If you want to understand what is concerning ordinary Israelis as they prepare to cast their ballots next week, the most revealing poll is also the one that has received least attention. A few weeks after Ariel Sharon broke up his Likud party to form a new “centrist” faction, Kadima, his advisers conducted a poll to find out how potential voters would respond if its list of candidates included an Arab.
The results were unequivocal: Kadima would lose votes equivalent to between five and seven seats in the 120-member Knesset from Israeli Jews worried that they might be helping to elect an Arab.
Even allowing for a potential increase in Kadima’s support from the country’s Arab minority (a fifth of the population), the party decided the gamble was not worth it. Ahmad Dabah, an Arab mayor, was placed 51st on the list, with no hope of being elected.
Sharon established his new party late last year as an escape chute from Likud before its drift rightward became terminal. Kadima promised instead to occupy the centre ground of politics, representing the Israeli “consensus”.
But that consensus is looking increasingly like a Jewish, not an Israeli, one. The country’s one million Arabs are not being invited to join the party in every possible sense.
The principle of ethnic separation was always at the heart of the Jewish nation-building project. Hundreds of rural communities - including the kibbutz communes established after the state’s birth in 1948 - are strictly off-limits to the country’s one million Arab citzens. Even in the the handful of “mixed” cities, Arabs inhabit their own isolated neighbourhoods.
Divisions are also enforced in the education system, with separate Arab and Jewish schools; and the “Hebrew labour” philosophy inherited from Zionism’s pioneers means that much of the workplace is segregated too.
Decades of quiescence by the Arab minority have done nothing to reverse the antipathy of the Jewish majority. Another poll this week, published by the liberal Haaretz newspaper, showed that 68 per cent of Israeli Jews reject living near an Arab - and 41 per cent want apartheid-style separate recreation facilities. Surveys show repeatedly that nearly half of Israeli Jews favour the forced emigration of Arabs from Israel.
But Kadima’s decision to exclude all meaningful Arab representation from its list points to a far more worrying stage in this ideology of separation.
Kadima’s expected success - according to projections, it is looking at up to 40 seats - has depended on the public’s close association of the party with the policy of unilateral separation. Sharon proved his own commitment to separation with his disengagement from Gaza last year and the building of a fence-cum-wall across the West Bank.
Sharon’s successor as leader of Kadima, Ehud Olmert, will extend the program, promising further small disengagements from the West Bank in an attempt - in his own words - to draw the “final borders” of an expanded Jewish state. It is the triumph of the “We are here, and they are there” philosophy articulated by two recent Labor prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.
But what kind of a Jewish state inside final borders is Olmert proposing? Well, to start with, one whose consensus has been crafted to silence a fifth of the population. But there may be worse to come if, as expected, Kadima romps home to victory.
According to the Israeli media, Olmert has been flirting with a small but increasingly popular far-right party whose seats he may well need to prop up the coalition government he must form. Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party is being hailed as the most likely kingmaker after the elections.
He could also be the face of a very unpleasant future.
Lieberman, the Likud’s director-general in the days of Binyamin Netanyahu’s premiership, is a darling of the right. But in truth he is far closer to Kadima than Likud.
Whereas Likud under Netanyahu rejects all talk of separation and disengagement from the Palestinians as a solution to the conflict, Lieberman is the arch-advocate of “reciprocal” - as opposed to unilateral - separation. In short, he believes that, if Israel is making sacrifices in Gaza and the West Bank by “expelling” settlers from their homes, then the Arab minority currently living in Israel should expect to pay a similar price.
He wants hundreds of thousands of Arab citizens who live in a small area of Israel adjacent to the northern tip of the West Bank to have their homes transferred out of the Jewish state and incorporated into what will be left of a ghetto Palestinian state behind Israel’s separation barrier.
He also wants any remaning Arabs to be stripped of their citizenship unless they pledge loyalty to a “Jewish and democratic state”. In signing up, they will forfeit the right to vote for Arab parties, which demand Israel’s transformation from a Jewish state into a “state of all its citizens”.
Lieberman is said to believe that the citizenship of up to 90 per cent of the Arab population can be annulled this way. And what he is saying publicly, there is every indication Kadima is saying privately.
For some time the Hebrew media have been reporting Sharon’s interest in land swaps with the Palestinians as a way - in one fell swoop - to annex the settlement blocs and to strip Israel’s Arab minority of its citizenship in a Jewish state. Olmert is assumed to be just as keen.
Kadima appears to be on a winning streak. Separation of the crudest and most ruthless kind is now, as the polls all too clearly demonstrate, precisely what the Israeli consensus demands.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State published by Pluto Press, and available in the United States from the University of Michigan Press.