NEW YORK // Tzipi Livni's possible ascendancy to the leadership of Israel has made many US Jews slightly more hopeful about peace but concerns about Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas still dominate. Many thought it was premature to say Ms Livni was Israel's Barack Obama. The comparison with the Democratic presidential hopeful was made by Haaretz, a liberal Israeli daily newspaper. Neither leader has stressed race or gender in the race to the top, but both still have to overcome widespread scepticism and even hostility to succeed.
Ms Livni's past as a "Likud princess" and leading light in the right-wing party precedes her. Only in the past few years did she appear to move to the centre and away from the politics of her parents, who were leading Zionist guerrillas in pre-state Israel. Ms Livni, the foreign minister, began negotiations this weekend to form a new coalition government after narrowly winning a party election to replace Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, as leader of Kadima, which means "forward" in Hebrew.
If she succeeds in forging a way through Israel's fractious coalition politics, Ms Livni would become the second female prime minister of Israel. Golda Meir held the office from 1969 to 1974. "We congratulate Minister Livni and urge her to quickly form a coalition that would focus on security for Israel through peace," said Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a dovish Jewish-American group.
"Livni is committed to pursuing peace with the Palestinians and should make it the chief priority of her premiership." Other Jewish-American groups also congratulated Ms Livni. Privately and anonymously, US Jews were a lot more vocal about Ms Livni's chances of making a peace deal. All agreed that her corruption-free past gave her an edge over Mr Olmert, whose position was made untenable by a series of scandals. They hoped she would strive for peace much more forcefully as prime minister after recent negotiations with the Palestinians have led nowhere.
"Credit has to go to Olmert who pushed the idea that time is running out for a two-state solution and that the settlers have to be enticed back to within the Green Line," said Avi, a New York Jewish observer who did not want to use his real name. He was referring to Israel's borders before it occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. "Most American Jews are committed to Israel's security, not to the settlers in the West Bank," he said. "There's a realisation that for Israel's security to be stabilised, there needs to be progress on the Palestinian track."
But others noted Ms Livni could be unrelenting on some issues, lowering the chances of a deal. "She's sensitive and even defensive about Palestinian refugees and so far has refused to give in on even creative solutions to the problem, such as the symbolic return of only a few refugees," said Aaron, an Israeli living in the United States. Complicating future negotiations are a host of regional problems, including Iran's nuclear ambitions, instability in Lebanon and Palestinian infighting. The future direction of the next US president is also unclear.
"American Jews are much more worried about Iran," Avi said. Another problem facing Ms Livni was right-wing, ideological opposition to making any concessions. Mr Olmert found himself under sustained attack from settler and religious leaders in Israel and the United States after he appeared prepared to divide Jerusalem in a peace deal. "Livni will face the same the problem, but for now talks on issues like Jerusalem or refugees are still very far off," Aaron said.
Adam, a left-wing Israeli living in New York, said Ms Livni had not changed his pessimism about Israel soon reaching a just accord with the Palestinians. He had the unusual view that it might almost be better for peace if Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Likud leader known as Bibi, came to power. "I think Livni might even make things worse because she represents continued stagnation whereas things in the Middle East don't change unless things get very bad," he said. "I'm with Hamas on Bibi because if this lunatic came in, things would hit rock bottom and the situation would then have to change."
Mr Netanyahu may yet get his chance to rule Israel again. Ms Livni has up to six weeks to form a coalition and if she fails, elections would be held. Likud has scored well in opinion polls. In the meantime, many US Jews looked at Ms Livni with hope. "The big question is whether she can excite Israelis and ignite a measure of enthusiasm in the electorate," Aaron said. "Israelis have become disengaged from the peace process and we'll have to see if she can make it popular again?"