ON THE PODIUM DRESSED in black, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni is breathing fire and
brimstone. It is mid-June and the leader of the opposition has again mobilized
40 signatures for a Knesset debate on government policy. The object of her wrath
is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who two days earlier told author Etgar
Keret in Rome that, in his view, the conflict with the Palestinians is
“Who are you to tell the citizens of Israel that
they and their children, and later their children’s children, will continue to
live by their swords forever?” she fumes, looking Netanyahu straight in the eye
and squeezing out every word in a slow, deliberate staccato.
“Who are you
to bury the chances of a deal and a normal life here after just a few hours in
the room meant for negotiations you didn’t conduct?” On the contrary, she
insists, the conflict is soluble, but it will take tough decisions the current
Israeli government, which she dubs “the rejectionist front,” is not capable
Then, impugning Netanyahu’s claim that all the Palestinians have to
do is say five words, “we recognize a Jewish state,” for peace to break out, she
offers some Hebrew five-word aphorisms of her own: “Netanyahu won’t solve the
conflict; Netanyahu will not do anything; Netanyahu only wants to keep his job;
Netanyahu is isolating the country; Netanyahu is leading Israel to the abyss,”
she intones, counting off the words of each sentence on her fingers.
fiery impassioned speech reflects a consistent three-pronged oppositional
message: that Netanyahu is an irresponsible lightweight leader, that his
policies are leading to disaster and that, under a more astute administration,
Israel’s fortunes could be very different.
Netanyahu’s response has been
to argue that it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who are responsible for the
stalemate in peacemaking, and to suggest that Livni in power would not have been
able to, or even wanted to, do anything different. In a brilliant political
ploy, he made his point in mid-May by announcing six principles for peacemaking
and daring the opposition to disagree with any of them: That the Palestinians
must recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people; that any peace deal must signify
the end of the conflict and the finality of Palestinian claims; that the
Palestinian refugee problem must be solved outside Israel’s borders; that the
Palestinian state must be demilitarized and that security arrangements must
include an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River; that Israel will
retain the large Jewish settlement blocs; that Jerusalem will remain the united
sovereign capital of Israel.
Livni argues that Netanyahu is using the
principles to block peace efforts, rather than as a plan of action for making
peace. She says his strategic goals should be to garner as much international
support as possible, to cut a peace deal with the Palestinians and to achieve
normalization with a changing Arab world, and that his do-nothing policies will
cost Israeli dearly.
But it is difficult for the Kadima leader to take
issue on the specifics of any one of Netanyahu’s peace principles for fear of
being seen as less than patriotic. And when she argues, for example, that
recognition of Israel as a Jewish state should be the end result of talks rather
than a precondition for them, the distinction is not always clear in the public
mind. In other words, by putting forward apple-pie principles he claims reflect
the “national consensus,” Netanyahu has been able to blur the differences
between government and opposition and to paint Kadima into a corner.
IS NOT LIVNI’S only problem. There is a widespread public perception that,
despite her forceful language and the regular Knesset debates on government
policy, the opposition is not making itself felt.
Moreover, there are
rumblings of discontent inside Kadima. These grew louder in early June when
former Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) chief Avi Dichter publicly accused
Livni of getting the party’s budgetary priorities all wrong and demanded greater
transparency in the handling of party finances. From day one as leader, Livni
has faced a subversive challenge from former defense minister Shaul Mofaz. Now
Dichter says he too intends to challenge her for the party leadership. Clearly,
none of this adds to Livni’s authority as party leader and potential prime
Kadima, a party committed to open society values, has also been
less vocal than might have been expected on a slew of blatantly undemocratic
bills doing the rounds in the current Knesset. (See “Extreme Makeover” on page
6.) In some cases Kadima MKs have actually been among the sponsors.
example, Yisrael Hasson and Shai Hermesh co-sponsored legislation critics say
was designed to keep Israeli Arabs out of Jewish villages in the Galilee and the
Negev, and Hasson initiated a bill to prevent national service volunteers from
working with NGOs that provided material to the UN Human Rights Council’s
Goldstone comission of inquiry into the 2008-9 Gaza war.
One of Livni’s
biggest draw-cards has been her claim to a cleaner, value-driven style of
politics. Now the accusations of high-handed running of the party budget and
lack of presence against the anti-democratic crusade led by Foreign Minister
Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party could dent her squeaky clean
Livni says she is unfazed by complaints that the opposition is
nowhere to be seen.
On the contrary, she claims the criticism is actually
a good thing, a sign of the extent to which Israelis hanker for change and would
like to see the opposition doing more to bring it about.
That, though, is
easier said than done.
Indeed, experts point out that parties in
opposition invariably fail to make a big splash, because they are inherently not
newsworthy. “If they present something dramatic, they often look unstable and
And if they say nothing dramatic, they are out of the
picture,” says the Hebrew University’s Gadi Wolfsfeld, author of the 2011
“Making Sense of Media and Politics: Five Principles in Political
For example, if Livni were to try to claim center stage
by announcing a peace plan of her own, she would, in Wolfsfeld’s view, be making
a huge mistake. She would, he says, get a couple of days of publicity and then
sink back into the relative obscurity where opposition parties normally
“Worse, any plan that states specifically that Kadima is going to
make more concessions than Netanyahu would automatically antagonize large
segments of the population.
Therefore, from her point of view, it is
better to be as ambiguous as possible,” he tells The Report.
The price of
such ambiguity has been to enable Netanyahu to blur the sharp differences
between them and to use his appropriation of the Israeli consensus to embarrass
Kadima. Nevertheless, Wolfsfeld does not think Livni could have done much
“If I were her political adviser, I would say the important
thing is to talk about the dangers of political stalemate with the Palestinians,
the way she has been doing.
And if at some point the costs of stagnation
rise, say in the form of heavy international pressure or even sanctions, then
she will look pretty good,” he declares.
THE HUBBUB OVER THE budget
presented Livni with a more palpable challenge. It followed an early June exposé
by Israel’s Channel 10 showing that the party was wasting funds on bloated
administrative salaries, empty party branches, vote contractors and doomed
According to the TV report, Kadima had accumulated a
debt of between NIS 30-40 million (around $9-$12 million). Dichter, who for
months had been demanding a debate on the budget, quickly fired off a letter to
Kadima’s 28 Knesset Members, noting that the party received only NIS 23 million
a year in state funding, and demanding that the bulk be used to enhance its
electoral prospects and not squandered on salaries and other unnecessary
Dichter’s remedy constituted a clear challenge to
Livni’s authority: His proposal for budgetary principles attached to the letter
urged that budgetary powers be taken out of the hands of the party leader and
her director general and transferred to the party’s Knesset faction. At a noisy and emotional meeting of the Knesset faction in mid-June it
was decided to hold a full-scale debate on the budget in early July. The
compromise taking shape is that a committee of around three Knesset Members will
be set up to oversee the leadership’s budget decisions.
challenge to Livni, however, goes well beyond the budget. Indeed, it seems that
he has declared all-out war on the Kadima leader. “Livni speaks only for
herself. She has never said anything that was agreed upon by Kadima. We’ve been
in the opposition for two years, and we have never had a debate on core issues –
not on peace with the Palestinians, social issues or the economy,” he was quoted
as saying in a recent interview with the “Maariv” daily.
castigates Livni for dismissing out of hand Netanyahu’s six principles, which,
he says, show that the two parties are not all that far apart. Kadima, says
Dichter, should at least engage Netanyahu on his six points to see if there is a
basis for joining his coalition.
For now, however, there is little sign
of any movement in Kadima in favor of entering the government. Besides Dichter,
all Kadima’s top leaders share Livni’s view that there is no point in talking to
Netanyahu about a coalition until he shows he is serious about
“NETANYAHU REFUSES TO say the most elementary thing: That he is
prepared to accept a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 lines with land
swaps. Instead he puts forward conditions that make it impossible,” former
cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit tells The Report. In Sheetrit’s view, Netanyahu’s
six points are a red herring meant to obscure the fact that the difference
between Likud and Kadima is night and day, precisely because Kadima really wants
peace talks and a peace agreement with the Palestinians. “Bibi needs to make up
his mind on what he really wants,” Sheetrit insists. “In the meantime, he is
dragging us to a place where Israel’s future as a Jewish state is at risk.”
