WASHINGTON – Joe Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate to run on a major-party presidential ticket, announced Wednesday he will not seek reelection in 2012 following 24 years in the US Senate.

The Orthodox Connecticut senator, 68, has been one of Congress’s strongest supporters of Israel, and has been committed to staving off a nuclear Iran.

He will finish out his term, but said he was not planning to leave public life.

US Preisdent Barack Obama congratulated Lieberman on an extraordinary career in public service.

"Joe has spent four decades fighting for what he believes in on behalf of the people of Connecticut. From cracking down on polluters and deadbeat dads as Connecticut’s Attorney General to his years of work defending our nation’s security on the Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees to his relentless efforts in recent months to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, his work has touched countless lives in his home state and across the country," Obama said.

"Even if we don’t always see eye to eye, I always know Joe is coming from a place of principle. I know he will carry with him that integrity and dedication to his remaining work in the Senate and to whatever he chooses to do next,” the president continued.

Lieberman began his career in politics four decades ago as a centrist Democrat, running for vice president on Al Gore’s ticket in 2000.

Consistently hawkish on military issues, he won re-election as an independent senator after his support for the Iraq War cost him the Democratic primary in 2006. He further alienated his former party by endorsing and appearing at the Republican National Convention on behalf of presidential candidate John McCain in 2008.

Though he has voted with the Democratic caucus in the Senate fairly consistently – and continues to chair the Homeland Security Committee – winning re-election would have been an uphill climb given his lack of party backing.

Lieberman, however, denied on Wednesday that fears of a tough fight had caused him to bow out.

“I know that some people have said that if I ran for reelection, it would be a difficult campaign for me,” he said. “So what else is new?” he rhetorically asked a crowd of cheering supporters who gathered in a hotel in his hometown of Stamford. “I’ve never shied from a good fight and I never will.”

Instead, Lieberman explained his choice by quoting Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” he said. “For me, it is time for another season, and another purpose under heaven.”

Lieberman has often put his faith front-and-center, and is known for his moral leadership.

He first came to national prominence for denouncing then-president Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, and later became a household name when he was chosen by Gore as the first Jewish Democratic vice presidential candidate.

Recalling his grandparents’ own journey as he stood near the spot where they once lived, Lieberman said, “Even they could not have dreamed that their grandson would end up as a US Senator and a barrier-breaking candidate for vice president. But that’s America!” Following Lieberman’s announcement, David Harris of the National Jewish Democratic Council applauded Lieberman’s leadership over the past 40 years.

“We will always remember the important steps he took to break the glass ceiling for the Jewish community in public service – from his appearance in Washington as the first Orthodox Jewish senator, to his acceptance of our party’s vice presidential nomination in 2000,” Harris said. “He has stood out as a leader who always did what he believed was right, regardless of whether or not it was politically popular.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition also praised the senator for following his own compass.

“He showed that it’s possible to have a successful political career while doing what you feel is right, even when what’s right is not what’s in your political best interests,” RJC Executive Director Matthew Brooks said. “Time and again, Sen.

Lieberman put principle over politics. He was a role model and a shining example of all that’s good and decent about public service.”

Despite earning warm farewells from both sides of the aisle, Lieberman’s departure is a sign of the less-than-hospitable climate in Washington: not just for independents, but for middle-of-the-road candidates in both parties – not to mention incumbents.

Though Obama recently called for more national unity and less shrill debate, as of January Congress has fewer moderate voices than it did just last month.

“I am certain that this new reality was a key factor in Sen.

Lieberman’s decision to retire,” said William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office.

“As a card-carrying post-partisan, it saddens me that there are fewer independent-minded American public officials. The political discourse is such that those who do not maintain ideological purity to the extremes of both parties find themselves without a political home.”

Daroff, who worked with Lieberman on many issues of interest to the Jewish community – particularly Israel – said his voice would be missed.

“Joe Lieberman is the definition of a mensch,” he said.

“He has been a great advocate for the Jewish community, as a key supporter of our social service agenda, and on behalf of a strong US-Israel relationship,” Daroff said.

But he added, “Thankfully there are dozens of proponents of a strong US-Israel relationship in the Senate.

“While Sen. Lieberman’s lifelong relationship with the State of Israel will be hard to replace, there will not be a vacuum of support created by his retirement.”

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger