Livni in Principle and in Practice

by Peretz Kidron | published September 30, 2008

For background on the current Israeli-Palestinian contacts, see Robert Blecher and Mouin Rabbani, “In Annapolis, Conflict by Other Means,” Middle East Report Online, November 26, 2007.

For background on the Kadima party, see Peretz Kidron, “Less a Big Bang Than an Earthquake,” Middle East Report Online, January 18, 2006.

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, the sitting Israeli prime minister spoke more plainly than ever before in public about what will be required of Israel in a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians and Syria. In a September 29 interview with the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Ehud Olmert said that, to achieve peace, “we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories” that have been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war, including most of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Particularly coming from Olmert, who long opposed the notion of swapping land for peace, these words might have inspired hope that deals on the Palestinian or Syrian fronts were at hand.

But Olmert spoke these words after having resigned his post. He will sit as interim prime minister, probably powerless to follow through on his talk of withdrawal, only until his political heir can form a parlimentary coalition or until coalition talks fail and Israel holds early elections. What hope there might be for peace depends on the beliefs and political strength of his successor—and each, at this point, are dubious.

Shaky Mandate

The next prime minister currently looks most likely to be Tzipi Livni, who won the September 17 contest for leadership of the ruling Kadima party after Olmert was forced to quit the premiership under the weight of police investigations into a litany of alleged misdeeds ranging from illicit campaign funding to handing out government jobs to political backers all the way to fiddling with official travel expenses to set aside money for family vacations. Vigorous probes by detectives and state attorneys eroded Olmert’s public standing, already precarious ever since his disastrous plunge into the second Lebanon war in the summer of 2006 and his fumbling leadership in that conflict.

The parallel investigations into the various charges against the prime minister were undoubtedly motivated by a genuine desire to root out delinquency in high places, of which there has been no shortage, as disillusioned Israelis learned: Members of Olmert’s cabinet have been indicted or convicted on charges from sexual misconduct and improper appointments all the way up to outright theft. But the allegations against Olmert relate largely to peccadilloes not entirely uncommon in Israel’s ruling circles, evoking puzzlement over the relentless pursuit that ultimately brought him down. One theory argues that the eagerness of law enforcement agencies was tacitly supported and perhaps even instigated by far-right groups outraged over Olmert’s apparent intention to follow in the footsteps of his mentor and predecessor in office, Ariel Sharon, by ordering a unilateral withdrawal from extensive portions of the occupied West Bank, in a pattern laid down by Sharon’s “disengagement” of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Any such “surrender” of territory within the divinely Promised Land is regarded as anathema by far-right fanatics and religious zealots. Their anger has already led to the assassination of one prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was gunned down in 1995 by a militant because of his willingess to strike a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. If this speculation about a right-wing conspiracy is indeed correct, Olmert can count himself lucky to have escaped with his life, being required merely to offer up his political office.

After Olmert stepped down, pollsters confidently predicted that the broadly popular Livni, who serves in Olmert’s cabinet as foreign minister, would win Kadima’s internal balloting in a landslide. Indeed, had the issue been submitted to the electorate at large, overwhelming victory would almost certainly have been hers, as her “Ms. Clean” image resonates strongly with a public heartily sick of a leadership tainted by charges of bribery, cronyism and larceny. But, in the final tally, her chief rival Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz had come in a close second, with a margin of no more than a few hundred votes, or less than 1 percent of the party membership, separating him from the winner.

Within the narrow confines of the Kadima membership, Mofaz mounted an unexpectedly powerful challenge. A former commander-in-chief of Israel’s armed forces who has done a stint as minister of defense, Mofaz promoted himself as an expert on national security, a subject of which he insisted Livni had no knowledge. In his electioneering, the mythical 3 am phone call figured prominently. But Mofaz and his team of seasoned political strategists were otherwise resolved to avoid challenging Livni to a head-on popularity contest, where his dour demeanor and somewhat dodgy reputation would have gone against him. Instead, he opted for a strategy more in keeping with Israeli tradition, taking advantage of his portfolio as transportation minister to recruit bloc votes among groups dependent upon his ministry’s good will. Dangling promises of benefits, his aides enrolled troops of bus drivers and dockworkers as members of Kadima, and made sure they turned out to cast their votes. The numbers thus drummed up were not large, but in a party with a nominal membership of 70,000—only half of whom bothered to turn out—several thousand such “bloc voters” were almost enough to tip the scales in favor of Mofaz.

