Four female MKs have become the main allies of the present or former leaders of their parties. Yuli Tamir and Tzipi Livni are on the rise, having leapfrogged Dalia Itzik and Limor Livnat.
Labor Party headquarters in the Hatikva neighborhood of south Tel Aviv was a teeming hub of activity last week. The party had reopened membership for a short two-week period, and hundreds of activists were milling around, trying to make sure they signed up as many supporters as possible in advance of next month's primaries, which will decide the party's list for the coming elections.
In the thick of things, MK Yuli Tamir made her way through the crowded corridor, fielding questions from every side, marshalling her own coterie of advisers and hangers-on and answering members anxious for her support in the coming contest.
Emerging from the building, she kicked off her shoes and sat down on a bench on the grass to conduct the interview, but every other minute we were disturbed by well-wishers, all pointing, amused, at her bare feet.
Two weeks earlier I had seen Tamir, during the long night of the leadership primaries, at the headquarters of Amir Peretz's campaign in Rishon Lezion. At one point during that long night, when polls and actual results seesawed between an expected victory for Shimon Peres and Peretz's October Surprise, she ran through the corridor, tripped and smashed her ankle.
She refused to leave for treatment and carried on giving interviews with her leg propped up on a chair, holding a cold can of Coke to the throbbing ankle. It was the night of Amir Peretz's big win, but as the only MK to have backed his candidacy from way back when he was receiving only four percent in the polls, she wasn't about to give up her share of the victory spoils.
Two weeks later, Labor is up in the polls, high-profile candidates are up and Amir Peretz, for the time being, seems to have rejuvenated the moribund party. Tamir is celebrating her own personal victory, in what only now is her full acceptance to the leadership ranks of the party.
"This contest for me was to remain or to quit," she said, acknowledging that if Peres would have remained at Labor's helm, she could well have followed other party leaders like Avraham Shohat and Amram Mitzna, who retired from politics. "I felt that the party was paralyzed. We had no agenda, we were without energy."
TAMIR had been in favor of Labor joining Sharon's government to ensure the disengagement and leaving immediately after, "but then Peres began saying that we have to stay, that there's still the Rafiah crossings to take care of, and I felt that we were just losing it."
But Tamir's frustrations with the party were rooted long ago. Despite gaining the ninth spot on this Knesset's list, she has long been seen as an outsider.
Her politics are definitely to the left of what used to be Labor's mainstream - she was one of the founders of Peace Now in the '70s and met with PLO leaders when it was still illegal. In 1981, at the age of 27, she was number five on the list of Ratz, the pre-runner of today's Meretz Party, but spent the next decade or so devoted mainly to an academic career.
Tamir studied philosophy at Oxford under Isaiah Berlin and returned to Israel as a professor of philosophy and education at Tel Aviv University. In 1996, she joined Labor and was drafted into Ehud Barak's team of advisors as an education expert. She failed to gain a seat in the Labor list of 1999, but a few months after winning the elections, Barak appointed her Absorption Minister in his short-lived cabinet.
Following the Likud's return to power, she was sidelined once again, and despite finally entering the Knesset in a relatively high spot on the list, she didn't join any of the races for cabinet spots or Knesset committee chairmanships. Much of her time in parliament was spent in unglamorous committee work, especially in the education committee, where she often seemed the only MK with a real grasp of the issues.
Now following her successful gamble on Peretz, all that has changed. She agrees that most of the party members coming up to greet her want to bask in the winner's aura.
"Two weeks ago, you wouldn't have seen anyone here. I feel that I have passed an acceptance trial; now I can feel like a full partner, and even a leader. I don't have any motivation for being on the back benches any more."
LABOR members agree that it wasn't just a clever move, but that Tamir had a major part in Peretz's victory.
"She connected him to other groups within the party, with academic circles and with her friends and supporters from Peace Now," says Guy Spiegelman, another Peretz supporter, head of the hi-tech forum in Labor and now a contender for the "young generation" slot on the list. "She was a major asset to his campaign and she will be one now in the elections also. People have come up to me and said that they are going to vote for Labor and Peretz so that Yuli can be education minister."
Peretz's elevation has already contributed to the different agenda of this election season, with candidates boasting their "social" credentials. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, for instance, said that having experienced poverty first-hand as a child, he can lead Likud more effectively than Binyamin Netanyahu, "who was born with a golden spoon in his mouth."
Tamir says that she came to the conclusion that Labor should accentuate civilian concerns following Barak's failure to bring about a peace treaty at Camp David in 2000.
"I realized that any settlement with the Arabs could only happen in the long term, but meanwhile we were forever pushing aside problems we had as a society, and that had to change."
The Peretz-Tamir partnership seemed to suffer from a military deficit, especially when opposed to the "generals" - former leadership candidates Ehud Barak and Matan Vilana'i - who had both withdrawn from the race and rallied around Peres to try and thwart Peretz.
"That's our big problem - people always ask what Amir knows about security problems, instead of asking every general who goes into politics what he understands about social concerns, can he run the country's finances? We are now saying the opposite - we have a very competent defense establishment, it's the civilian side that needs dealing with, and the agenda is indeed changing. Even the journalists are starting to ask different questions."
When senior politicians come close to the top, they usually see one of the big three ministries - foreign, defense and finance - as their goal. Tamir has made it clear that the only senior post she's after is education, "and not for the reason that most politicians want it - that it's the largest organization in the country - I really believe that I have an educational policy."
TWO MONTHS ago, the Likud central committee convened for the last time with Ariel Sharon still as party chairman. On the agenda was the crucial vote over whether the leadership primaries would be held at their original date, or brought forward as Binyamin Netanyahu and Sharon's other challengers demanded.
After the polling booths closed at 10 p.m., hundreds of Likud members milled nervously around the convention grounds, and party leaders took the opportunity to mingle with the rank and file. The committee members love these moments when they have the Knesset members and ministers at their mercy; they gathered around excitedly, reminding them of cancelled appointments and promises unfulfilled, while the representatives tried to justify themselves.
At times like these, the Likud central commttee - until two weeks ago the most powerful political organization in Israel - fully earns the sinister image built around it in the media of a rapacious, power-hungry, manipulative mafia. The leadership has little choice but to kowtow to the members since the 1997 decision to forgo primaries for the Knesset list, in which the entire Likud membership participated and instead gave the 3,000 central committee members the sole right to rank the list.
Amid one of these groups of baying wolves stood Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, wearing black trousers and a white button-down shirt. But unlike her colleagues, who were busy hugging and kissing everyone and promising them the moon, she stood a step back and addressed one supplicant at a time. Her severe face would have been more appropriate on a primary school teacher not overly fond of kids than on a political operator.
Her message was clear - I'm not taking anymore of your nonsense - and indeed it emerged last week that at that stage, she had already made the decision that she would be better out than in, a conclusion Sharon reached only two months later.
HER CLEAR-CUT decision to leave the Likud, the party that she was a part of practically since birth, and her proven loyalty to Sharon over the last four years have now firmly cemented her position as part of the triumvirate at the head of the new party, together with Sharon and Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
In the days following the dramatic split in the Likud and the formation of Kadima, Sharon's new party, the ministers and Knesset members who took the plunge have been all over the media, explaining their dilemmas and extolling the new party's future.
Livni, the most senior figure to join the new party after Sharon and Olmert, has remained mainly behind the scenes, aside from a few short radio and television interviews. She has so far refused dozens of requests for newspaper interviews, claiming, "I explain myself better without intermediaries."
Forty-seven-year-old Livni's unobtrusiveness can be attributed both to her family past as the daughter of Eitan Livni, the chief of operations in the Irgun underground during the British mandate, and to her former career as a lawyer within the Mossad. Prime Minister Sharon, who appointed her in 2002 as Immigration and Absorption minister and promoted her last year to the Justice Ministry, values her loyalty and confidentiality. In addition to being one of his closest confidantes, Livni has also become his private emissary for delicate political issues.
