JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israelis about to lose one of their best friends in the White House are taking a close look at the leading candidates to replace him.
U.S. President George W. Bush's successor will face the challenge of either moving ahead in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or picking up the pieces of his second-term effort to reach a statehood deal this year.
Israelis will get an opportunity to hear what one presidential hopeful, the expected Republican nominee Senator John McCain, has to say on their home turf on Tuesday.
Israeli media speculated that Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would also visit Israel in the coming weeks.
The U.S. election in November will bring to an end the term of a president many in Israel regard as one of its strongest supporters, a leader whose "axis of evil" philosophy struck the right note in a country that has never known peace.
Igal Elias, a 38-year-old software developer, said he hoped McCain, whose background as a fighter pilot and prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict is widely respected in Israel, would follow in Bush's footsteps.
"I think Bush gave us a sense of security during very difficult times. On the Iraqi issue he turned out to be wrong, but under the circumstances I think he was the best man for the job and was good for Israel," Elias said.
For him, it is McCain's willingness to keep U.S. forces in Iraq that makes him more likely to take a tough stance against Israel's arch-foe Iran and its nuclear ambitions -- much more than any Democratic candidate would.
"I think a Democratic president will have a much more difficult time acting against Iran. Because both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama talk about pulling out of Iraq, it will be more difficult for them to change their position should something severe happen," he said.
Lee Reuveni, who wants Democrat Clinton in the Oval Office, thinks it is her husband Bill's attitude towards Israel which the New York senator is most likely to follow.
"During the eight years when Bill Clinton was president, he proved great loyalty to Israel and I think Hillary will not be any different," the 30-year-old social worker said.
Bill Clinton came close to achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in talks in 2000. Their failure was a key factor that led to a Palestinian uprising that year.
A Democratic primary held among U.S. citizens living in Israel in February gave Hillary Clinton a clear majority over Obama, an unknown quantity to Israelis.
Elias said that what scares him most about Obama, a senator from Illinois, is the possibility that as president he will come to the Middle East and try to approach the issue with a "clean slate" and show his inexperience.
"The strong leaders of other nations will eat him for breakfast," Elias said.
The possibility the United States will for the first time have an African-American or a woman as president has intrigued Israelis and the presidential race has been covered closely by the local media.
A few months ago, one of Israel's most popular newspapers, Maariv ran a front-page, unsourced, story saying that Israeli leaders do not believe Obama will be good for Israel.
As a matter of policy, Israeli officials do not comment on internal U.S. politics other than to say they believe Washington's strong commitment to Israel's security will not change, regardless of who is in the White House.
"When Israeli officials say they have no position on the American election and they are not backing any candidate they are completely sincere," said Barry Rubin, director of the GLORIA Centre for Research and International Affairs in Israel.
But Rubin says that despite what many Israelis think, the special U.S.-Israeli relationship is not as important to U.S. policymakers as the greater Middle East.
"The issue is not what the candidates think about Israel. The issue is what the candidate thinks about a nuclear Iran, about Iraq, terrorism and radical Islamism," Rubin said.
Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Samia Nakhoul