AFP- The Israeli right looks set to make a strong comeback in the February 10 election, riding a hardline shift in a society haunted by security fears and weary after years of faltering peace talks.
Leading candidates from across the political spectrum are competing in the hard-talk stakes on burning security issues such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.
Polls project former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hawkish Likud party the big winner, and have the rightwing parties poised to garner a comfortable majority in the 120-member parliament.
And although pollsters say that most Israelis support a Middle East peace deal, Netanyahu's tough stance towards the Palestinians has made him the country's most popular politician.
The rise of Yisrael Beitenu -- whose firebrand leader Avigdor Lieberman wants to expel Arab citizens -- is the clearest indicator of the lurch to the right. The ultra-nationalists may become Israel's third-largest party.
"Security is the hot topic," said Asher Arian, political science professor at the Israel Democracy Institute.
The 2006 election campaign was marked by a debate on how to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this time peacemaking does not figure high on the agenda.
That may be explained by the last three years under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that began with a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon -- perceived in Israel as a failure -- and ended with a deadly offensive in Gaza.
Coupled with the fear that Israel's arch-foe Iran could have a nuclear bomb within years, the rightwing parties' hardline platform appeals more than ever, experts say.
"The security question has always been the most important issue in elections," said Gerald Steinberg, professor of political studies at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan university.
"Before the last elections there was a feeling that the country could do without generals in government, and we saw what that led to in the wars in Lebanon, in Gaza. The public today wants leaders with experience in security."
Israel's devastating 22-day onslaught on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip ended three weeks before polling day and brought a surge in the dismally low public approval ratings of Defence Minister Ehud Barak and his Labour party.
But opinion polls also showed that the offensive dubbed Operation Cast Lead considerably strengthened Lieberman, who has long called for crushing military action against Hamas.
"The public likes activist leaders with a militant approach. Talking peace is out of fashion in these elections," Arian said.
During the tumultuous Olmert years, Israelis and Palestinians failed to make headway in the peace process despite intensive efforts led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who today fronts the centrist Kadima party.
The lack of tangible progress, the rise of the radical Islamist Hamas movement and the perceived weakness of Israel's peace partner, moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, all contributed to sidelining peace issues.
Feeling the public pulse, both Livni and Barak have adopted tough rhetoric and emphasised their commitment to protecting Israel.
"The operation in Gaza has ended, but the struggle is not yet over. We will have to continue striking the extremists and talking with moderates in the Arab world," Livni says on Kadima's website, www.kadima.org.il.
Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier, led intensive peace talks with the Palestinians when he was premier in 2000.
But in a meeting with Russian-speakers last week, he reached back to a quote made famous by Vladimir Putin when he first ran for the Russian presidency in 1999, vowing to hit Chechen "terrorists" wherever they may be.
"As they say in your neck of the woods, whack them in the outhouse," Barak told his audience in heavily accented Russian.
"The elections are an extension of the Gaza war. They reflect the current situation and talking peace is inconvenient for the candidates," Arian said.
Israel's former ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon, who is standing on the Yisrael Beitenu list, said the public feels more secure with the right.
"Following the war in Gaza and the 2006 war against Hezbollah, a large section of the public place their trust in the right-wing parties," he told AFP.
"We live in an area that is still a jungle, where there is no room for the weak to survive."
Ron Pundak, director of the Peres Centre for Peace, says Israelis feel threatened on all fronts.
"The Israeli public is imbued with a basic paranoia... and a sense that we are constantly threatened from all directions," said Pundak, an architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians.