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The Lieberman Perplex

By a curious coincidence of events and timing, America and Israel appear poised in the coming days to take big steps in opposite political directions: America to the left, Israel to the right. More curious still, the traumatic changes that are convulsing the political systems in both countries may be captured, at least symbolically, in a single word: Lieberman.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is intent on shoring up his struggling center-left governing coalition by bringing in the hard-line Yisrael Beitenu party, headed by the rising star of Israel’s political right, Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman is widely reviled on the left, viewed as an Arab-bashing bigot who could doom any hope of reconciliation with Israel’s neighbors.

But Lieberman is not the usual breed of hard-liner. Of all the main figures on Israel’s fractured right, he is the most pragmatic and most open to territorial compromise — still the key to any solution. For all his flamboyant rhetoric, Lieberman may be Olmert’s best hope of restoring his government’s reputation in security affairs, so badly tarnished by the recent war in Lebanon, without bringing diplomacy to a dead halt. Bringing Lieberman on board could let Olmert get back to the job he was elected to do, namely restoring movement on the Palestinian front.

In America, voters seem likely to hand one or both houses of Congress to the Democrats on November 7. The race remains too close to call, particularly in the Senate. If the Democrats do recapture the Senate, their margin may rest on the single vote of Democrat-turned-Independent Joe Lieberman.

Like his fiery Israeli namesake, the mild-mannered Lieberman is widely reviled on the left for his hard-line defense views, particularly his backing of President Bush’s war policies in Iraq. Rejected by his party’s primary voters last summer, Lieberman is now coasting toward an easy victory in the November general election. Welcoming him back into the fold will be critical if Democrats come within one seat of winning the Senate, as seems likely. If the Senate race ends in a 50-50 split, the other likely outcome, then Lieberman will be even more essential as a bridge to the Republicans, helping Democrats fight for their fair share of power in the chamber.

To be sure, there are profound differences between the two political dramas, beginning with the fact that Americans are going out to vote in a general election while Israelis are watching their leaders engage in coalition horse-trading and mud-wrestling.

The similarities, though less obvious, may be more telling. Both nations have been bloodied and worn down of late by intractable wars with Islamist radicals. In both nations, the unrelenting nature of the conflict has led to a poisonous polarization in the political dialogue. In both nations, the public is weary of war, tired of political infighting and sick of its leaders. In both nations, the majority of the public wants to be brought together, not divided. They want to be governed pragmatically, from the center.

This will surely be disappointing to liberals, who continue to hope in both countries for a clean sweep that will let them do things their own way. In both countries, the left looks despairingly at the wreckage wrought by conservatives and defense hawks, and it longs for the chance to set things right. If it can’t, it’s tempted to walk away and wait for the next big chance.

But the public, for better or worse, doesn’t want that. Voters in both countries are making it clear that they want the left in the game, making its views heard, blocking the worst excesses of the right and fighting for sensible, pragmatic solutions.

In the coming weeks, liberals in both America and Israel are likely to find that they can get a great deal done, if only they can learn to get along with a guy named Lieberman.

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