Israel's paranoid slide to the right pushes it towards a cliff

Israel will surely elect another right-wing government. The only questions are "how far right?" and "how will the world react?".

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An Israeli election, such as is being held on January 22, would normally be heralded by alarmist headlines proclaiming "last chance for peace" or "make or break". This election, however, is being passed over almost in silence.

Barring some wild surprise, the incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will return to form a new government, a rare example of continuity in Israeli political life. But this election is not between left and right: the right-wing Mr Netanyahu is fighting to avoid being outflanked by upstart parties, even more hardline and uncompromising on the Palestinian issue than he.

One of these, the Jewish Home party, founded by multimillionaire internet entrepreneur Naftali Bennett, favours annexation of the 60 per cent of the West Bank which is known as Area C, home to 350,000 Jewish settlers. This plan would put the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution, and makes the prime minister seem like a model of diplomatic caution.

The world has yet to come to terms with what looks likely to be a new line-up of political forces. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, concludes that Israel is heading for "national suicide" with its "self-isolating settlement adventure". Israeli ambassadors meanwhile are questioning how they can defend government decisions - such as building on the last usable patch of Palestinian land east of Jerusalem, a parcel known as E1 - which appear to outsiders as simply vindictive.

More interesting than the pre-election opinion polls is a survey by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that found that almost 40 per cent of the population was considering leaving the country to find a better life elsewhere. In Israel, abandoning the country used to be considered a form of cowardice and treachery. Not anymore.

In fact, the main reason for wanting to leave is not fear of an Iranian nuclear bomb or Hamas rockets. If Israelis genuinely felt their country were under threat of annihilation by Iran - as Mr Netanyahu likes to say - they would no doubt feel obliged to stay and defend it. The survey shows that 55 per cent said they wanted to leave because of the difficulty of getting ahead economically.

The results of the survey have been dismissed by right-wing commentators as no more than dinner party chitchat dressed up as a social trend by the intelligentsia's favourite newspaper. Only 2 per cent of those polled said they were definitely leaving the country. But still there is bedrock of reality here.

On the streets of London and New York, you can hear modern Hebrew spoken by the Israeli diaspora. There are said to be 250,000 Israelis in the US. At the most basic level, educated Israelis leave for the same reasons that other people abandon small countries: there are not enough good jobs for them at home, while US universities and Silicon Valley provide almost unlimited opportunities.

But there are deeper reasons. In the summer of 2011, the middle class took to the streets to protest against high rents and the feeling that the economy was controlled by a few of super-rich families. While the middle classes paid the taxes, the religious sections of society, gained in political weight due to their large families, lived off welfare.

Those feelings have grown even stronger since then to such an extent that it is now common for secular Jews of European origin - the spearhead of the early Zionist movement and backbone of the state until recent times - to claim they have been reduced to just another minority, like the Russians, the religious or the Jews of Middle Eastern origin.

This feeling of having lost control of government hardly reflects the facts. But it has loosened their ties to the state. For many the alienation is exemplified by what one economic exile described to Haaretz as the "fanatical, illiberal" political discourse which offers no long-term hope of peace.

You can easily see this in the difference between the smooth-talking veteran politician Shimon Peres, now serving as president, and the new generation, exemplified by the polarising figure of Soviet-born Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and Mr Netanyahu's election partner who has called for Arab members of the Israeli parliament who meet Hamas figures to be executed.

The chances of a return to power of the Labour party are close to zero these days.

From an outside perspective, it might not make much difference. Mr Peres, when prime minister, led settlement efforts. Ehud Barak, supposedly the great peace-maker, was in charge when Israel made a dash to grab territory ahead of the final-status talks called for by the Oslo peace accords. The so-called peace party failed utterly to create peace, so what is new? The tone is new, and sooner or later, it will lead to action.

The rise of the ultra-right, as exemplified by Mr Bennett's Jewish Home party, shows that a growing proportion of the electorate wants a plan to deal with Palestinians, in place of Mr Netanyahu's diplomatic stasis that pretends, against all the evidence, that negotiations with the Palestinian leadership are possible.

Such a plan is likely to lead down only one path: taking advantage of the turmoil in the Arab world to annex the settlement blocs and draw a unilateral border around them, isolating Palestinians behind high walls in Gaza and the West Bank.

This is not on the agenda today, but it is the logical conclusion of the rightward shift of the Israeli voter. The big question is whether the Israelis, as they move to the right and adopt a harsher discourse, will lose their international support. President Barack Obama, as he tries to disentangle the US from the Middle East, could never accept Israeli annexation of large swathes of the West Bank, with all the anger this would entail throughout the region. But he has to realise that annexation, not peace, is the topic of this and future Israeli election campaigns.

On Twittter: @aphilps