Sheetrit, a former finance minister who introduced the compromise proposal on
the Kadima budget, a committee of three MKs that would have to approve every
expenditure, insists that it is not intended to clip Livni’s wings. He says it
was the party director general, Moshe Shechori, not Livni, who was running party
finances, and that once the problems surfaced, a way had to be found to deal
Sheetrit, however, sees a connection between the perception of
the party as not making its presence felt and the mishandling of the budget. “If
you close branches on the grounds that you don’t have money but at the same time
you pay administrative staff huge salaries, that doesn’t help the party project
itself,” he complains. “We need active branches, with energetic young people.
They would make noise and that would be reflected in the way the party is
perceived in the street.”
Sheetrit has a simple proposal for solving
Kadima’s financial problems and making such activities possible: Its 80,000
members should start paying annual dues, the way members of Likud and Labor do.
“That,” he says, “would drastically change our financial
Sheetrit, an independent in the power struggle between Livni
and Mofaz/Dichter, nevertheless does have some implied criticism of the party
leader. He reckons Kadima could have a bigger impact on peacemaking if it
officially accepts the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for negotiation. He
also says the party should have been far more proactive against the
anti-democratic currents in the Knesset, pointing out that he himself
demonstrated with left-wing NGOs when they were under threat of parliamentary
SOME SAY THE REASON LIVNI has been relatively soft on the
antidemocratic currents is that she thinks she might need Yisrael Beiteinu in
some future coalition. Her supporters emphatically deny this. According to
Knesset Member Nachman Shai, it is more a question of Livni failing to impose
party discipline for fear of sparking confrontation in a party as heterogeneous
as Kadima. “But I think she should.
We should make a point of opposing
these proposals in principle, even if we lose,” Shai tells The
Shai acknowledges that the commotion over the budget reflects
wider unrest in the party, but says it has more to do with the impatience of
some party leaders with the humdrum toil of opposition than with Livni’s
leadership. “Our politics are different from other places in the world in that
many of our politicians don’t rise up through the political system, but come to
politics from positions of power, very often in the security
They are used to being at the cutting edge of the Israeli
experience and have little patience for parliamentary life in opposition, which
is all talk and no action,” he contends. In other words, people like Mofaz or
Dichter come to politics to govern and, when frustrated in opposition, they tend
to turn their energies to other things – like eying the party leadership or
seeking shortcuts to government.
Shai adds that Kadima has not gone
through the full life cycle of a normal political party: It was created by Ariel
Sharon in 2005 as a party already in power, and did not experience a day in
opposition until 2009. It still needs to find its way in opposition and to
formulate clearer positions on some key issues, especially social and economic
affairs, he asserts.
Shai agrees that Netanyahu has made things even
harder for Kadima by coming up with his six principles. But, he says,
Netanyahu’s claim that they should serve as the basis for a genuine peace
process is nothing more than a grandiose attempt to fool the international
community, the Palestinians and the Israeli public. Many in the international
community, first and foremost the Palestinians, see through him already; but
when it comes to the Israeli public, Shai acknowledges that things are more
The Israeli center, which accounts for around 60 percent of the
Israeli public and includes Kadima’s electorate, by and large, backs the six
“The trouble is Netanyahu has not anchored them in government
decisions or done anything to turn them into a plan of action,” Shai insists.
And he claims that, paradoxically, this enables Netanyahu to enjoy the best of
all possible domestic worlds. “His principles remain out there on the
declarative level only, unchallenged and so unrefuted. Joe Public says he is
carrying out policies I agree with and the fact that things are not going
anywhere doesn’t seem to be costing us. But that is a huge illusion and we will
start paying in September,” he avers.
Livni, though, despite her problems
with Netanyahu’s six points, the opposition’s lack of presence, Dichter’s
budgetary complaints and Mofaz’s leadership drive, might be doing a lot better
A late June poll by Mina Tzemach of the respected Dahaf
institute showed Kadima leading Likud by a good four to five seats. It also
showed that if former Shas leader Arye Deri runs as an independent, he could
prove to be a game-breaker, shifting power from Netanyahu on the right to the
more centrist Livni. If the trends suggested by the poll are correct, Livni’s
relentless targeting of Netanyahu and his inherent skepticism about peace with
the Palestinians might still pay off.