Arabs must find their voice in Israeli politics

Israel's hard-liners are in the ascendant as election day nears. Moderates are hopelessly fractured. And Israeli Arabs are politically almost invisible.

An inauguration on one side of the Atlantic, an election on the other. US president Barack Obama was sworn in for a second term last night, and it looks increasingly likely that Benjamin Netanyahu will return as Israel's prime minister. Relations between the two are tense: the Obama White House did not like how openly Mr Netanyahu showed his support for Mitt Romney. And Israeli leaders have not missed the hints of displeasure coming out of Washington.

But relations with the US will be just one of the problems Mr Netanyahu will face if he indeed maintains the mantle. First, he will have to cobble together a working coalition from Israel's notoriously scrappy political landscape.

The make-up of Israel's politics, both before and after the election, will have a profound effect on how willing Israel's government is to make peace with the Palestinians in the coming years.

Voting in Israel has become increasingly polarised, and this election is likely to see the final end to the liberal left as a force in Israeli politics. The settler movement, peddling an extremist fantasy of permanently colonising Palestinian land, and the so-called "Russian vote", the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union states, are combining to push Israel's politics to the right. The "Russian vote" has no interest in peace with the Palestinians and indeed precious little understanding of the history of the region: many openly call for Arabs to be removed, often using inflammatory language.

What passes as the "moderate" wing in Israeli politics is in turmoil. Kadima, the formerly governing centrist party, is split, with Tzipi Livni, once the head of the party, leaving to form her own party. Only the centre-left Labour party is likely to pose much of a threat to the dominance of Netanyahu's Likud party.

The centre has disintegrated for many reasons, but at least a contributory factor has been its unwillingness to speak to Israel's Arabs. At least 20 per cent of Israel's population is Arab, descendants of Palestinians who were not driven out in 1948. Yet neither Kadima nor Labour has courted their votes, and Haneen Zoabi, a member of the Israeli parliament, has expressed disappointment that Arab citizens are not voting in large numbers.

How much these overlapping lines blend into a post-election peace is yet to be seen. The precedent is not good. Mr Netanyahu remains as intransigent as ever and, beset on all sides by political opponents more radical than he is, he is pushing ever harder towards being the most right-wing prime minister in recent Israeli history. That will not be good for the Palestinians, and will not be good for the Israelis.