Civil Fights: How to walk a tightrope
If she continues as she has begun, Tzipi Livni could set a welcome new standard for opposition behavior.
No surprise is more pleasant than a politician who exceeds expectations. And Tzipi Livni, who was disastrous in several cabinet posts, has so far been surprisingly impressive as leader of the opposition. If she keeps it up, she could even significantly improve our political culture.
A good opposition leader constantly walks a tightrope: On one hand, he must challenge government policy and present alternatives, but on the other, he must ensure that his attacks on the government do not undermine the country. Hence the British concept of "the loyal opposition": It opposes the government, but is still supposed to be loyal to the nation.
Israeli politicians, however, too often forget the second half of this equation. In their eagerness to undermine the government, they wind up undermining the country as a whole.
One common manifestation of this problem is MKs conducting their own foreign policy. In 2006, for instance, then Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin drafted a plan for final-status negotiations with the Palestinians and marketed it round the world - including to then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, EU foreign policy czar Javier Solana and a senior State Department official - before even showing it to the prime minister. In 2007, then Meretz MKs Avshalom Vilan and Zehava Gal-On approached several foreign diplomats about their plan to turn Gaza over to the Arab League before even discussing it with their own government. A particularly egregious case occurred in 1987, when then foreign minister Shimon Peres negotiated an agreement with Jordan's King Hussein behind the back of his own prime minister - who, because Labor and Likud were in a unity government, also headed the rival Likud party.
SUCH BEHAVIOR damages the country twice over. First, it contributes to the growing demonization of Israel worldwide by sending the message that even senior Israeli politicians deem it, rather than its enemies, responsible for the ongoing conflict. The conflict could be solved if only our proposals replaced the government's, these freelance diplomats say; hence by implication, it is Israel's fault that the conflict is not being solved.
Moreover, this behavior invites foreign pressure: If the conflict could indeed be solved by the country adopting "correct" policies, pressuring it to do so makes sense. Clearly, Israel as a whole suffers from such pressure. Needed defense equipment is not delivered, economic ties are impaired, etc. Even worse, however, foreign pressure can push premiers into misguided concessions that cost lives.
But opposition MKs need not engage in freelance foreign policy to undermine their country. It is enough to publicly term the government an "enemy of peace" - as leftist MKs routinely do to Likud governments. This, too, encourages the world to believe that Israel, rather than its enemies, is at fault for the ongoing conflict, and therefore invites international pressure from which the entire country suffers.
Unlike freelance foreign policy, which has never yet won its practitioners an election, this tactic has often been politically successful. Every Labor victory of the past two decades was achieved by portraying an incumbent Likud government as "anti-peace." But these victories came at a devastating national cost - because though leftist parties have been no more successful at solving the conflict than Likud has, they have been successful in convincing the world that this failure is Israel's fault. Consequently, it has increasingly become a pariah - its army officers investigated overseas for war crimes, its very right to exist attacked without protest in the UN - even under leftist governments.
LIVNI, HOWEVER, has so far taken a refreshingly different approach.
Last month, for instance, the EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said the EU would ice a planned upgrade of ties because of the new government's policy on the conflict. For Livni the politician, this was a golden opportunity: She could have proclaimed that Binyamin Netanyahu's "anti-peace" policy was damaging the economy, whereas if she, the "pro-peace" candidate, were premier, this would never have happened.
Instead, she sent a letter of protest to senior EU officials, saying there was no justification for this step. She neither criticized nor defended Netanyahu's foreign policy; she simply argued that most Israelis are strongly committed to peace, and that the EU would promote peace more by strengthening ties than by weakening them. Such advocacy carries particular weight because Livni is viewed in Europe as a committed dove.
She took a similar approach in February, at her final meeting as foreign minister with US envoy George Mitchell. She already knew she was heading for the opposition, so this would have been a perfect opportunity to reap political capital by pushing the far-reaching concessions that the US favors but Netanyahu opposes, thereby positioning herself as Washington's "good Israeli," in contrast to the "bad Israeli" now in office.
Instead, she reportedly used the meeting to push one policy on which she and Netanyahu agree: requiring Arab states to contribute to the peace process by making reciprocal "gestures," instead of Israel being the only party expected to make concessions. Specifically, she suggested that Arab leaders voice public support for peace, isolate Hamas, encourage Palestinian concessions rather than Palestinian intransigence and start establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. One could argue about the specifics, but the principle is critical - and Washington is reportedly considering adopting it.
By putting the country's welfare ahead of short-term political gain, Livni is following in the footsteps of her predecessor as opposition leader. Netanyahu unstintingly lent his media skills to the former government to defend the wars in Lebanon and Gaza overseas, despite Likud's serious reservations about both their conduct and the arrangements that ended them. But too many opposition MKs have instead chosen party over country.
As time goes by, the temptation for Livni to do the same will be great. But if she manages to resist it, people may start demanding similar behavior from all opposition politicians. She could make no greater contribution to the country in the coming years than by ending the destructive pattern whereby the opposition sabotages the country for the sake of sabotaging the government.