Politics: The rise and fall of Tzipi Livni

Ten reasons she got trounced in Tuesday’s Kadima primary.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
March 29, 2012 22:29
TZIPI LIVNI leaves after casting her ballot

TZIPI LIVNI leaves after casting her ballot 370. (photo credit: Reuters)

Tzipi Livni’s rise through Israeli politics was as meteoric as her downfall. She entered the Knesset in 1999 and was already a minister two years later. She ran six ministries, advancing from minister-without-portfolio to foreign minister in just five years.

By 2006 she was already second in command of Kadima, the country’s ruling party, her role in the formation of which she always exaggerated. A candidate for prime minister only a decade after entering politics, she helped Kadima get the most votes in the 2009 general election.

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The card she played that helped her advance was that she was not a politician, that she played by different rules, and that she could stay above the fray and keep her hands clean.

That strategy helped her enormously as she rose politically, appealing to Israelis desperate for a clean alternative to everything that disgusted them about politics. But that same strategy also upset and alienated many people and helped expedite her political collapse.

The many enemies Livni made on her way up the political ladder did little to soften her fall on the way down.

The following are 10 reasons Livni fell so fast from near the top of the political pyramid to her nearly 25-point loss to Shaul Mofaz in Tuesday’s Kadima primary:

1) Paucity of patriotism. Let’s start with Livni’s own explanation, which she gave in an Israel Radio interview last Thursday. She was asked whether it was last summer’s socioeconomic protests that brought down Kadima from running neck-and-neck with Likud in the polls to barely half the support the ruling party has now.

Livni responded that actually Kadima had started slipping two months before. She said the turning point for the party had come on May 20, 2011.

That was the day Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama faced off at the White House. Obama had delivered a major Middle East policy address the day before at the State Department, in which he called for two states based on the 1967 lines and deferred Palestinian concessions on refugees until Israel made its concessions on territory.

Netanyahu confronted Obama and was seen as defending Israel from a president trying to coerce the Jewish state into dangerous concessions. Livni said the confrontation had escalated Netanyahu’s popularity.

What she neglected to say was that it was not only Netanyahu’s behavior that impacted the polls; it was also her own. The day before, she had praised Obama’s speech on television and blamed Netanyahu for the diplomatic stalemate.

In doing so, she followed a track record of going against Netanyahu even when he articulated the Israeli consensus. The best example came in September, when Netanyahu delivered a speech at the United Nations in which he called upon the Palestinians to “talk dughri.” Immediately after the speech, a sour-faced Livni slammed him on the highly rated Channel 2 news magazine Ulpan Shishi. Her own advisers said after the program that she had made a big mistake.

2) From modesty to melodrama. One of Livni’s top attributes at the beginning of her political career was her modesty. She was seen as the antidote to top politicians who were known for their arrogance and hedonism, including prime ministers.

But as time went on, she became more confident in herself and went overboard in self-promotion. In her campaign against Mofaz, she went as far as to predict Kadima’s doom if she did not win the election. Last week, she issued a new slogan: “Without Tzipi Livni, there is no Kadima.”

Kadima survived the incapacitating stroke of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, in whose image it was founded, and the corruption charges against former prime minister Ehud Olmert that contradicted the party’s raison d’etre of clean politics.

Three days after the election Livni lost, the party continues to exist.

3) Avoiding the activists. Livni’s infamous November 25 Yediot Aharonot interview, in which she said she could not wait for life after politics, made Kadima activists consider whether they should grant her wish.

What she meant was that she saw politics as a public service and not as a profession. But the activists took it as an insult, as if dealing with them on a daily basis was a chore she loathed.

She made it worse in a Channel 2 interview two weeks ago, in which she said she thought the activists would appreciate it more if she worked hard in the Knesset than if she called them on their birthdays.

“Shaul kept in touch with the activists more than I did,” she admitted in the interview.

Indeed, Mofaz managed to work hard in the Knesset and in politics. He met with key activists regularly, called them on their birthdays, and persuaded them to support him.

The results of the election proved that his strategy worked. An Arab activist in Kadima named Ahmed Dabah brought Mofaz more votes in his northern town of Deir El- Assad than Mofaz and Livni combined received in Tel Aviv.

