The party's central committee chose relatively unknown hawks to lead its slate, pushing sitting cabinet ministers to lower places.

Polls show Likud winning only about 15 seats in the 120-seat chamber, a drop from the 40 it has in the current parliament. The Kadima party of Ariel Sharon, the ailing prime minister who quit Likud to set it up, would take about 45 seats, even if Sharon himself does not run because of the stroke he suffered.

As the election by the 3,000-member central committee began, the four Likud cabinet ministers grudgingly gave in to an order to resign from Benjamin Netanyahu, a spat that further tarnished the image of the battered party.

The first two slots on the election slate were reserved for Netanyahu, the party leader, and Silvan Shalom, the foreign minister.

The top vote-getter was hard-line parliament backbencher Moshe Kachlon, placed third on the list.

The next well-known name on the list was Reuven Rivlin, the parliament speaker, in the seventh slot, followed by Dan Naveh, the health minister.

The party's two other cabinet ministers were pushed down to 11th and 13th spots.

Vital interests

Only two of the top 15 candidates selected by the central committee supported Sharon's Gaza withdrawal.

"We will promise secure borders for the state and we will promise a unified Jerusalem"

Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud party leader

Welcoming the make-up of the list, Netanyahu, who resigned from the cabinet in protest just days before the beginning of the withdrawal, said his party would work to protect what it sees as Israel's vital interests.

"We will promise secure borders for the state and we will promise a unified Jerusalem," he said, criticising the planned government decision next Sunday to allow Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote in parliamentary elections.

"No nation divides its capital. No nation places in the centre of its capital enemies who are sworn to its destruction."