Bird on a Wire (Extract)

Can Tzipi Livni, her feathers ruffled after a close primary election, make it to the Prime Minister's Office and carry out an ambitious agenda?

September 24, 2008 10:42
Bird on a Wire (Extract)

13tzipi224. (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash 90)


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Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The day after her election as Kadima leader in mid-September, Tzipi Livni, convened the party council and, flanked by supporters and former leadership rivals, urged her predecessor Ehud Olmert, one of the few absentees, to tender his promised resignation as prime minister without delay and pave the way for a smooth and speedy handover of power. Her first goal, she said, would be to form a new government as quickly as possible, because of the huge challenges the country faces. The atmosphere at Kadima headquarters in Petah Tikva was low-key. A large bouquet was presented to the new leader and there were strong expressions of support from all corners of the council floor, but there was no fanfare. In calling the meeting of the 180-member council so soon after her victory, Livni was trying to get across two key messages: that there is no time to waste in getting a new government up and running, and that, after a divisive and acrimonious leadership race, the party is solidly behind her. Party unity became an issue after Livni's main rival for the leadership, Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, stayed away from the meeting, refrained from wishing her well and announced that he would be taking a "time out" from politics after his narrow defeat. Livni had won the September 17 primary with 43.1 percent of the vote, edging Mofaz, on 42 percent. She had been expected to win by a landslide, but in the end led by just 431 votes. Two other candidates were left far behind - Interior Minister Meir Shetreet with 8.5 percent, and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, with 6.5 percent. Mutual charges of election irregularities - some amplified in the media - did not help Livni's Mrs. Clean image, although observers doubted they would stick. Mofaz quickly announced he would not appeal the outcome, but some of his embittered backers say they will. The council's wall-to-wall support was a first step in snuffing out a potential Mofaz backlash that could split the party. Livni has been getting two contradictory sets of advice on what to do next. Some advisers were urging her to build on the momentum of her party leadership triumph and go for a snap national election. Others argued that especially after the unexpected narrowness of her win over Mofaz, she would be far better off forming a government, establishing herself as bona fide prime ministerial material, and going for an election as the incumbent in a year or two. They cited the Golda Meir model: When Meir succeeded Levi Eshkol as prime minister in mid-term in March 1969, she had just 4 percent public support. But when she ran for re-election as prime minister just seven months later, her Labor party won an unprecedented 56 seats or 46.2 percent of the national vote. Livni chose the second alternative. Her plan is not only to emulate Meir as Israel's second woman prime minister, but also her electoral success a year or so down the road. But the tasks she faces are enormous: to maintain party unity, to form a government with demanding and recalcitrant coalition partners, and then to handle a daunting list of pressing regional and domestic problems - not to speak of unforeseen crises. Livni says she wants to form a government based on the present coalition: Kadima, Labor, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas and the Pensioners party. But she will find it difficult even to get past first base: Labor leader Ehud Barak, with an eye on the next elections, is determined to deny her any advantage and has even made overtures to Netanyahu on a possible Likud-Labor pact. Shas is demanding budget-sapping child allowances and no discussion of Jerusalem in peace talks with the Palestinians both highly important to its blue-collar, large-familied constituency and both policies that Livni rejects. If Livni manages to form a coalition, her reelection plans will depend on how she copes with the big issues - on whether she is able to articulate a new vision for Israel and to show signs of being able to implement it. Indeed, if she becomes prime minister, Livni's first 100 days will be crucial. After getting the official nod from President Shimon Peres, Livni will have six weeks to form a government. On paper, she has a number of coalition options: • A "national emergency" government, including Labor and Likud: The argument for this would be that Israel is facing looming crises on several fronts and needs a unified Kadima-Labor-Likud leadership to meet them. The emergency government would be for a set time, say a year, with an agreed date for new elections. Barak would stay on as Defense minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu would be offered the Foreign Ministry or the Treasury. Livni would not need Shas, and the ultra-Orthodox party would have to join on her terms. Barak is pushing for this, but Netanyahu has already shot the idea down. He prefers elections now, since he is sure he will win. • A "peace" government: This would be a minority government with Labor and the Pensioners Party, and with Meretz instead of Shas - a total of 57 members of the 120-seat Knesset, kept afloat from outside by the 10 Knesset members from the three Arab-sector parties. The aim would be to cut a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, and then go for a national election over the deal. But given Livni's hawkish background, her reluctance to be forced into what would be a make-or-break negotiation with the Palestinians, and the certainty of vociferous right-wing attempts to discredit her, Livni, despite her relatively new dovishness, is unlikely to go for a coalition dependent on Arab Knesset votes and Palestinian good faith. But by keeping the door open to Meretz, she is putting pressure on Shas to moderate its terms for joining her government. • A government based on the current coalition: This is Livni's most realistic option. She maintains that, in wake of the new corruption allegations against Olmert that surfaced last May, all the Labor party asked Kadima to do was change its leader. Now that Kadima has done that, continuing with the present coalition shouldn't be a problem. Indeed, she says there is no need to open the existing coalition guidelines. But Livni's main coalition partners have no intention of giving her an easy ride. And without both Labor and Shas, it is difficult to see how Livni can muster the necessary coalition numbers. Barak's dilemma is between two unpalatable choices: staying in the government and helping establish Livni as a credible national leader and reducing his chances of becoming prime minister, or refusing to join a new coalition and facing early elections in which polls say he would take a severe beating. Although Barak has been trying to belittle Livni, recently disparagingly calling her by her full first name Tzipora, which means bird, pundits suggest that in the end he will probably join Livni's coalition, while doing his best to elevate his status in the government and to undermine her public standing from the inside. Some Labor people close to Barak have been intimating that they intend to force new elections, arguing that a prime minister effectively elected by less than 17,000 Israelis (Livni won around 16,936 Kadima votes) has no legitimacy. However, this, as well as Barak's call for a national emergency government, possibly even under Netanyahu, looks more like posturing to win a better deal for Labor in a new coalition. Barak hopes to force Livni to upgrade his position in her coalition to one of full partnership. This would mean renegotiating the national budget, but, more importantly, creating a public perception of a joint, two-pronged Livni-Barak government. As for Shas, it is caught between a possible deal on child allowances with Livni and Netanyahu's promises to up the ante if Shas helps force an early election. Much will depend on how tough Livni is with Shas with the Prime Minister's Office beckoning. Then again, if she is successful in forming a coalition with Labor and Shas, she may be able to reduce their leverage by bringing in additional coalition partners. She sees any combination of three potential candidates: the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu, the dovish Meretz and the ultra-Orthodox Torah Judaism. Assuming Livni is able to form a govern- ment, her reelection prospects will depend to a large extent on the policies she adopts on the big issues of the day. In recent background briefings and interviews, she has given a good idea of where she stands. Her regional and domestic agendas are both hugely demanding. Her main regional priority is to head off what she sees as the two most serious threats Israel faces: nuclear weaponization in Iran and pressure for a one-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, increasingly popular with the Palestinians due to the faltering negotiations (See Ehud Ya'ari, page 19). Her domestic priorities are equally ambitious: to restore public faith in politics, severely shaken by the corruption allegations against Olmert and others, and to limit the crisis in the financial markets. Her top diplomatic priority will be to remove the one-state option from the agenda by accelerating negotiations for a two-state solution. For the past several months she and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei have been painstakingly drafting a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. But both sides acknowledge that wide gaps on key issues still exist. However, in a parallel negotiation with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, Olmert has gone much further on the core issues, offering the Palestinians the territorial equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank while retaining settlement blocs, an international mechanism including Palestinians, Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Moroccans and the Vatican for temporary administration of the holy places in Jerusalem, and a token return of 1,500-2,000 Palestinian refugees a year to Israel for ten years. Livni as prime minister would probably accept most of this, except resettlement of refugees in Israel - and that could be a deal-breaker. She argues that the logic of the two-state solution dictates that Palestinians settle in Palestine, not Israel, and that for Israel to accept any refugees at all would undermine its legitimacy as a Jewish state. Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.

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