Livni Sticks to Her Guns

A recent poll suggests that despite the opposition’s lackluster strategy, it might be doing a lot better than expected.

By LESLIE SUSSER
June 30, 2011 14:14
Tzipi Livni at a live Q&A session, Sunday.

tzipi livni_311. (photo credit: Idan Gross )

 
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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 essentially insoluble.

“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 of.

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.

Her 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.

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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.

THAT 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 minister.

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.

For 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 image.

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 unserious.

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 Communication.”

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 reside.

“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 differently.

“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 municipal campaigns.

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 administrative costs.


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.

Dichter’s 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.

Dichter also 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 peace.

“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 with them.

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 situation.”

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 investigation.

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 Report.

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 establishment.

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 complex.

The Israeli center, which accounts for around 60 percent of the Israeli public and includes Kadima’s electorate, by and large, backs the six principles.

“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 than expected.

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.

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