By Herb Keinon
It is a safe bet to say that at this time last year few people outside Israel or the Jewish world had ever heard of Tzipi Livni.
Granted, she had served in the Knesset since 1999, had held several cabinet posts, and had been praised in Israel for her combination of integrity and intellect, but hers was not a name that the anchors at CBS, Fox News or the BBC had to struggle with. She made news inside Israel, not abroad.
That changed, of course, in January, when Ehud Olmert appointed her - a potential rival for the Kadima crown - as foreign minister. Overnight she was traveling the world and holding press conferences galore. Livni had arrived on the world stage.
One indication of how much she had arrived was the fact that in August, Forbes Magazine ranked her number 40 on its list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. She was well behind her friend US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (# 2), but ahead of US first lady Laura Bush (43) and the Queen of England (46).
"Livni, 48, has captured worldwide attention during the recent fighting against Hizbullah terrorists in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip," the magazine wrote. "She became Israel's second most powerful politician in May when she added the vice prime ministership title to her foreign ministry post."
Of the political triumvirate that led Israel to war in Lebanon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Livni, it is the latter who will likely come out the least scathed from the probes of the government's management of the war.
Already by the second week of the war there were signs inside the government of daylight between Olmert and Livni about how much emphasis should be placed on pounding Hizbullah, and how much on starting to work on the diplomatic track. While Olmert at that time was focused almost entirely on the military aspect of the campaign, wanting to deliver Hizbullah a death blow, Livni was not entirely convinced that much more could be achieved militarily, and wanted to place a stronger emphasis on gaining a diplomatic achievement.
This led to tension between the two, who had up until that time forged a very close working relationship. Nevertheless, Forbes - which noted that Livni was only the second woman to serve as Israel's foreign minister (Golda Meir was the first) - enthused that "it's believed that Livni will follow Meir as prime minister one day."
This might be so: Livni is relatively young, very able and obviously talented, but her chances look worse now than they did before Forbes compiled its list in August, only because the future prospects of the Kadima party - to which she hitched her wagon - are much dimmer now than they were before the war.
Regardless, Livni made her mark this year, and it extended well beyond the water's edge.
The savior of the seniors
By Gil Hoffman
When the time comes for a publication to select a man of the year, more often than not politicians are chosen - especially the leaders of the country.
This year, it will not be so easy.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, had a difficult summer and still have not proven themselves effective leaders, let alone men of the year. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon took Israeli politics through a big bang, but were he to wake up from his coma, chances are he wouldn't be satisfied with the results of his Gaza Strip disengagement plan.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's star is falling, Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu led the Likud to devastating results on Election Day and President Moshe Katsav has had to deny reports that he is considering suicide.
The only politician who, looking back at the last 12 months, can seriously be considered Israel's man of the year is Seniors Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan.
For readers angry at him for his past role as Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard's handler in the mid-1980s, seeing Eitan named man of the year could come as a shock. But it is important to look only at what has happened in 5766, when Eitan's image changed from the super-spy who abandoned Pollard to Superman for thousands of Israeli seniors.
At the start of the election campaign, it seemed like the only new party that would make it into the Knesset would be Kadima. Gil, the Pensioners Party, received virtually no coverage when its leaders decided to ask Eitan to head their list of Knesset candidates.
But the media and a group of celebrities saw the Mr. Magoo-like Eitan and the seniors he represented as a cute, human-interest story. Supporting the Pensioners became a fad for the old and young, just in time for the March 28 election. The Pensioners surprised everyone by winning Knesset seats for six zaydes and a bubby, attracting 185,759 votes, including nearly 20,000 in Tel Aviv, where only Kadima and Labor had more support.
"A year ago, I didn't think I would enter politics," Eitan said in an interview last week at his office in the Knesset. "But when I decided to run on the senior issue, I had a gut feeling I would succeed. I understood that Sharon's illness left a vacuum that would be filled by several parties. I saw that we, who passed 70 with our reputations intact, could get by without people finding skeletons in our closets. I thought that this would be a recipe for success."
Since getting elected, Eitan has struggled to advance his cause in a system that requires non-arthritic elbows to succeed. But last week, the cabinet approved the formation of a Seniors Affairs department in the Prime Minister's Office, along with a hefty raise in funding to help the poorest among the elderly.
"We want to get to a situation where there are no hungry seniors," Eitan said. "It will take a few months to build the system, but once it is in place, all the seniors will realize how much we have helped them and then our support will rise. We think we will be stronger in the next election. But if we won't be in the Knesset, so what?"
