I just returned home from Jerusalem’s prestigious King David Hotel, where I sadly discovered that the Cybex aerobics machine I like to work out on was missing from the health club. The manager assured me it was temporarily taken upstairs so Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could exercise in the comfort of her luxury suite.

Just getting to the hotel lobby was an exhausting jog. With dozens of burly Israeli police, soldiers and American security personnel sealing off the area, it took persistent verbal persuasion even to get close to the revolving front door. Still, I eventually made it inside – something that was not possible when George W. Bush stayed at the King David in January, despite flashing my Israeli government-issued press card.

The fit senior U.S. diplomat has become a regular visitor to Israel over the past year, attempting to push the administration’s struggling peace process along. But her strapping security detail is usually not anywhere near as large as it was this week.

Just before heading to the hotel, I read on line that Vanity Fair had just published an article claiming that the White House entrusted Rice in 2006 with the task of beefing up pro-American Fatah forces, with the aim of eventually toppling the new Palestinian Authority Hamas-led government, which was elected to power early that year.

As the recent Hamas rocket blitz upon several Israeli cities and towns starkly reminds us, the reported coup plot massively backfired in the Gaza Strip, with Hamas violently attacking and disbanding the Fatah-linked PA security force last June.

As I exercised on another treadmill, the Israeli health club manager – a longtime personal friend who gives me a nice discount to work out there – was heatedly discussing the Gaza Strip crisis with two of his employees. He was particularly worked up over the recent Iranian-supplied Grad rocket strikes upon the city of Ashkelon, some 10 miles north of the Hamas-run zone.

Having recently invested lots of time and money to open up a new health club in the city’s largest hotel, he was now facing the harrowing prospect of laying off his large staff there. After two months of booming business, the club is now suddenly empty, along with the sea front hotel that houses it.

The three Israelis all felt that American officials bore considerable blame for the current crisis. One bitterly recalled that the White House and State Department had pressured former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull all Israeli civilian residents and soldiers out of the Gaza Strip, ignoring warnings from the IDF chief of staff and many politicians, including opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, that such a move would only further empower anti-American Muslim militants and endanger nearby Jewish communities.

One gym employee noted that soon after the Gaza pullout was completed in September 2005, U.S. officials arm-twisted Sharon into allowing Hamas to run in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, despite the fact that the Iranian-backed Islamic group violently opposed the very peace process that fathered the PA electoral process. All said they agree with government minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer’s warning early this week that Hamas will now probably attempt to bring its jihad war to Jerusalem and surrounding areas, eventually leaving the King David empty as well.

The discussion then turned to who might become the next U.S. president and whether the November election would improve or worsen the increasingly dire situation in Israel.

After stating that he thinks George Bush has been fairly good for Israel, despite pushing for the Gaza withdrawal and Hamas ballot inclusion, my manager friend said he thought John McCain would be best at dealing with the issue currently at the top of Israeli concerns – Iran’s threatening nuclear program. The others agreed with this contention, although the lone female participant said she still hoped Hillary Clinton would triumph.

At this point, an Arab Muslim gym worker entered the health club (he said after extensive security checks) and rapidly joined the conversation. He noted that many Palestinian Muslims consider Barack Obama to be a traitorous infidel for having willingly abandoned the Islamic faith of his father. This would mean any visit by a President Obama to Jerusalem would turn the city into a massive military fortress, he concluded, making us all nostalgic for the relative light security that accompanied the Bush tour.

“Well, his first name does mean ‘lightning’ in Hebrew,” said the female participant, adding curtly that maybe Barack is destined to produce some electricity in the holy city.

All three Jewish Israelis agreed that the untested Illinois senator seems a bit naïve regarding Middle East realities, given his pledge to “meet and reason with” regional dictators like Syria’s Bashar Assad and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Then one turned to me and asked who I thought would win the Democratic Party nomination, and who I preferred to see as America’s next commander in chief. I surprised them by stating I thought it could be … Al Gore that emerges as the Democrats’ candidate!

I explained that last Tuesday’s Ohio and Texas Clinton victories virtually assures that the two remaining candidates will head to the Denver convention in a dead heat, and probably after many more acrimonious fistfights between them. I opined that Bill Clinton’s powerful machine will fight tooth and nail to keep his wife in the running, even if Obama comes to the convention with slightly more delegates and a greater popular vote. And then there is the expected brawl over the seating of the large Florida and Michigan delegations, disqualified due to the early primary votes in both states.

I pointed out that most Democrats still believe that the Global Warming Warner from Tennessee was robbed of the Oval Office when Florida’s chads got hung up in 2000. He would be a perfect and popular savior to step in and heal the divided party, I suggested.

But I made clear my choice would probably be John McCain, whoever the feuding Democrats eventually field. After all, I had quoted a statement he made about Iran while traveling all over the States last fall (even though I thought like almost everyone else that he had little chance to clinch the Republican nomination). I quoted Sen. McCain since I thought his statement wisely pointed to the only practical, if unfortunate, way out of the current Middle East crisis, fomented largely by the extremist Iranian regime.

The veteran Arizona politician, who knows firsthand the horrors of warfare, said it was a terrible option for America to militarily take on the Shiite state’s nuclear program, but not as horrific as allowing the radical rogue country to acquire nuclear weapons.

I have also always agreed with McCain’s position that far more troops were needed than Donald Rumsfeld deployed in order to successfully control the neighboring fractured basket case Arab state of Iraq. Still, I worry now that al-Qaida insurgents will blast back onto the Iraqi stage next fall in a dramatic bid to derail his campaign.

In the end, I suspect that if Israeli leaders perceive that Mr. Lightning and not Mr. Experience is about to assume power in Washington, they may feel it best to take on the crucial Iranian matter themselves … and rather sooner than later.

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