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Goin​g for the Brass Ring

February 5, 2009
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 A pall of uncertainty and despair hangs over Israel as its citizens head to the polls next week to elect a new leader. The enthusiasm and optimism that accompanied the election of Barack Obama, despite the problems he inherited, are nowhere to be found in the streets of Jerusalem, Haifa or Beersheva.

Instead, Israelis face a difficult political choice at a time of diplomatic, economic -- even existential -- turmoil.

Ehud Olmert, once seen as a positive force as he took over the centrist Kadima Party founded by Ariel Sharon, announced his resignation in July amid a slew of corruption scandals. An ideologue turned pragmatist, the former mayor of Jerusalem followed Sharon's own transformational thinking that unilateral disengagement from Gaza was the way to go in the absence of a Palestinian partner for peace.

But when he became prime minister in 2006, after Sharon was debilitated by a stroke, Olmert's tenure was wracked by scandal and two wars, first with Hezbollah in Lebanon, then with Hamas in Gaza.

Through it all, Olmert hoped that peace would be his eventual legacy, insisting as recently as November, during his last visit to the United States, that a treaty with the Palestinians was still possible.

Now Israelis are faced with the choice of 20 parties -- testament once again to Israel's vibrant democracy. The party with the most votes gets the big prize: first dibs on trying to form a coalition government.

Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud appears poised to make a political comeback, the current front-runner in his quest to become prime minister yet again.

Running behind him is Tzipi Livni, the Kadima Party leader and current foreign minister, who just months ago was seen as a shoe-in to replace the discredited Olmert, her party rival, and Ehud Barak of Labor, another former prime minister and current defense minister.

But another key victor could be Avigdor Lieberman, the hard-line Russian whose tough talk of demanding "loyalty oaths" from Israeli Arabs is anathema to many Israelis. His growing popularity is proof once again that the extremists and the terrorists in the region can succeed in driving Israeli public opinion. It's not difficult to prey on the fears of Israelis, who have still not recovered from a grueling battle with Hamas in Gaza and are anxious about the growing threat from Iran.

Whatever the results of the vote next week, we are likely to see the usual horse-trading that generally characterizes coalition-building in Israel. It could be March or beyond before we see a new government in place.

Whoever is elected to lead the country will have to make difficult choices and hard calculations. He or she will need to work with the Obama administration, which has made clear that tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict is a high priority.

The path ahead is a difficult one. American Jews will likely be quick to offer their advice, to caution against or urge movement in one direction or another.

One thing we know is that political labels in Israel were turned on their head when Sharon, the hard-line warrior turned statesman painfully extricated Israel from the Gaza Strip. So talk of a government that will be right-wing, right-center or hard-line is premature.

What we need now is a good dose of humility as we watch our brothers and sisters in Israel head to the polls at this crucial and difficult moment. We need to celebrate the vital democracy that we and they take for granted in a region woefully bereft of such freedoms -- and wish them strength as they cast what is certain to be a tough vote. 

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