The cost of dysfunctional ties in the corridors of power

Livni has lost her support and Olmert's friendship, but she retains her status as one of Rice's friends.

By
May 6, 2007 23:23
4 minute read.
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ANALYSIS The timing couldn't have been more ironic. In the same week that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni lost her halo, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Right up there with Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, Sacha Baron Cohen and Al Gore. And that wasn't all. No less a personage than US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, herself among the world's 100 most influential people, penned the blurb on Livni for the magazine. Livni might have lost a big chunk of public support and a friend in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week when she called on Olmert to resign but didn't do so herself, but at least her status as one of Rice's life-long friends has been enshrined in the pages of Time. "Tzipi has not just been my colleague; she has become my friend," Rice wrote. "Tzipi, 48, is a woman of conviction, intelligence and peace. I deeply respect her. I like being around her. And I know that long after we have both exited the world stage, we'll still be friends." These words must have been comforting to Livni, coming as they did after a dreadful week. But she would do well not to bask too much in Time's accolades. Her influence on the world stage stemmed largely from the fact that she had the ear, confidence and respect of Israel's prime minister. Unlike Livni's predecessor Silvan Shalom, whom former prime minister Ariel Sharon did not consult often or involve in major decisions, Livni - from the day she officially took over the Foreign Ministry in January 2006 until at least the first week of the war in July 2006 - was a major player around the decision-making table. Her opinion was sought after, respected, and - more often than not - incorporated into policy. At one time there was even talk of an "Olmert-Livni axis" running the country. That was then. Now the breakdown in trust and confidence between the two leaders is painfully obvious. And the ramifications go beyond merely having a foreign minister on good terms with the prime minister - Livni is also the deputy prime minister, the person to replace Olmert if for some reason he should become incapacitated. Livni is to Olmert what Olmert was to Sharon. The breakdown in their relationship is the equivalent of US Vice President Dick Cheney no longer having the respect, confidence or trust of US President George W. Bush. Such a scenario is so farfetched as to be almost unimaginable. But not in Israel. And what makes the whole scenario even more surreal is that the breakdown in this key relationship comes precisely at a time when one of the Winograd Committee's key recommendations was that the foreign minister and the Foreign Ministry needed to be given a greater role in the decision making process. Although Olmert will certainly be careful to invite Livni or representatives from her office to key meetings - struggling as he is now to show the public that he will implement the findings of the Winograd Report - there is a significant difference between inviting someone to a meeting, even letting that person speak, and actually listening and internalizing what that individual has to say. Those who don't think that personal feelings and chemistry come into play at the highest levels of government - even in relations between heads of state - are fooling themselves. By calling on Olmert to resign, Livni has with her own hands neutralized her effectiveness to a large degree. Foreign leaders listened to her and respected her not only because she had integrity and was intelligent, but also because they thought that when they spoke to her, they were actually speaking to someone who represented Olmert - a sense that diplomatic officials say Shalom did not engender in his interlocutors. But now what are foreign statesmen who meet with her to think? Will foreign leaders really believe the statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office on Sunday that essentially said the two met and decided to let bygones be bygones, and believe that Livni's position in the country's hierarchy is what it once was? Doubtful. Some weird consolation can perhaps be found in believing that an influential foreign minister may not be needed that badly right now, since little is likely to transpire on the diplomatic front as the world waits for the domestic political dust in Israel to settle. In this situation, a foreign minister who has already declared that she will be a candidate to replace her boss and doesn't think he should remain in office might not cause that much damage, simply because not much is likely to happen any time soon. But, then again, it also obviously doesn't help. Some, like Tourism Minister Ze'ev Boim, argue that not too much should be made of this tiff, and that this is not the first time in the state's history that there has been tension between the prime minister and the foreign minister. Indeed, there is a long tradition of dysfunctional relationships between the prime minister and foreign minister: David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett; Golda Meir and Abba Eban; Yitzhak Shamir and David Levy, to name just a few. Yet that argument misses the point. Sure, it happened in the past, but in those situations - as in the present - one fundamental question needed to be asked: Was the public being properly served?


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