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Michael Oren: Israel And America At The Polls

Michael B. Oren is a TNR contributing editor, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and a visiting professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.

As an Israeli citizen living in America for the year, I can't help getting caught up in the whirlwind of this country's presidential election. But as my home country chooses its new prime minister today, I find myself drawing many similarities between the two contests. Gender is certainly a factor in both--with Tzipi Livni currently leading the polls--as is ethnicity, with the Iranian-born Shaul Mofaz vying to become Israel's first non-Western prime minister. Israelis are also familiar with the candidacy of a 72-year-old maverick with combat experience--indeed, they would reelect Ariel Sharon tomorrow were he to miraculously emerge from his coma.

And yet, on a more visceral level, the two elections could not be more different. I've been watching Obama, McCain, and their surrogates debate undoubtedly important issues, such as the country's general direction, its social and economic policies, and the time it will remain in Iraq. In Israel, the stakes are no less than its survival: the future of the territories Israel captured four decades ago, the retention of which threatens its basic security and the demographic balance on which its existence as a Jewish state depends.

Unlike in the American election, Israel's preoccupation with such existential threats (rather than domestic policy issues) means that candidates' platforms are often indistinguishable. Israelis have a hard time seeing light between Livni, who has called for intensive efforts to reach an accord with the Palestinians and Mofaz, who also favors accelerated talks but with a greater exercise of caution; both Mofaz and Livni advocate continued contacts with Syria and robust measures--possibly military--to prevent Iran from nuclearizing.

Ultimately, in the United States as in the Jewish state, the contest may well be decided less by the voters' preference for one party's platform over another than by their conviction that one contender, by virtue of his or her character, is inherently more qualified to lead.

But will they in fact be able to lead? Barring impeachment or mortality, the victor in America can look forward to one four-year term and possibly a second in which to forge his legacies in domestic and foreign affairs. In Israel, though, where politicians are vetted after, rather than before, attaining office, the next prime minister is likely to face a succession of internal investigations that will impede any efforts to implement policies. The new American president can pick a cabinet, but Israel's prime minister-elect must negotiate furiously to construct a coalition from rival party members and the leaders of other factions--right, left, and religious. And even then, the centrist Kadima will still have to confront a formidable challenge from the right-wing Likud.

The ballots are now being counted and, as of this writing, Livni is significantly out front. Paradoxically, the leader of a country facing an existential threat has the least amount of leeway to address those issues. Watching both the US and Israeli elections simultaneously, I cannot help thinking that in order to resolve the Palestinian problem, Israel must first reform its crippling political system. Needed is a prime minister who is popularly elected, who serves for a full four years without fear of weekly police probes, and who can choose cabinet members on the basis of their qualifications and not their political power. Israel needs a system much more similar to America's.

--Michael B. Oren