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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'If Tzipi Livni leads Kadima," a friend said to me at a dinner party last week, "I'm definitely voting for her."
Her determination caused me to ask her what she knows about Livni - her past, her personality, her views. Very little, she admitted. Yet, here is an intelligent, perceptive, healthily skeptical academic planning to vote for a candidate she knows little of, solely for the reason that she makes a good impression, and because, as a feminist, she feels an obligation to vote for a worthy woman.
But it's not only feminists who are backing Livni. If last weekend's polls are anything to go by, she is now the most popular politician around. In a hypothetical scenario in which she heads Kadima in the next election, the party emerges as the largest in the Knesset, receiving almost three times the number of MKs it would garner if led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. That trumps both the resurgent Binyamin Netanyahu and either potential Labor chairmen, Ami Ayalon or Ehud Barak.
Close to a third of the electorate is prepared to vote for the most unknown prime minister in the state's history, and her momentum seems to be growing. It might not even take elections. As vice prime minister, Livni could be called upon to replace Olmert at any moment - an increasingly relevant possibility, as the publication of the Winograd Committee's first report draws near.
Why is no one asking how, after a parliamentary career of less than eight years, Livni is being propelled out of nowhere into the national driver's seat? What has she done to get there? And does she have a reliable map to steer the state forward?
Livni's sudden popularity is particularly astonishing, as it seems to have grown virtually unaided. Unlike most other politicians in her position, she has rarely gone out of her way to foster relations with journalists. There is no Livni table in the Knesset canteen where off-the-record confidences are dispensed, and there is no individual who can be singled out as her court-reporter. By most accounts, there are no official or unofficial spin doctors busy building up her image. Her spokesman, Ido Aharoni, is a career Foreign Ministry official, concerned only with her diplomatic role.
She is a reluctant interviewee, and her obvious lack of eagerness to interact with the press raises the question of whether this is caution or a sign of insecurity. When she does give interviews, it is almost always for radio or television, where she feels more in control. She rarely gives newspaper interviews out of fear her words may be manipulated or taken out of context. The only comprehensive interview she has given to a newspaper in the last few years was the one she gave Haaretz's Ari Shavit three months ago.
The Shavit interview, which is a form of status symbol for local politicians, and usually succeeds in illuminating hidden sides of the subject's personality, was singularly unrevealing in this case, revolving mainly around her new diplomatic initiative. Aside from Livni's admission that she sees herself as worthy of running for the prime minister's job, we learned nothing new about what exactly makes her so worthy.
The basic details of Livni's career are known - her childhood in a Herutnik family, the daughter of Eitan Livni, the Irgun's operations officer and a former MK - a pedigree that made her a blue-blooded Likud princess. She graduated law school, spent a few years in a classified job in the Mossad, and a few years as a private lawyer. She failed in her first attempt to get into the Knesset in 1996, but was appointed head of the Government Companies Authority. In 1999, she finally managed to get a viable spot on the Likud list and became an MK.
Two and a half years later, Ariel Sharon appointed her to a junior cabinet post, and she filled a quick succession of ministerial positions, most of them in a caretaker capacity. Within four years, she had become one of Sharon's closest political allies and was one of the highest-profile Likud members to leave the party with him to establish Kadima.
Since then, her most significant political action over the last 16 months has been to face the TV cameras following Sharon's second stroke, and say that all of Kadima was standing behind Olmert. From that moment, she slipped naturally into the Number Two position, both within Kadima and in the government formed after the elections.
Her alliance with Olmert, however, rapidly transformed into a just-barely-concealed rivalry.
A sketchy biography, at best. The few profiles published in the press, apparently without Livni's cooperation, have been heavy on positive anecdotes, but with precious little substance.
WE'RE STILL left with a long list of unanswered questions. How did Livni transform herself from a Revisionist who suffered police violence in a right-wing demonstration against Henry Kissinger into the chief cheerleader for the two-state solution? How did she shift loyalties so quickly from Netanyahu, who gave her her first big job, to Sharon, who made her a minister? And what exactly were her achievements in the five different ministries she held in quick succession, some simultaneously?
How has Livni, who has received the annual award of the Movement for Quality in Government, stayed silent in two governments which broke all records for sleaze and corruption? What deal, if any, did she make with Olmert on that fateful night when Sharon slipped into coma? And what is her share of the responsibility for the Lebanon War as vice premier and Foreign Minister?
But why should we have any answers to these questions? We don't even know who Livni is married to; what her husband - whose name, by the way, is Naftali Shpitzer - does for a living; how many kids she has; or almost any other detail about her personal life. Of course, even a senior politician has a right to some privacy, and it could be well argued that we know too much about some of our other leaders. But the fanatic way in which Livni keeps her family out of the spotlight is a bit scary.
In modern media politics, like it or not, the spouse and children are part of the political career, especially of a candidate eyeing the highest office. Furthermore, one of the few details to have come out about her husband is that he is Livni's closest adviser and that she appreciates his views on national policy. If that is even partly true, we should get to know Mr. Shpitzer a bit better.
Livni's low-profile policy seems to have paid off, though. Without spin doctors and media manipulation, she's getting a smooth run from most of the press, and is being treated as a prime minister-in-waiting. Now is the time for a thorough job on her profile.
None of this means that Livni is an unworthy candidate. A serious examination of her past and present might only come up with roses. Given our current dearth of leadership, she could well be one of the better alternatives. Who knows? She might even turn out to be a competent prime minister. But we still have to learn a lot more about her, before we can decide whether we want to give her that chance to prove herself.