(Ultra-Orthodox Jews, wearing hats covered with plastic against the rain, talk in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighbourhood January 8, 2013.  REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

With Israel’s election days away, Orthodox Jews swayed in prayer at a meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, delaying his entrance while politicians waited politely.

The image captured a sea change in Israeli politics.

Orthodox Jews have left niche parties to join Likud and other mainstream factions, challenging the dominance of non-observant politicians and infusing Israeli politics with religious fervor and a harder line on the Palestinian conflict.

Opinion polls predict that religious politicians will end up with a record 40 of parliament’s 120 seats after Tuesday’s vote, compared with 25 in the outgoing assembly elected in 2009. Two decades ago only a score of lawmakers were religiously Orthodox.

While some Israelis rejoice, some in the secular majority fear the trend may alter the identity of a nation which has never marked out the troublesome boundaries between religion and state – and which also has a substantial Arab Muslim minority.