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As Israelis Head To Polls, Anxiety And Fatigue Rule

Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party and Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima party each try to build a coalition government after general elections, in which neither obtained the 61-seat bloc necessary to gain control of the parliament and become prime minister.

A loyalty test, Derevenski said, "would make the Arabs feel like outsiders."

And yet, it is not clear how the loyalty test would help Israel with its more fundamental challenges: a vulnerable economy, Hamas's hold on Gaza, Hezbollah's presence on Israel's northern border, the menace sometimes expressed by Iran's leaders. Lieberman's intent, analysts say, is to tackle an issue that seems easy enough to fix, while distracting Israelis from more intractable problems.

Paradoxically, the Gaza war, more than anything else in recent weeks, has heightened Israelis' sense of despair. Militarily, the war was a success. Israel destroyed Hamas buildings across Gaza and killed hundreds of Palestinian fighters, while limiting its own losses to 13 people. After a shaky effort in Lebanon against Hezbollah in 2006, the military won plaudits from nearly every corner of Israeli society for its performance in Gaza.

And yet, when the smoke cleared, Hamas was still standing, the rockets from Gaza kept coming, and Israel's international reputation had suffered.

"Just a few weeks ago, everyone was happily bathing in the pool of national consensus created by the operation in Gaza. How strong we are, everyone said, how united we are," wrote Nahum Barnea in a front-page piece Monday in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest newspaper. "Now it becomes apparent that underneath this joyful power hides a frightened people, wishing for someone strong and forceful, who will miraculously fend off the people's enemies, real and imaginary."

Part of the problem, according to Asher Arian, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, is that Israel is a victim of its own success. It has created a robust private economy, built in part on high-tech innovation, and that's where the country's best minds end up. "We find enormous talent and creativity in the business sphere. Much less in the public sphere," he said.

Yet the country faces challenges that can't be solved by anyone except the government.

The Iranian question is most ominous for Israelis. Iran says its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes. Israelis are convinced otherwise, and there is a growing sense here that the Israel Defense Forces will have to strike to halt the program's development.

On the campaign trail, Netanyahu is most adamant in vowing to act, warning that "the ayatollah regime is planning a holocaust while claiming the Holocaust did not exist."

The comment draws cheers, yet Israelis understand that any attack on Iranian facilities would almost certainly draw a severe reprisal. They also know that military action is out of favor in Washington, where President Obama has been pushing for a diplomatic solution.

Obama himself is a source of anxiety for Israelis, who worry that their biggest backer, the United States, may not be as stalwart in defending their positions as it was under Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama has said that finding a solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be a top foreign policy goal of his administration.

In Israel, most people welcome the idea of a solution -- nearly 60 percent support the creation of a Palestinian state, according to a survey of Israeli Jews conducted late last year called the War and Peace Index. Most also think it's completely unrealistic, a belief fueled by a deep-seated mistrust of the Palestinian side. Just over 60 percent of Israelis, according to the survey, believe the Palestinians would destroy Israel if they could.


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