And Livni’s shaky mandate from the party faithful is only one of her problems.

Shadow Boxing

Although formally replaced as chairman of Kadima, Olmert remains caretaker prime minister until Livni can form a new government. Indeed, under certain circumstances he could even cling to office well into 2009, should Livni’s coalition-building efforts run into obstacles. That is not an entirely unlikely scenario. Her preferred course would be to maintain or even expand the present four-party ruling alliance, on the basis of existing agreements. But her prospective allies—Labor, the Orthodox Shas Party and the Pensioners’ slate—do not appear willing to play along with such a smooth transition. Each of the junior coalition partners has seized the opportunity to demand a better share of cabinet posts or to press particular claims for its core constituency. Labor wants a greater say in economic policy and a halt on legislation aimed at limiting the powers of the courts. Shas, representing a constituency of Orthodox Jews of non-European origin with a preponderance of large families, is intent on a considerable enlargement of children’s allowances. The Pensioners’ list is equally determined to secure a larger slice of the budgetary pie for its elderly voters.

All of these demands are likely to be pressed with unusual vigor in view of the generally held conviction that early elections are a strong possibility, giving each party a powerful incentive to strike a public pose attractive to its voters. And even if the prospect of national elections does not materialize, municipal elections scheduled for November present an immediate challenge party leaders cannot evade.

It is against this turbulent political background that Livni must pursue her efforts to put together a viable coalition. It promises to be a daunting task, not least because nobody—not even members of her own party—wants to appear too eager to clamber onto her bandwagon. Mofaz initially responded to his defeat with the declaration of a “timeout from politics,” widely seen as a deliberately offensive slamming of the door in Livni’s face. But after no more than a few days, the transportation minister appears to have had second thoughts and returned to the scene. This is the more normal mould in Israeli politics where, in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon principle of “winner takes all,” less successful candidates can expect substantial consolation prizes. Thus, Mofaz appears to look forward to significant promotion of his cabinet status, with an eye to grabbing one of the three top cabinet posts—Defense, Finance or Foreign Affairs. His expectations would be hard to meet: The Defense portfolio is held by Labor leader Ehud Barak, who is unlikely to cede it, while Finance Minister Roni Bar-On was a staunch supporter of Livni in the Kadima leadership contest and she can hardly turn her back on him. That leaves the Foreign Ministry, but it would be hard to imagine a less likely candidate for that job than Mofaz, whose military record includes actions and orders that could leave him open to charges of war crimes (as Israel Defense Forces supremo, he reportedly ordered commanders facing the Palestinian uprising to provide him with “70 corpses a day”) and whose political views include a publicly advocated “bomb Iran” strategy, as well as intransigance toward Israel’s Arab neighbors.

Sensing Livni’s troubles, Shas leaders have declared that they “will not offer her their support on a silver platter.” Shas demands for enlarged welfare payments are a particular burden at a time when the global economic upheaval threatens to slow down Israel’s economy and reduce tax revenues. Like Shas, the other parties are striking a note of bravado, their leaders claiming to be perfectly willing to risk early elections should Livni fail to meet their demands. Although pronounced with apparent conviction, these declarations need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt in view of opinion polls predicting that each of the four coalition partners faces a sharp loss of support, or even outright eclipse, should they be required to face the electorate in the months to come.

The right-wing Likud Party, whence Livni and many of her Kadima peers came, is ahead in the polls. Indeed, that uninviting alternative may be Livni’s main advantage as she bargains with the other parties. If they prove too intractable, she can remind them that life could get very chilly for them should they venture outside the warmth of their ministerial offices. Shadow boxing in this arena will be Livni’s first and most pressing challenge.

