When Jorg Haider's far-right Freedom Party joined the governing coalition in Austria in 2000, the world offered a collective retch and moved to isolate the country. In the past fortnight, a startlingly similar far-right politician named Avigdor Lieberman has joined the governing coalition in Israel - in the lofty position of Deputy Prime Minister - but the world's gagging reflex has yet to respond.
Lieberman is an ex-nightclub bouncer, once arrested for attacking a boy who he suspected of insulting his son. His party, Yisrael Beytenu (Israel, Our Home), has campaigned on two ugly issues. The first is the claim that Israel's two million Arab citizens are "a danger to the country", to be dispensed with, in part, by ethnic cleansing. Lieberman wanted to bus thousands of released Palestinian prisoners to the Dead Sea and drown them.
Today, he has moderated his stance and merely wants to "transfer" many hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs - inevitably by force - to the scraps of remaining land that will be labelled Palestine after Israel has annexed the major illegal settlement blocks. If your name's not on the list, you're not staying in.
His model is Cyprus in the 1970s, where the mixed Turkish and Greek populations were separated out at gunpoint. "The final result was better," he sighs. "Minorities are the biggest problem in the world." He would like to begin these racist expulsions with a simple, swift move: executing Israeli Arab members of the Knesset. Since they have spoken to the democratically elected Palestinian leadership, they are "traitors", Lieberman argues.
His second issue has been an attempt to streamline and centralise power into the hands of one Strong Man. Lieberman grew up in the Soviet Union. His support base is overwhelmingly among the one million Jews who emigrated to Israel after the fall of Communism. Much as they despised Soviet anti-Semitism, many have imbibed Soviet habits of mind and do not see why faffing about with coalitions and supreme courts should be allowed to get in the way of the Great Leader vanquishing the Great Enemy.
It is important to stress that Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, says he rejects Lieberman's views, and will not carry out his policies. But he has placed Lieberman in charge of the largest single issue in Israeli politics - how to respond to Iran's imminent nuclear bomb. We already know his views on this: Lieberman was calling for bombing of Iran as long ago as 2001, and says Israel is "on the frontline of the clash of religions".
The silence that has greeted Lieberman's appointment is a bleak sign of how far Israel has drifted to the right. In the 1980s, a fascist called Rabbi Meir Kahane emerged calling for a Lieberman-style "pure Jewish state" that was "cleansed of Arab contaminants" and "stripped of liberal democratic illusions". He was execrated by everyone and banned by the Supreme Court from sitting in the Knesset even as a fringe member. Yet today, only a handful of heroic Israelis have spoken out at the appointment of Lieberman to the deputy premiership. One Labour cabinet minister - one - resigned, saying it would be a betrayal of everything the Jews have learned to sit alongside "a racist".
It is revealing that ethnic cleansing would re-emerge as a mainstream issue in Israel politics now, as the country undergoes a national nervous breakdown. This summer, in the sands of Lebanon, Israel effectively lost a war for the first time. (In his testimony before a Knesset committee last month, Olmert was reduced to defiantly bragging, "Half of Lebanon was destroyed - is that a loss?"). The country's political class is on life support just as surely as Ariel Sharon, with the President facing rape charges and Olmert facing a battery of corruption allegations.
In the midst of all this, a national taboo has melted away. Anybody who studies the history with open eyes can now see that ethnic cleansing of Palestine's indigenous population was Israel's original sin, a prerequisite for the state to come into existence. Today the Israeli people feel their existence is threatened once more, so they are returning in their minds - via Lieberman - to those birth crimes in the search for solutions.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding father, wrote in 1937, "I support compulsory transfer. I do not see in it anything immoral ... The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war." The brave Israeli historian Ilan Pappe's new book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, documents in detail how Ben Gurion's plan was carried out, village by village, town by town, in 1948. The Jewish soldiers who carried out this crime were often still emaciated from the Nazi concentration camps, trying desperately to convince themselves that these totally innocent Arab peasants were somehow akin to Nazis - that Adolf Hitler was hiding in Ramallah, or Bethlehem, or Nablus.
Lieberman's argument is, in essence, that the ethnic cleansing of 1948 did not go far enough. Yes, 800,000 were driven out - but almost as many were left behind, a "fifth column" within Israel, who must now be dealt with.
The best symbol of how Israeli thinking has cracked and reverted to an earlier, base impulse is the historian Benny Morris, who I met up with last time he was in London. In the 1980s, Morris became a hero to the Israeli and international left because he was the first man brave enough to pore into the declassified Israeli military archives from the 1940s and show how Israel's founders carried out the expulsion of the Palestinians.
But then at the height of the second intifada, he gave an interview in which he said he had been misunderstood all these years. All this time he was talking about ethnic cleansing, he didn't mean it was a bad thing. No - "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands," he said. It would have been "much better" if they had driven out all the Arabs, he declared.
The ugliest strains in Israeli political thought are rising to the surface. There have always been some anti-democratic forces in the country - Sharon considered mounting a military coup in 1967, for example. There have always been ethnic cleansers, from Ben Gurion to the politicians who today authorise the blowing up of "unpermitted" Arab (never Jewish) houses in East Jerusalem, a process I have witnessed myself.
But Avigdor Lieberman is a logo for all this at its most extreme, and today he is only a few bullets away from the Premiership. For the sake of the Palestinians, for the sake of Israel itself, now is the time for the world to jolt Israel, just as we jolted Austria back from its dark dance with the far right.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies