Analyze This: Livni's task

Can she reshape her party and form a new gov't in her own image?

September 19, 2008 00:19
3 minute read.


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When casting her own vote in the Kadima primary, the note Tzipi Livni chose to stress was one of change. "If you are fed up with yesterday's politics, then bring about change by voting for what you believe in," the foreign minister told reporters at her polling station in north Tel Aviv. Kadima members responded to that plea Wednesday by choosing as their new leader, and Ehud Olmert's likely immediate successor as prime minister, a relatively new, young and inexperienced (if only by Israeli standards) figure - and a woman to boot, only the second to lead one of the major parties. It's hardly surprising that Livni chose "change" as a campaign leitmotif given the widespread public dissatisfaction with the current holder of the premiership and a broader disillusionment with a political system that not only has proven resistant to reform, but seems to keep recycling the same figures as its leaders. It's a similar sense of disenchantment with politics-as-usual that has both candidates in the current US presidential contest promoting themselves as candidates of change. But like Republican nominee John McCain in that race, Livni has to overcome a basic hurdle in proving she can live up to her campaign rhetoric: It is her own party that holds the reins of power, and thus must itself be held primarily accountable for that very need for breaking with "yesterday's politics." So if Livni is truly going to live up to her promise, the very first thing she must address as party leader is the state of Kadima itself, and try to reshape her divided and scandal-ridden faction into something closer to her own image as the straight-talking "Mrs. Clean" of local politics. What's more, she must do this while concurrently forming a new government - a process that by its nature encourages, if not outright requires, the kind of ideological compromise, political horse-trading, and policy dissembling needed to craft a coalition of parties and personalities with differing, and sometimes conflicting, agendas. This process will start within Kadima itself, where Shaul Mofaz will use his respectable second-place finish as leverage to establish his own position as the faction's number-two man, with his own independent base of support. Beyond their ideological differences regarding the peace process, the accusations of vote-rigging thrown against the Mofaz camp during this race have made him an even more antithetical figure to the kind of party into which Livni has pledged to transform Kadima. Yet as she tries to form a new government, the last thing Livni can afford is a split within her own faction. Somehow she must square this circle of keeping Mofaz and his backers within the party, turning back any attempts by them to undermine her leadership, while also convincing the general electorate that Kadima is no longer simply a faction of individual politicians with disparate agendas who share no principle beyond either enriching themselves or keeping themselves in office, and no plan other than preparing to eventually jump back or into Likud or Labor. If Livni can pull that off, she still has to get Kadima at the center of a new government to avoid a general election for which neither she nor her faction are ready - one in which the prospects are risky not only in terms of emerging with a win, but even surviving a loss as a cohesive opposition party. Doing so will depend on either keeping Shas as a coalition member or replacing it with Meretz to meet the 60-seat minimum for government. Both parties are likely to ask a stiff price to do so, and not only as regards their opposing positions on the peace process, with Shas to the right of Kadima and Meretz to the left. There will also be significant budgetary demands, such as that already made by Shas regarding reinstating child allowance payments to their former level, a condition Livni has already vowed to oppose. If Livni breaks that promise during coalition negotiations, or otherwise pays too high a price in compromising even the very few policy principles that her party has maintained during its time in office, she will have exposed her claims of "change" as being no more than campaign rhetoric, and will surely suffer down the road in elections likely to come sooner rather than later. In gaining control of Kadima over rivals whose resumés and gender more conventionally fit the profile of major party leaders, Livni has already demonstrated greater pure political skill than at any time in her decade in office. But now she will have to step up her game while forging a new Kadima and government and bringing about the "change" she promised, or risk snatching defeat from the jaws of this week's victory.

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