While Arab countries are struggling to redefine themselves amid violence, Israel is poised to wrestle with its own identity crisis - at the polls.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to call an early ballot in March has precipitated a most unusual election season, with stark implications not only for Israelis, but also for the Middle East and the United States.

Under Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister since its first, David Ben-Gurion, this basically centrist country has drifted steadily rightward. The Israeli settler movement has become a driving force within Netanyahu's Likud party, pushing for outright annexation of much of the West Bank.

Likud members of parliament and even a cabinet minister have openly called for a Jewish "third temple" to be built on top of the ancient Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews, even though key rabbis oppose a move that would threaten to transform the Israel-Palestine conflict from a territorial struggle into a religious war. Meanwhile, Israel has been convulsed by a right-wing push for a law that would define Israel as a Jewish state in a way that could further marginalize the 20 percent of its citizens who are Arabs. All this has soured relationships with European leaders and President Obama.

So for many Israelis and supporters of Israel abroad, the coming election is a contest of fundamental values.

"This election is critical because it will show in which direction Israel is headed," said Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, which works "to ensure Israel's future and the viability of Israel's democracy."

These elections will also be critical in shaping Israel's relationship with the rest of the world.

Domestic social and economic issues - and personalities - will figure heavily in the campaign. Netanyahu's critics argue that he has failed to deliver on the economy, and polls show voters may have tired of him as a leader. Unless there is a major terrorist act or the United Nations quickly takes up the question of Palestinian statehood, the Palestine issue isn't likely to be front and center in the campaign.

At present, polls show that the center-left Labor Party, led by Isaac Herzog, paired with the small, centrist Hatnua party, led by Tzipi Livni, to be slightly ahead of Likud. The battle may be decided by other, midsize parties that range from far right to religious to secular center-right. Some of these would have to form a coalition with Labor or Likud to form a majority in parliament, and Netanyahu could still prevail.

Yet beneath the bread-and-butter issues, identity politics will be central. The question is whether the Jewish state can remain a democracy if it keeps control over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza or diminishes civic rights for its Arab citizens.

The far-right Jewish Home party, now in a coalition with Likud and pulling it rightward, is pressing for the annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank, along with unlimited Jewish settlement there. Such policies would rule out any future deal with the Palestinians, when the current turmoil in the Arab world may have abated. They would also undermine the new cooperation between Israel and some Sunni Arab countries on fighting terrorism.

"These elections are an important crossroads for Israel because the window for a two-state solution is closing rapidly," said Gilead Sher, who was chief of staff for former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The vast majority of Israelis, he said, "still support a Jewish, democratic Israel, but the moment is late to disengage from the Palestinians and have two states side by side."

A victory by Israel's far right could rule that option out once and for all.

The Labor Party's Herzog has staked out a very different position on security issues. "There has to be a clear centrist alternative to Bibi Netanyahu," he told the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum last week. He said he believes "in freezing settlements outside the blocs" of settlements near Israel's pre-1967 borders (for which Israeli territory would be traded to the Palestinians in any peace deal). He also said "there is no other choice, despite all the fears," but to renew efforts to resolve the Palestinian conflict.

"It is possible, absolutely possible still, to make peace with the Palestinians," he said.

The bottom line for centrists is that unless Israel separates from the Palestinians, enabling them to have full political and sovereign rights, it cannot maintain the democratic character of the Jewish state.

Many Israeli security experts agree with this position, including retired generals and former heads of the Shin Bet (Israel's domestic security service) and the Mossad (its CIA equivalent).

But what also propels Netanyahu's opponents is the belief that the Israeli leader has been cavalier about the consequences of alienating European allies and the White House. Israel's settlement policy has strengthened an international boycott movement, partly aimed at goods from West Bank settlements and partly at those from Israel proper. And some European countries have recognized Palestinian statehood or are poised to do so.

Herzog stressed that he would work to repair relationships with Israel's allies, especially Obama.

"One of my first steps," Herzog said at the Saban Forum, "would be to mend that relationship. The U.S. is still our closest ally." He said he would work to prevent Israel from sliding "dangerously into becoming an isolated state."

The Israeli elections will go far toward determining whether that happens.

"The choice," said Nir, "is between two worldviews - a nationalistic, messianic, xenophobic worldview, or one that reflects the values of a modern, pragmatic, pluralistic, democratic Israel."

I agree.