(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When in 1921 the Irish revolutionary leader Eamonn de Valera assigned his political rival Michael Collins the hugely problematic task of negotiating Ireland's independence from the UK, Collins is famously said to have remarked: "Well, that long whore [de Valera] has got me."
Collins later paid with his life by negotiating the compromise treaty that split Ireland in two: He was assassinated during the subsequent Irish Civil War. Whether de Valera, the Republic of Ireland's first president, was really Machiavellian enough to set up his main internal competition for such a dramatic fall has been the source of much historical speculation ever since.
Yesterday's announcement that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had chosen Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to lead the negotiations with the Palestinians at next month's Annapolis conference isn't quite as dramatic, of course, either in the background or the possible consequences. Expectations are so low for the meeting on all sides, and Livni's prospects for advancing to the Kadima leadership are currently so diminished, that this appointment is unlikely to significantly alter the course of the peace process or impact the domestic political landscape.
Still, her selection was enough of a surprise that it has aroused speculation about the prime minister's motives for putting his party-deputy-turned-leadership-challenger in this diplomatic hot seat, with political chatter crediting him with de Valera-like cunning by drawing Livni into a no-win honey trap.
Olmert himself claimed yesterday that the reason for the appointment was simple enough, saying that "the Palestinian team is headed by Abu Ala [former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei], and it would be appropriate that on the Israeli side, my government should be represented by a senior member."
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon certainly didn't think so, though, all those years he had Dov Weisglass negotiating with Palestinians who officially outranked him, rather than using foreign ministers Binyamin Netanyahu or Silvan Shalom. And when former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir went to the Madrid conference, he didn't hesitate to cut off his then-foreign minister David Levy from the negotiating loop, spurring Levy to boycott the summit.
The current equivalent to Weisglass, PMO Chief of Staff Yoram Turbowicz, along with Olmert's veteran senior diplomatic adviser Shalom Turgeman, could presumably have handled the negotiating duties at Annapolis without Livni's supervision. The Foreign Ministry was already adequately represented on the team by its director-general, Aaron Abramovich.
If Olmert really did think he needed a cabinet-level figure heading the talks, it was still surprising that he chose Livni, with whom his relations have been chilly ever since she called for his resignation last May. The minister widely tipped for the job was Vice Premier Haim Ramon, whom many assumed was brought back into the cabinet by Olmert specifically to handle this job.
So why not Ramon? Internal political considerations within the coalition might well have been the key factor here. The extremely negative reactions from the Israel Beiteinu and Shas factions to Ramon's recent talk of ceding control of Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinians, might have cautioned the prime minister that it would be better to have the relatively more hard-line Livni lead up the negotiations for the time being, in order to stabilize the government.
As for Kadima's junior partner, while Labor may not have ideological differences with its former favorite son Ramon, Defense Minister Ehud Barak's personal animus for his old party rival and all-around-pain-in-the-butt is all too well known.
In choosing Livni, Olmert both keeps the peace in his own coalition and scores points with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has famously bonded with her Israeli sister-in-diplomatic-arms.
The prime minister also insulates himself to some degree from the nuts-and-bolts horse-trading at Annapolis, which is bound to get bogged down in the same disagreements that have so far prevented any progress toward final-status agreements. Livni's presence at the negotiating table ensures that any blame for likely failure there is more widely spread around.
Livni could have refused the appointment by arguing that this kind of position was more suitable for the level of the four other civil servants on the negotiating team. But at the very least, she will now have the chance to grab some of the international media spotlight that will be focused on the meeting next month, and perhaps use the opportunity to repair some of the damage she inflicted on herself last spring after her failed putsch against Olmert.
Expectations for the Annapolis summit have dropped so low anyway that any lack of success there is unlikely to leave much of a political stigma on its direct participants, Livni included.
Indeed, as Michael Collins found out too late, sometimes succeeding in high-level negotiations involving painful national compromise can be much more fatal to a political career than just one more disappointment in a series of failed attempts.