4) Timing isn’t trivial.  One of the reasons Netanyahu won the last two Likud races by a landslide is that he knew how to schedule them. He initiated the races when he was at the peak of his popularity and made sure they would be fast enough to ensure that his rival Silvan Shalom would not compete.

The decision on when the Kadima race would be held was entirely in Livni’s hands. Kadima’s constitution, which was drafted for the persona of Ariel Sharon, made it virtually impossible to initiate a party primary without the leader’s own consent.

She could have decided to hold the primary immediately after the 2009 general election and ridden on the wave of her “winning the election.” Instead, she stalled for as long as she could, and by the time she couldn’t say no anymore to pressure for the primary, her popularity had dramatically fallen.

5) Unaware of undermining. Livni lashed out at Mofaz and former minister Rafi Eitan this week for sabotaging her efforts at forming a government following Olmert’s September 2008 resignation. She said Eitan had made a deal with Netanyahu, and Mofaz had pushed Shas to shun her.

While such revelations were interesting, they were more than three years too late to matter. And they revealed a lot more about Livni than they did about Mofaz.

It was no secret that Mofaz knew how to play the political game well. Livni incriminated herself when she indicated that she had no idea that such shenanigans were going on at the time. If the leader of a party is so oblivious to people undermining her, maybe voting to keep her in the job is not such a good idea.

6) Disinclination to deal. Next week was due to be a very significant week in Livni’s political career. It did not have to be the week in which she decided to quit politics, as it is looking to be right now.

It could have been the week in which Livni was sworn in as prime minister if Netanyahu had had his way and if she had been willing to compromise.

During coalition talks between the Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar and Kadima’s Tzachi Hanegbi, Sa’ar proposed a rotation government in which Netanyahu would be prime minister for the first two-thirds of the term and Livni the third third. That third third would have started next week if Livni had accepted the deal.

7) Not finessing the faction. Sharon was known for his knack in making his subordinates feel special. He delegated authority, and politicians respected him despite deep ideological divides.

Livni demonstrated the opposite when she prevented Mofaz from presenting his diplomatic plan to Kadima MKs in November 2009 in a meeting that would be remembered as the “nifla” (wonderful) faction meeting.

That was the word Livni used to interrupt Mofaz constantly before the television cameras in a show that revealed the discord between the two. From then on, Kadima faction meetings were closed to the press.

But it was not the only example of Kadima MKs feeling that Livni disrespected them. She was seen as running the party by herself and not letting them in on decision-making.

It is no wonder that several MKs negotiated leaving the party and more than half the faction opposed her in the primary.

8) Conundrums in coalition-crafting. When the factions visited President Shimon Peres after the 2009 election to tell him who they wanted to see form the next government, all the parties on the Right said Netanyahu. Among the parties on the Center-Left, only Kadima said Livni.

Livni never managed to build a coalition among the parties in the Center-Left bloc that she ostensibly led. The opposition she led in the Knesset was completely ineffective, passing only one bill, which passed after midnight and was repealed a week later.

9) Disregarding the demonstrations. The socioeconomic protests did not succeed in achieving most of the protesters’ aims, in part because they lacked a real leader. Who better to lead them than the leader of the opposition and the largest faction in the Knesset?

Livni said she did not take part in the demonstrations because their organizers had told her that the presence of politicians would harm their efforts. But other politicians, like Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, managed to build support from the demonstrations without even visiting the protest tents on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.

The public’s focus on socioeconomic issues revealed how little Livni had to say on the matter. Unlike Mofaz, an immigrant who was raised poor, she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, the daughter of an MK.

Kadima members are aware that socioeconomic issues will play a central role in the next general election, and fielding Livni as their leader would leave them handicapped.

10) From clean to corrupt. After years of presenting herself as Mrs. Clean, Livni began associating herself with too many Mr. Dirties. The two politicians closest to her, Haim Ramon and Hanegbi, are both convicts. The head of her campaign was former MK Omri Sharon, a convict who, unlike Ramon and Hanegbi, served jail time.

Kadima’s former treasurer Itzik Haddad revealed many incidents of wrongdoing by people in the party under Livni’s leadership. Eventually it stuck to her. She became associated with the dirty politics she had so desperately tried to eradicate.


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