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Western leaders love a good challenge when they’re new to office. That’s what you have to hope looking at today’s front pages, which are dominated by images of destruction in the Gaza strip.gaza1

The death toll rose past 280 people after another Israeli airstrike this morning, according to Hamas. The Guardian reported infantry and tanks moving towards the Gaza border in anticipation of a possible ground invasion. Rhetoric across the Israeli political spectrum has been bellicose ahead of February’s elections, with defence minister and former PM Ehud Barak declaring: “Now the time has come to fight.”

One of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton’s few unequivocal achievements was the Good Friday Agreement, pushed through partly thanks to their youthful vigour and self belief. The infamous Parliamentary malcontent Enoch Powell once darkly declared that “all political lives end in failure”; if that’s the case, it’s also true the greatest politicians take to office possessed of an unshakeable faith in their own abilities.

All eyes will be on Time Magazine’s man of the year when he finally moves into the White House. Bill Clinton and George Bush both launched half-hearted attempts to negotiate peace in the Middle East in the dog days of their presidency. Barack Obama’s advent will be the clearest juncture in years for the beleagured process to be given a hearty jump-start.

In a well balanced piece in today’s Sunday Times, Michel Portillo says the incoming president’s in-tray from hell could be the material he needs to fire his ambition:

The conflict between Israel and Hamas is, in a way, an attractive issue for Obama and his team. It has been evident for decades that matters cannot be resolved without the closest involvement of the United States… It could be that for once the Palestinian-Israeli problem will receive the full attention of an American presidency at the outset, at the moment of its greatest prestige and when its mandate is strongest.

One positive omen is the extent to which Obamamania has penetrated Israeli politics. Apparently the right wing Likud Party, which is tipped to win the largest slice of votes in February, has redesigned its website to mirror Obama’s campaign site and has even nicked his “Yes We Can” slogn, adding: “With God’s Help.”

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Certain jobs favour the dim but enthusiastic applicant. Looking at George Bush’s two consecutive terms over the past eight years, you can’t help but feel the American presidency has sometimes been one of them.

James Bryce, the 19th century historian and politician, once pointed out that “Europeans often ask, and Americans do not always explain, how it happens that this great office is not more frequently filled by great and striking men”.

Bryce penned his thought in 1888, which in a way is reassuring; America’s electoral distate for the intellectual is nothing new.

If Barack Obama wins on Tuesday, he will have notched up a double victory. The US’s first black President, he will also have won a campaign that has made careful use of his intelligence. McCain’s jittery response to the deepening financial crisis and his vacillation between high mindedness and dirty campaigning have contrasted with Obama’s composure and his focus on a simple, core message.

Meanwhile, on a Sarah Palin theme, if you don’t mind wincing every few seconds this radio clip of her taking a call from ‘Nicolas Sarkozy’ is hilarious.