But as Livni will have to take a more prominent role in the coming months towards the elections, she is expected to be appointed in the next few days as the head of Kadima's campaign, and will therefore be the party's main spokesperson during the elections. After extensive polling, Sharon's advisers have decided that her image as a young and clean politician is exactly what the new party needs to clear the clouds of corruption that surround the 78-year-old leader.
Livni said this week that she sees no problem that in effect, she will be acting as a smoke-screen for Sharon, since during her year as justice minister, she made sure that all legal procedures pertaining to the corruption allegations were adhered to.
LIVNI'S main political achievement this term occurred when she acted as mediator between Sharon and his recalcitrant ministers Netanyahu, Silvan Shalom and Limor Livnat before the crucial votes on the disengagement. The three senior ministers tried to force Sharon to backtrack on his undertakings, but Livni used her negotiating skills to bring about what became known as the Livni compromise, whereby the ministers voted in cabinet in favor of disengagement but were promised that just before the actual implementation, there would be additional votes on the dismantling of every settlement in Gush Katif and Northern Samaria.
In the end, the vote enabled Sharon to overcome the hurdle of the cabinet vote and the ministers were caught up in the process - with only Netanyahu managing to extricate himself two weeks before the pull-out. Livni was seen as an asset not only by Sharon, and despite the prevailing anti-disengagement mood within the Likud, all the internal polls showed her firmly in the party's Top 10 list.
"People were saying, even if we don't like her views, we need her on the list to look good," said a party operative this week. Most of the other Likud members to join Sharon were not so sure of re-election in the fractious party, but despite having the most to lose, Livni, ever since the actual split, has been very frank about the fact that she realized long ago she didn't want to stay in the party, of which her father was one of the founders and had even served himself as a Knesset member for three terms (1973-1984).
"I went into politics to move things," she repeated, "not just to survive." She was totally disillusioned with the Likud framework, "where every central committee member can threaten ministers and even the prime minister." She described her distance and distaste of the central committee as "playing basketball on a football pitch, they couldn't be angry with me for not fulfilling my promises, because I never made them any."
HAVING GONE into politics as a result of what she saw as the mistaken Oslo accords, her own politics changed over the last few years to acceptance of a Palestinian state, and when she realized that there was no chance that a majority of Likud members would adopt these positions, she came to the conclusion that a split was unavoidable.
"We reached the point that the differences between us were so wide that it wasn't real anymore running together in the same party. When I realized that the common ground wasn't very large anymore and that views like those of Uzi Landau weren't just those of a small margin, but of the mainstream in the party, then last week's action was something we just couldn't not do."
While Sharon's decision was a result of long deliberations and systematic surveys, Livni claims that the "same way I decided to go into politics in one day, this decision also came from inside. I didn't need any polls. I just knew that enough was enough."
Livni is assiduously following the party line that Sharon and his strategic advisors are laying down. As a result, she has refused to talk about the kind of cabinet post she expects to receive after the elections, or which spot she will occupy on the list, but no one doubts that it will be in the Kadima top-five. Wherever she will be posted, she is currently being talked about as an increasingly viable prime ministerial candidate on the day after Sharon.
Naturally, she is unwilling to address that possibility now, but her move to the new party has definitely improved her leadership chances now that she can avoid the messy succession battle in the Likud. Her only serious rival within Kadima is Ehud Olmert, who is widely seen as too unpopular to be adopted as a candidate.
Despite having already had a female prime minister over 30 years ago, Israeli politics are still mainly patriarchal. Until now, the major parties seemed to all have one senior woman and no more. For that reason, many observers see the coming elections as singular in that in both large parties, Labor and Kadima (Likud, at least according to the polls, seems doomed to limp in third), women will be fronting the campaign.
