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(photo credit: AP)
One of the first congratulatory calls newly-appointed Foreign Minister Zipi Livni received Wednesday after formally taking over from Silvan Shalom was from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The call, from one Madame Secretary to one Madame Foreign Minister, prompted the obvious question: "Is Livni Israel's Rice?"
On the surface there are points of comparison. Both are relatively young for the job (Rice is 51; Livni is 47); both are intelligent and articulate; both have a reputation for integrity; both are held in high esteem by their bosses (Rice by US President George W. Bush, Livni by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon); and both have been touted as future leaders of their countries - Rice, a possible presidential candidate from the Republican Party (though she denies it); Livni a possible prime ministerial candidate from Kadima (if the party lasts).
But there is also one glaring difference. While Rice is a foreign policy maven with a PhD in political science, a professorship at Stanford and a clear vision, prior to becoming part of the foreign policy elite in Washington, of America's standing in the world; Livni is a trained lawyer without an abundance of foreign policy experience or a paper trail revealing anything that could possibly be termed as a grand vision of Israel foreign policy.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Israel's foreign ministry is reserved for politicians, not necessarily foreign policy thinkers. But it does distinguish her from Rice. It also differentiates her from some of her recent predecessors, like Binyamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres and Shlomo Ben-Ami who - whether you agreed with them or not - seemed to bring an orderly foreign policy conception to the job.
These three predecessors also had a strong command of English. Interestingly enough, no one has raised a question about Livni's English - a question immediately raised when Shalom came into office three years ago, and after Amir Peretz won the Labor party primaries in November. The assumption about Livni is that her English is good.
Not so, said one journalist who heard her speak to foreign journalists about six months ago.
"In fact, I was struck by the fact that it wasn't that good. Her vocabulary wasn't that strong; she didn't have a good command of the language; and she had difficulty expressing herself."
Another journalist who has spoken to her a number of times in English said Livni can definitely speak and understand, but isn't eloquent or easy with the language. This journalist characterized her command of English as "fine for an Israeli politician."
In other words, she's coming to the job neither as Abba Eban nor David Levy.
Although Livni was appointed on a caretaker basis until after the elections, the conventional wisdom is that if things proceed as expected and Kadima cleans up at the polls, she will remain as foreign minister for years to come - the first female foreign minister since Golda Meir held the job from 1956-1966.
LIVNI FIRST entered the Knesset in 1999 on the Likud slate, and was brought into the cabinet by Sharon in 2001. In various positions she has held - regional cooperation minister, immigration and absorption minister, justice minister - she quickly developed a reputation as someone with integrity, intelligence and principle, who went about her business in a dignified, non-confrontational manner that set her apart from some of the other top-tier politicians.
She was also a loyal supporter of Sharon and the disengagement plan - she crafted the compromise that allowed the plan to pass through the cabinet in 2004 - but was not always a blind follower. In June 2003, when the road map came to the cabinet, she held up approval and was instrumental in inserting a clause stating that the Palestinian "right of return" would be limited to a Palestinian state, not to Israel.
It may be telling that at a ceremony Wednesday at the Foreign Ministry marking the handover of power from Shalom to Livni, Livni focused on the Palestinians. Shalom, when he first came to the ministry, spoke of improving relations with Europe and the Arab world. Not Livni. Her mind was on how Israel needed to hold the PA to its obligation to dismantle the terrorist organizations after the elections, and how disengagement and the road map were the best chances "for the two peoples to forge a better future."
One of the characteristics of Shalom's tenure was that he didn't deal much with the Palestinians. He met the foreign ministers of Morocco, Oman and Tunisia, but rarely with the PA. Livni is expected to take a different approach - one that will likely be called "pragmatic."
Hebrew University political scientist professor Avraham Diskin, when asked if he could identify an orderly Livni worldview, said it was simple: realism.
"There once was a dream in Israel of the Greater Land of Israel, and there once was a dream of true peace - and they were both unrealistic dreams," Diskin said. "It took a long time to come to this realization. Livni is one of those who came to the conclusion that neither one nor the other was possible, and that it would be necessary to reach a more reasonable balance that gives up on both those dreams."
Livni, who grew up in a fiercely Revisionist home (her father was a former Irgun commander and Likud MK) has clearly ditched the Greater Land of Israel philosophy for something in the middle. Likewise, she never adhered to the true peace dream that characterized the Oslo period.
"I thought Oslo was a great mistake," she told The Jerusalem Post in 2004. "I understood that we have to give up land, but we have to give it up wisely"
"I would say she has a proper reading of reality," Diskin said, characterizing Kadima as the party of broken dreams for those from both the Right and the Left.
Diskin mentioned Olmert and Livni from the Right, and Haim Ramon from the Left, as those who gravitated to Kadima because of their "broken dreams."
He very well could have added Tzahi Hanegbi and Dalia Itzik into this mix. As far as Shimon Peres is concerned, however, Diskin said that he was the exception, and someone who joined Kadima not because he gave up on his previous dream, but rather because he lost to Amir Peretz inside Labor.
Livni, Diskin said, reflected something pragmatic in the Israeli middle: suspicious of the Palestinians, but willing to forfeit a previously held dream.
One of the clearest indications of her overall philosophy came at a meeting in November during which Kadima was launched.
"Israel is a Jewish, democratic country," she said, laying out the party's principles and declaiming what to her is a primary goal: ensuring that Israel remains a Jewish, democratic state.
"The people of Israel have a national and historic right to the land of Israel," Livni said, in statements that sum up her position in a nutshell. "Because there is a need for Israel to remain a Jewish majority, so we will have to give up part of the land of Israel."
She said that Kadima supported the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but that the "Palestinians will have to commit to dismantle the terror organizations, collect illegal arms and carry out security reforms. Israel will keep the major settlement blocs, and Jerusalem will remain unified." Another quote, from two years earlier, was also indicative of her thinking. "We are in a very sensitive era," she said in 2003, after the cabinet vote on the road map. "Israel has now taken a huge risk. There is a need for us to be sure that the United States, Israel's greatest friend, will be there so support us on the most important issues, knowing that Israel is seeking peace but will never give up its security or the security of its citizens."
All of this, of course, is vintage Sharon. Sharon successfully hid his end-game from the public, leaving everyone guessing about how much he would give up and what settlements would remain inside his final map.
Livni, however, has given some indication. At a conference in Caesarea last year she was quoted as saying that the security fence will serve as "the future border of the state of Israel" and that "the High Court of Justice, in its rulings over the fence, is drawing the country's borders."
"One does not have to be a genius to see that the fence will have implications for the future border," she said. "This is not the reason for its establishment, but it could have political implications."