Who Will Be Israel's Next Leader?

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CBNNews.com - JERUSALEM, Israel - The countdown to Israel's elections picked up steam last July when corruption charges led Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to announce his resignation, which took place officially on September 22.

When Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who took over leadership of the Kadima party, couldn't put together a government, President Shimon Peres called for new elections to take place on February 10, 2009.

Now in the homestretch, it is clear only three candidates have any shot at succeeding Olmert: Livni, Defense Minister and Labor party chairman Ehud Barak, and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

The polls show that as many as 20 percent of Israeli voters are still undecided. But if the polling is accurate and there are no dramatic changes, the next prime minister may well be opposition leader Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu.

Pollster and political analyst Mitchell Barak says voters are keenly aware of Netanyahu's strong security experience, even if they're not voting for him.

"Even people who are voting for Labor or Kadima think that Netanyahu is better qualified," Barak told CBN News.

"It looks like at this point that he's going to form the next government and he'll be the next prime minister," he said. "The question is what kind of government is he going to have?"

Barak says Israelis have become much more security-minded after the failed evacuation of Jews from Gaza in 2005.

"Because people saw that [the pullout] as Israel really trying to make some type of peace and to get out of some of the settlements, and they got nothing in return but being attacked and rocket attacks and so forth," Barak said.

A CBN News random sampling of "man-on-the-street" interviews revealed the diversity of thinking among Israelis.

Vanessa Nanias plans to vote for right-wing leader Avigdor Lieberman. His Yisrael Beitinu party (Israel Our Home) has recently gained ground by tapping into Israeli anger over worldwide criticism of its war against Hamas in Gaza.

"And I just want to say, for all of the world to know, that we don't hate Palestinian people," Nanias said.

"We just hate the Hamas [terrorists] who are shooting at us for eight years and no one ever said anything," she said.

"So it's our right to protect ourselves and that's it. Viva Israel!" Nanias said.

Daniel Luria likes Netanyahu, but he will vote for someone further to the right. He wants to help Netanyahu resist Washington's pressure to concede more land.

"Land for peace hasn't worked and if we want to get on top of things, even economically, we have to be strong ideologically," Luria said.

Thirty-four parties are contending for 120 seats in Israel's parliament, the Knesset. Many are investing time and money on the Internet to reach apathetic voters.

"I don't think I'm going to support anyone this year because I don't trust anyone," Tel Aviv resident Stephanie Moran said.

"It feels like we're fighting and nobody knows what's happening," she said.

The next Israeli government will face life and death issues, especially Iran's attempt to develop nuclear weapons.

It will also face a rising spirit of anti-Semitism and enormous pressure to give up territory for the promises of peace.

Many Israelis are looking for the kind of unity they had when the country stood almost alone during the Gaza war.

"I mean, I wish we could all be together and not split -- like people start being right now because the war is over and we start fighting each other. We need to be united, and this is what I hope will happen," Ashkelon resident Marilyn Asseraf said.

*Original broadcast February 5, 2009.

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Chris Mitchell and John Waage

Chris Mitchell and John Waage

CBN News Jerusalem Bureau

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