THE MATCH-UP between Tamir and Livni is intriguing. Both are seen as competent media performers, but not demagogues. They have what is usually called in politics "a good image," meaning they haven't been embroiled in any major scandal, never uttered something truly terrible and never really stuck their head above the parapet and received fire. All that will have to change now, since they are going to be thrust into the most visible posts of what is sure to be a protracted and dirty campaign.
Both women also share the fact that neither are career politicians, and each has the option to leave politics for their old jobs in academe and the law. If all these commonalities made you think that they were also feminists, that title only goes to Tamir, who was glad to talk about what these elections mean for female politicians, and how she hopes that more women will get into the Labor list.
She also said that going up against Livni "is a big honor, I think she is a very impressive woman."
Livni bristles when comparisons like these are made; she doesn't go in for gender politics. "You could compare me instead to other lawyers, or even other redheads... I didn't go into politics to push women forward. This is all so ridiculous, it's as if the press sees two women and expects them to jump into a mud-bath, tearing each other's hair out."
But it still seems that Israeli parties can't stomach more that one grande dame at a time. Until these elections, the two big women in the Knesset were Education Minister Limor Livnat on the right and MK Dalia Itzik (until last week, telecommunications minister) on the left. Now it seems that each of them have been neatly leapfrogged over by Livni and Tamir.
Itzik, an early supporter of the security fence in the West Bank with the bravado to tell Gaza Strip settlers that they "preferred to be misled" on their status, has led some high-profile initiatives as minister of industry and trade, and of the environment, and she made a name for herself in education, in the Israel Broadcast Authority and in the Jerusalem City Council. So why is she being seen as a politician on the down escalator? It's mainly a case of a bad political gamble: She hitched her star too firmly to her long-time patron, Peres, whose loss of the Labor chairmanship means a reversal of fortunes for Itzik. But some of Peres's other supporters are still well in the running and linking up now with Peretz.
Notes one Labor activist, "It doesn't help her that she has always been seen as a controversial figure."
Peres is now teaming up with Sharon's party, and bringing Itzik with him. He has made sure that Itzik will have a spot in the new party, although she is not expected to be placed in an especially high spot. Back in Labor, Livni's ascendancy will be unchallenged. It seems that there is, in fact, room for only one woman at the top.
LIMOR LIVNAT'S case is more complex. The one party-one woman rule shouldn't apply to her, since officially, she and Livni are now in different parties. On the contrary, one would expect her to be even more in demand by Likud, but the consensus right now in the party is that she is burnt-out.
Only a year ago, she was being cast as Likud's iron lady, a future prime minister, with a radical educational program that was going to revolutionize Israeli schools. The day after Sharon's decision, she let her name be put forward as one of the ministers planning to run for the party leadership, but when she saw the dismal poll results, she announced that she had never said she was running.
Livnat's declining popularity can be explained by her incessant zigzagging over the last two years on the question of disengagement. In the beginning she was against it, then she voted in favor, after that she joined other ministers in demanding a referendum before disengagement, climbed down from that, remained an unwilling participant throughout, and remembered to turn against Sharon only two months ago when she supported bringing the primaries forward.
"She lost out a lot because of her stance on disengagement," says one of her former supporters. "Mofaz and Silvan weren't damaged so much because they were never seen as being very right-wing, but for Limor, that was her raison d'etre in politics."
Another factor is the Dovrat Plan. Livnat put all her political credit on the plan, attacked the powerful teachers head-on and at the same time did nothing to shore up her flagging support within the party.
"She thought that before the elections she would have time to come back to the party and win back hearts; instead, she tired herself out fighting the teachers and now that the elections are coming early, she is unprepared, unliked and physically and mentally exhausted."
The polling shows the Likud losing over half of its current number of MKs, but even so, no one is willing to bet on Livnat losing her seat. The 10th spot on the list is reserved for a woman, but Livnat cannot run for that spot since she is already a serving MK. In the past that wouldn't have bothered her - she was fighting up there with the big boys - but this time around she might find herself humiliated by a newcomer. Pnina Rosenblum perhaps.