netanyahu and coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman decided to merge the Knesset list of Likud with Lieberman's right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu, according to Reuters.
Lieberman, who leads Beiteinu ("Israel is our home"), an ultra-nationalist party, has waged a campaign against the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, raising concerns about the political coalition's willingness to engage in a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, the Jerusalem Post noted at the time.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu's international standing has been damaged, according to the Associated Press, by his insistence that Israel will go ahead with planning for 3,000 new settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The settlements announcement came after the United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade the Palestinians' diplomatic status to a nonmember observer state.
Netanyahu faced censure from his allies in Europe and the US for the settlements plan, but Reuters speculated that the settlements plan may be beneficial for him during the upcoming elections.
Leader: Shelly Yachimovich
Current number of Knesset seats: 8
Predicted number of Knesset seats: 17
The Labor Party held its primaries on Nov. 29, leaving it with a list of candidates dominated by social activists and former journalists. The centrist party includes six former journalists, including party leader Shelly Yachimovich, the AP noted.
The Labor party has historic roots, having led the country to independence in 1948, but was flagging before Yachimovich took over leadership and focused on the country's social and economic problems. The social-democratic party represents the union of three socialist-labor parties, and has alternated in governing Israel with Likud. Its support base includes secular and Ashkenazi (European) Jews, trade unionists and those living on kibbutz.
If Labor won the projected number of seats, according to the latest polls, it would be Israeli's second largest party in the Knesset.
Leader: Eli Yishai
Current number of Knesset seats: 11
Predicted number of Knesset seats: 12
Eli Yishai managed to hold onto his leadership position as the candidate list for Shas was published on December 6, according to the Times of Israel. Shas is an ultra-Orthodox religious political party, founded in 1984 to represent the interests of religiously observant Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jews. It became Israel's third-largest party by the late 1990s by broadening its appeal with secular Sephardic Jews.
Ynet News noted that tensions between leader Yishai and Aryeh Deri were palpable ahead of the leadership election, because the two men agreed to share the leadership, along with Ariel Atias, after a decree from Shas' spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Deri told supporters at a political rally that Shas wants to promote two agendas in the upcoming elections: "the social one and the Jewish one."
Leader: Yair Lapid
Current number of Knesset seats: N/A
Predicted number of Knesset seats: 6
Yesh Atid announced its Knesset list on Sunday, coining the slogan, "We've come to change," according to the Jerusalem Post. Nearly half the list was made up of women. Yair Lapid, a recently resigned journalist and leader of the party, said the problem with other parties in Israel was that everyone said, "you need an enemy."
Lapid said he rejected that style of politics, saying if "we have any enemy, it’s cynicism, people who see there is no reason to try to change, people who give [up], and just say the state has fallen apart."
According to the Times of Israel, Labor and Yesh Atid signed an agreement to pool extra votes — votes over the threshold for the final number of Knesset seats but below the threshold for another seat.
Leader: Tzipi Livni
Current number of Knesset seats: N/A
Predicted number of Knesset seats: 9
Tzipi Livni, who once led the center-right Kadima party and served as Israel's foreign minister, launched her party as a centrist alternative to Likud. Speaking in Tel Aviv in late November, she said, "I've come to fight for Israel." She said she would fight for peace, for a Jewish Israel, for a democratic Israel, "a state in which all, but all of its citizens, with no difference of nationality and religion, are citizens with equal rights," according to The New York Times.
However, Livni was criticized by the leaders of other center-left parties, who said her bid was selfish and would further divide the vote against Netanyahu. Her party has attracted some members of the Kadima party to change allegiances, but polls showed a lukewarm reception from the public.
Leader: Zahava Gal-On
Current number of Knesset seats: 3
Predicted number of Knesset seats: 3
Meretz is a left-wing, Zionist, social-democratic party, originally formed in 1992 and reaching its peak between 1992 and 1996, when it held 12 seats. Focused on fostering peace with the Palestinians and religious freedom, the party is led by Zahava Gal-On.
Gal-On told Haaretz, "Meretz is the only party in Israel today that considers itself leftist, with an all-encompassing left-wing worldview that makes the connection between the Palestinian issue and social justice," in early November. She pointed out that since Meretz was the only party not running for Prime Minister, they would stand in opposition to a Netanyahu government.
Kadima, founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon as a centrist breakaway from Likud, seems to be collapsing, with members defecting to Labor, Likud or former leader Tzipi Livni's party Hatnuah, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Ehud Barak's breakaway Independence party is now defunct, after the Israeli Defense Minister announced on Nov. 26, that he would leave politics. The Associated Press noted that the announcement came despite his party gaining momentum after Israeli's campaign against Hamas in Gaza.
All the projections for number of Knesset seats are taken from the Haaretz-Dialog poll published on Dec. 10, 2012.