On January 22, Israeli voters will go to the ballot box for national elections that are widely expected to return Binyamin Netanyahu back to the Prime Minister’s Office.When he first triggered the early elections two months ago, Netanyahu was confident that a reshuffling of the deck would land him and his main coalition partners back in power, giving him a fresh mandate to deal with Iran’s renegade nuclear program and other pressing issues. But the political constellation is undergoing major changes as a new generation of hopefuls push out seasoned veterans, while the overall electorate remains tilted to the right.Recent polls indicate that socioeconomic issues are at the forefront of Israeli voters’ concerns. But another major question they are facing is whether Netanyahu can maintain close US-Israel ties during President Barack Obama’s second term, given their rocky relationship over the past four years.Disappearing acts Those bowing out so far include Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who served as Netanyahu’s key partner on confronting Iran and was the government’s main salesman in explaining its policies to Washington. Now in his 70s, Barak says he has served his nation in the army and now in politics for over five decades and wants a break. But the real impetus was probably polls that had his small Independence list dropping below the three-seat threshold needed to make the next Knesset.In the campaign’s first big surprise, Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman announced that they had agreed to field a joint list from their respective parties, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. The move was seen by some at the time as insurance against a possible indictment of Liberman, which indeed eventually came. Although several major charges of money-laundering and other alleged crimes were dropped, Liberman will still face trial on lesser counts of fraud and breach of public trust.Liberman decided to resign as foreign minister in order to concentrate on quickly clearing his name. But he will stay on as Beiteinu’s chairman and take part in the campaign, while hoping to resolve the case against him before the next government is formed in March – either by an expedited trial or a plea bargain arrangement.So Liberman is maneuvering to stay in the race, but the same cannot be said for senior cabinet ministers Bennie Begin and Dan Meridor, who were valued members of Netanyahu’s inner circle but placed poorly in the Likud primaries and thus failed to secure realistic spots on the joint Knesset list.Instead, several young faces espousing hawkish views made it into the party’s top 20 slots, prompting criticism from rival factions that Likud was moving too far to the right for the general electorate.But polls have consistently shown the Likud/Beiteinu joint list easily winning the largest bloc of seats in the next parliament. And most analysts agree that Netanyahu has staked out positions which represent the consensus view in Israel, including his demands that the Palestinians accept a demilitarized state and recognize Israel as a Jewish state.Another early casualty of the campaign was Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a prominent diplomatic voice for Israel over recent years who was surprisingly dropped by Liberman from the Beiteinu list without any explanation.But the biggest disappearing act this election cycle will likely belong to Shaul Mofaz and the Kadima party, which polls show will fall from its current 28 seats to two mandates – thereby dropping off the political map. Mofaz, a former IDF chief-of-staff, bumped off Tzipi Livni in a race for the top spot in Kadima last year. But he has failed to gain any traction with the public or mount an effective challenge as leader of the Opposition.Crowded field Voters for Kadima in the last election are now peeling off to a trio of Center/Left factions that include some new leaders championing social and economic causes while sticking to fairly mainstream positions on the big warand- peace issues.The roster of newcomers begins with Shelly Yacimovich, the former host of a popular radio talk show who squeezed Barak out as chairman of the Labor party two years ago and has led the declining party back to relevance.Her main competitor until recently was another fresh face, Yair Lapid of the newly formed Yesh Atid faction. He is the son of noted Holocaust survivor and sharp-witted television commentator Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who made his own successful entry into politics late in life. The younger Lapid has now left his post as a respected TV news anchor and pulled together a centrist faction built largely around his charismatic personality.Both Lapid and Yacimovich have been reluctant to stake out traditional dovish positions on the peace process, settlements and Jerusalem. Their focus instead has been on equality in army service and narrowing the widening gap between rich and poor in an otherwise prospering Israeli economy.This has demonstrated political pragmatism on their part, but it also has opened the door for the return of Tzipi Livni.After sitting out of politics for the past year, Livni recently decided to make a hasty comeback at the front of her own new faction, brashly called the “Tzipi Livni Party” in English but HaTnua (The Movement) in Hebrew. Livni has contended that only she can unite the Center/Left and present a credible challenge to Netanyahu, based on her performance in the last elections when Kadima actually topped Likud by one Knesset seat.Yet Livni, too, has been cautious about straying too far from the political middle in Israel on key defense and foreign policy questions, which lies decidedly to the right-of-center according to numerous polls and opinion surveys in recent years. Thus, she has defended Netanyahu’s recent decision to approve the building of 3,000 new housing units in eastern Jerusalem and the main settlement blocs, insisting they are a consensus issue in Israel. Livni also has not ruled out sitting in a Netanyahu-led coalition, something she refused to do four years ago.Perhaps the only real chance to unseat Netanyahu was for Livni to join with Labor and Yesh Atid under one combined list that would also have included former prime minister Ehud Olmert. But Israel’s Left field has proven to be too crowded with egos demanding top billing, while Olmert is still fighting a series of corruption charges and concluded there was not enough time for him to mount a serious comeback.Probing for a weak spot Yet Olmert did take a swipe at Netanyahu for deciding last month to approve the thousands of new housing units in eastern Jerusalem and the territories just days after the Obama administration tried – albeit unsuccessfully – to head off an upgrade of the Palestinians’ status at the United Nations.“This is the worst slap in the face of a US president,” Olmert declared at an appearance in New York. In the conversation with a top news editor, he accused Netanyahu of failing to show “gratitude” for Obama’s efforts to oppose the Palestinian statehood bid and of “not being dedicated to the peace process...The government must be replaced.”Such blunt criticism from actual candidates in the current campaign has been missing thus far. Livni may be the one to introduce a sharper tone into the race, given that she is stuck in singledigits.But there are simply not enough votes to the left of Netanyahu to put her over the top.Instead, Netanyahu’s only genuine challenge right now seems to be coming from his right, where the new Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party – a realignment of several hawkish and national religious factions under a promising new leader – is draining away Likud supporters and looks to be the biggest surprise of this election.The party is led by Naftali Bennett, a former elite commando officer and hitech businessman who has served in the past as a chief-of-staff and campaign adviser to Netanyahu. Young and articulate, he has energized the pro-settler movement and is rapidly broadening its appeal through social media outlets.With four weeks left in the campaign – an eternity in Israeli politics – Bennett could end up as the biggest winner of this election round, anchoring Netanyahu and the next government squarely in the conservative camp.The Left’s best shot is to try to pin blame on Netanyahu for the lack of any personal rapport with Obama. But surveys show that most Israelis still believe the problem lies more in an unsympathetic White House.In addition, the fragmented Center/Left has not been able to unite around a single candidate who could truly challenge the Likud leader. Thus, it looks highly likely that Netanyahu, already the nation’s longest serving prime minister since David Ben-Gurion, will return to the premiership once more. But in forming a new coalition government, he will be dealing with ambitious new players Left and Right looking to drive their own agenda.The early electioneering has already been marked by high drama as newcomers rise, familiar faces fall, and at least one former contender attempts a rushed comeback.