The Last Honest Woman in Jerusalem

Was Tzipi Livni just too truthful to be an Israeli politician?


JERUSALEM, Israel – Only three years after positioning herself to become Israel’s second-ever female prime minister, Tzipi Livni has now vanished into the Tel Aviv sunset.

The 53-year-old former foreign minister, who twice came close but never actually secured Israel’s highest political office, suffered a crushing defeat in her centrist party’s primary this week. In the wake of her loss of the Kadima party chairmanship to rival Shaul Mofaz, sources close to Livni said that she would soon announce her retirement from politics.

This will, in all likelihood, mean the end of Livni’s political aspirations. "In the coming years it looks like she is going to be pushed aside," said Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. "And for people like that usually it means the end."

It is true that, as Diskin put it, Israel has seen its politicians "rise from the ashes like a phoenix" more than once. He cited the resuscitated fortunes of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Shimon Peres and current premier Benjamin Netanyahu, but added that Livni — due to her seemingly total political defeat, both at the hands of Netanyahu and her Kadima rivals — is not a candidate for a political revival.

Livni had enjoyed a meteoric rise since she first won a seat in the Knesset in 1999 as a member of the Likud party. The Tel Aviv-born mother of two had grown up as a "Likud princess," as her parents were close friends with Menachem Begin, the first Likud prime minister. But the Mossad agent turned real estate lawyer waited until her forties to make her first run for parliament.

Livni has long been viewed as an honest and principled political figure — somewhat of an oddity in Israel’s political landscape, where turnabouts are commonplace. As Time magazine, which referred to her as "Israel’s Mrs. Clean," put it in 2008, Livni, "gained a reputation for being modest and humorless — but always on the straight and narrow."

Political analysts, however, say her inability to compromise also hurt her political ambitions, leading her to miss a number of key opportunities during her time in the spotlight.

It wasn’t always so. Livni proved most opportunistic when she decided to support Sharon in his breakaway from the right-wing Likud party in late 2005. What became known here as "the Big Bang of Israeli politics" gave birth to Kadima, a centrist alternative that attracted supporters from both sides of the political spectrum.

Livni, who had held a number of minor ministerial positions since joining the Likud government in 2001, quickly benefited from the move. As a protégé of Sharon, whom she helped push through Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, she quickly rose through the ranks to the position of foreign minister. The new post gave her more prominence both at home and on the international stage.

When Sharon’s debilitating stroke left Kadima leaderless in early 2006, Livni put her own ambitions on the back burner and settled for the party’s No. 3 position, giving Ehud Olmert free rein to replace Sharon. The move allowed Kadima to avoid splintering into several factions, and also served Livni well. A longtime advocate of a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, she proved a palatable interlocutor for foreign diplomats in the West, and most Palestinians saw her as the lesser of two evils in comparison with her more hawkish rivals.

So when corruption allegations pushed Olmert to resign, Livni appeared primed to fill the void and become Israel’s second-ever female prime minister after "Iron Lady" Golda Meir assumed the position four decades ago. But even after securing the Kadima party leadership, her intransigence once again stood in the way of her securing the premiership. In negotiations over the formation of a coalition government, she refused to meet the conditions posed by Shas, a religious party that demanded economic concessions and that the status of Jerusalem be excluded from future peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

By way of explaining her failure to forge a working coalition, Livni said at the time that she "was not willing to trade in the economic and diplomatic future of Israel, or the hope for a better future and different politics" for the premiership.

Michal Shamir, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, said this kind of principled stance was a rare occurrence in Israeli politics. "I have a pretty high esteem for her for not making compromises that she didn’t want to do," she said.

But as Livni would prove again, after parliamentary elections in early 2009, there is a thin line between standing on principle and political suicide. Following the 2009 campaign, billed as "Tzipi vs. Bibi," both Livni and Netanyahu claimed victory. Once again, Livni’s difficulty wooing coalition partners thwarted her political ambitions: Though Kadima won the largest number of seats, Netanyahu was able to build a governing coalition and seize the premiership. And Kadima, for the first time, found itself in the opposition.

Although Livni had proved an adept deputy while rising through the ranks of Israeli politics, she floundered as Kadima leader. This was partly due to Netanyahu’s skillful political positioning: Soon after forming his government, the Likud leader for the first time declared that he was in favor of a two-state solution in a dramatic speech at Bar-Ilan University. By adopting Livni’s approach to the Palestinian stalemate, Netanyahu robbed Kadima of the central feature that distinguished its foreign-policy approach from that of the government.

At other points, Livni seemed oddly passive. During protests against rising living costs last summer that challenged Netanyahu’s government, she stayed largely on the sidelines. While she claimed that Kadima supported the protesters’ demands, she added that "the real solution to the economic malaise is the ballot box" — hardly a call to mount the barricades.

"Most people expected from us to lead all these protests," said Yoel Hasson, a Kadima deputy in the Knesset and Livni supporter. "I believed that from the beginning it was a mistake not to take part."

These failures have left Kadima adrift, and there are indeed signs that its fate could mirror Livni’s. Last summer’s social demonstrations provided a popularity boost to Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist who is the new leader of the Labor party. The planned entry of popular TV personality Yair Lapid — who denounced Kadima’s leaders as "cynical politicians" with no clear beliefs — could pose yet another challenge to the centrist party.

Both inside the party and among the broader Israeli public, there is a notable lack of enthusiasm surrounding Kadima’s course. Less than half of eligible voters participated in the party’s primary, and the bitter campaign between Kadima’s two leaders barely registered in the local media amid the government’s continuous threats to attack Iran and the country’s reactions to the murder of four French Jews.

Meanwhile, a poll by the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot conducted after the primary found that were an election to be held today, Kadima would collect only 12 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, down from its current 28.

"People who support Kadima are very much disappointed and frustrated with what happened with the party," Diskin said.

As Kadima looks ahead to the next general election, which is scheduled for next year but could be called earlier, it is difficult to see how the party could improve upon that position. The right-leaning Mofaz has vowed to take on Netanyahu, but voters may have difficulties distinguishing his policies from that of Likud.

Livni, for her part, has said little about her own future. When asked by a local radio if she would stay with Kadima in case of a defeat, she responded: "I am sick of that question. I don’t think the public cares what happens to me personally if I don’t win. It’s a subject that only the press cares about."

In Israel’s fragmented political environment, where unruly coalitions are the norm and political leaders rarely hesitate to jump ship to gain access to power, Livni’s unwavering positions often gave her the moral high ground — but proved an insurmountable hurdle in her quest for the country’s highest political office.

"Livni was portrayed as an honest leader, who wasn’t prepared to compromise and abandon her principles," the newspaper Haaretz wrote in an editorial. " But in the end, she paid a heavy price for this."

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