The Kadima Epiphany

Her cabinet will meet many others, should she in fact become prime minister. She will need a strong team to tackle the difficulties facing the country’s export-oriented economy, and there are divisive legislative issues to consider. But overshadowing all else are the ongoing talks with Syria and the Palestinian Authority on eventual peace deals. In theory, this should be Livni’s home turf, considering her experience as foreign minister. She has personally handled one channel of contact with the Palestinians (although Olmert purposely marginalized her from his own talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his indirect contacts with the Syrians). But despite her active involvement, it is far from clear where she stands on the outstanding issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Indeed, after years of public prominence and senior office, Livni remains something of an enigma, with neither her personal convictions nor her vision of the future in sharp focus. The high-profile leadership contest did little to resolve the picture. One commentator put it in a nutshell when he said Livni’s conquest of Kadima was “not a victory of essence; rather, it was a triumph of image.” Throughout her campaign, she carefully sidestepped any binding declaration of policy on a major issue, confining herself to unspecified general principle; instead, she worked on self-promotion, extolling the virtues of personal probity. Few if any know where she stands on social or economic issues, on religious legislation or civil rights.

Livni’s unwillingness to be tied down to specifics may have roots in her biography. Born into a family belonging to the select band of the Irgun (Etzel) underground, a militia which fought British soldiers and Arabs with equal verve before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, she was raised on a diet of far-right nationalism. The Etzel movement’s hymn asserts the claim that Israel has a right to both banks of the river Jordan: “This one is ours, the other is too!” Over the years, she has progressively shed such delusions for more pragmatic views. Like Olmert and ex-premier Ariel Sharon, who led several colleagues out of Likud to form Kadima in November 2005, she clothes her change of direction in high-minded protestations that Israel “cannot forever dominate another people,” namely, the Palestinians. In fact, like Olmert and Sharon, she grasped that Israeli rule of a territorial expanse where Jews are increasingly outnumbered by a growing Arab population spelled an end to the dream of a “Jewish democratic state.”

Whatever the origins of her epiphany, Livni has long since cast aside her youthful belief in a “Greater Israel,” repeatedly proclaiming her support for the principle of “two states for two peoples,” or a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and stressing the just nature of that solution. But here, too, there is a wide gap between noble principle and practical application. Over many long months Livni has held regular meetings with a Palestinian delegation headed by Ahmad Qurei to discuss the contours of a comprehensive peace. The sides regularly report that discussions are cordial, and the two principals appear to have developed a close personal friendship (it was widely reported that Qurei extended active support to Livni’s leadership campaign). But behind the façade of vigorous handshakes and warm smiles, little movement has been recorded. The Palestinians report that Livni is a tough negotiator with scant willingness to give them leeway. The only Palestinian state she seems willing to countenance would have to yield considerable territory to Israel, and consent to severe restrictions on its sovereign rights. She is equally intractable on other major points, such as the problem of the Palestinians made refugees in 1948, where she firmly rejects the notion of admitting even a token number for resettlement inside Israel.

Toeing the Line

If Tzipi Livni brings with her to the prime minister’s office this sharp disparity between proclaimed principle and practical willingness to act, she will be following a path well-trodden by her predecessors. From the first generation of founding fathers and mothers, stretching from David Ben Gurion to Golda Meir, down to the younger age group of Israeli-born prime ministers like Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, the public posture favored by Israel’s leaders has always played up declarations of peaceful intent and friendship toward the state’s Arab neighbors, while quietly encouraging or instigating actions with a far more sinister impact.

Livni’s conduct while serving under Olmert as a prominent member of his cabinet  may foreshadow adherence to that familiar pattern. Even while meeting regularly with Ahmad Qurei and hearing repeated Palestinian protests over Israel’s continued settlement activity in the Palestinian territories, Foreign Minister Livni has never once brought up her government’s persistent failure to live up to its promises to the Bush administration to dismantle “unlawful” settlements in the West Bank. Nor has she mentioned the equally persistent channeling of resources and building permits to those settlements—the most populous by far—that her government considers “lawful” though the international community does not. Here, as on most other aspects of the policies Olmert has carried out, as opposed to those he spoke about to Yediot Aharonot, Livni obediently toed the line, with no hint of a different agenda.

Her critics also recall that, as a prominent member of the Olmert cabinet, she voted with her colleagues to approve the 2006 incursion into Lebanon and largely went along with the course of the military campaign, loyally keeping up the diplomatic front against foreign criticism. It was only much later, when the official Winograd commission of inquiry published its report severely condemning Olmert’s management of the conflict, that Livni found the pluck to add her voice to those demanding his resignation. Throughout, her bearing radiated prudence and reserve. Of bold leadership there was little evidence.

Such conduct holds out little hope that, should she emerge as prime minister, Tzipi Livni will muster the courage needed for a breakthrough on peace.

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