FOR A party that ran on only one issue, it has been hard to pinpoint the Pensioners and Eitan on the political map. But all of the party's MKs are former Labor members except Eitan, who takes pride in the fact that he was one of the people who convinced Sharon to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
Olmert and other ministers have abandoned talk of withdrawing unilaterally due to the rocket attacks that followed Israel's unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, but Eitan said he still supports unilaterally drawing a border in the West Bank. Eitan would keep settlement blocs, strategic sites and empty deserts on the Israeli side of the border, and he said the IDF should remain on the other side after the settlers are evacuated.
"We need to look 10 years ahead," the 79-year-old Eitan said. "We have no chance to live in peace with the Palestinians in the near future. We can't expel them. We can't kill all of them. So what's left is separation."
Among the places that Eitan says he would keep in Israel forever are Gush Etzion, Nokdim, Tekoa, Maale Adumim and Ariel. He said he wanted Ariel, Eli and Shiloh connected to the Jordan Valley.
Eitan said the rockets fired from Gaza and Lebanon are "a technical matter that needs to be overcome in one way or another." Unlike conventional wisdom in Israel today, Eitan believes that Israel won the war in Lebanon.
"Israel didn't fail militarily," he said. "It succeeded with air power militarily and failed in the ground attack. For the first time, we lost the battle but won the war. Iran wanted a lot more Israeli casualties and they didn't get them."
Asked to predict the results of the inquiries into the war, he said that none of the investigations would reveal anything because nothing about the war was kept a secret and everything has already reached the press.
Eitan said the war in Lebanon woke up the world to the Iranian threat and resulted in the building of an international force in Lebanon that he believes would make it impossible for Hizbullah to attack Israel.
"It was fortunate for Israel that the war broke out," Eitan said. "Now if Iran attacks us, the entire world would back our response. This wasn't true before."
Eitan, who is a member of the security cabinet, said that Israel should take defensive measures to prepare for an attack from Iran. These include deploying anti-missile missiles and building shelters.
However, he said, Israel cannot go on the offensive to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capability without American approval.
"Israel on the Iranian issue doesn't have diplomatic freedom to act independently," Eitan said. "We can't act with violent force against Iran because US forces are there in Iraq. We can't do anything without American approval, even if it's a matter of life and death."
That quote from Eitan indicates that he has come a long way since the Pollard affair, when he used the US Navy analyst to spy on his home country. Eitan said he regretted operating Pollard, despite the crucial information that he has been credited with giving Israel about the enemies of the Jewish state.
"I gave my opinion to the Americans that I made a mistake [when I operated him] but that Israel was in dire straits, which makes people do things beyond what is permitted," Eitan said. "It is likely that we could have gotten the same information without him."
Critics of Eitan's handling of the Pollard affair will undoubtedly never forgive him, but if Eitan succeeds in improving the lives of thousands of seniors, then his place in the Israeli history books could be earned in a positive way.
The new year of 5767 will determine whether Eitan and his Pensioners Party will fade away or become part of Israel's future.
Constructing cross-cultural bonds
By Haviv Rettig
Education Ministry Dir.-Gen. Shmuel Abuav, who served as director-general of the Housing and Construction Ministry from January 2005 to May 2006, deserves credit for his much-lauded work in finding homes for Gaza Strip evacuees during the August 2005 Disengagement.
Though he runs in left-wing circles - his ministry-level appointments are all by Labor ministers - Abuav recalls being awed at the social cohesion and commitment of the religious-Zionist public he encountered when working with the evacuees.
During the 16 months in which he served as director-general of the Housing and Construction Ministry, Abuav was instrumental in easing the hardship of the Gaza evacuees after the disengagement. For his work, many evacuees, bitter over government policy and at times skeptical about the Israeli political system itself, still refer to Abuav as the only figure in government who was interested in their welfare.
For Abuav, serving in a key government post during the disengagement was a job like no other.
"All my life I never really encountered them [religious Zionists]," he told The Jerusalem Post last week, calling the "intimate connection" he developed over 18 months of working together "a foundational experience. I was inspired by their ideological commitment, their solidarity," and the way in which "they carried many weaker sectors of society on their shoulders."
Now at the Education Ministry, Abuav's concern for the evacuees hasn't wavered - it has simply shifted to the religious-Zionist youth from the Gaza strip. "They feel that the adults didn't fight, almost as though they collaborated," he explains, lamenting that many of them "have a hard time identifying with the institutions of the state."
His main plan for dealing with the problem is educational. "We have to work with them so they understand that in a democratic society, you have to play by the rules, win or lose," he says.
Abuav is optimistic about the future, especially that of the religious-Zionist public. While the disengagement "was one of the most complex, difficult and controversial events Israeli society has ever undergone," he says, "the religious public has a faith that protects them from falling into despair."
Indeed, in his experience, one of religious-Zionism's most defining characteristics is its ability "to go through a great crisis, and then to rebuild."