Diplomacy: The FM's 'newfound social skills'

There are many signs that Tzipi Livni is stepping up her efforts to win Kadima primaries.

Livni lovely 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Livni lovely 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Going-away parties at the Foreign Ministry for officials taking up positions abroad are not uncommon occurrences. People come and go in that ministry all the time - it is the nature of the beast. Nevertheless, eyebrows were raised this week at just such an event for Roni Leshno Yaar, the outgoing deputy director-general of the ministry's UN and international organizations division, who is leaving to take over as ambassador to the UN institutions in Geneva. The reason: a rare guest appearance by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. In her more than two and a half years in the Foreign Ministry, one recurrent complaint against Livni has been that she has remained aloof: She doesn't meet with employees, rarely interacts with them, goes to some select meetings of the top-flight staff and does not involve herself in the day-to day-operations of the ministry. Rather, she is known to lock herself in her office on the ministry's second floor, consulting with a handful of close advisers and her director-general. "She never comes down and eats in the cafeteria," one worker said. "It's not that she should do this every day, but once in a while would be nice. That's something that [Shimon] Peres did from time to time." "The workers," another Foreign Ministry employee said, "have almost nothing to do with her. They almost never see her." But there she was at the party for Leshno Yaar, a move that was widely interpreted as evidence that Livni has very much entered the baby-kissing, bar-mitzva-going, food-tasting, back-slapping stage of her career - a phase, by the way, in which she does not appear to be overly adroit. For instance, it was reported this week that at a campaign stop in the Druze village of Maghar on Tuesday, she embarrassed her hosts by admonishing children who were distributing sweets to the guests - as a show of respect - while she was talking. "Please stop; it's disturbing me," she was quoted as saying. Then, apparently aware of her faux pas, she proceeded to apologize and ask the kids - who hurried off with their heads bowed - to "come back later." That was in Maghar. But as to why she would need to back-slap in her own ministry, the reasons vary. One explanation for her appearance at the going-away party was that she had an especially close working relationship with Leshno Yaar, going back to the Second Lebanon War, when they worked closely on the drafting of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Another reason proffered was that she was now trying to cultivate the goodwill of the ministry staff. Not because the 1,000 employees of the Foreign Ministry are going to tip the scales in the Kadima primaries, but because a few loose tongues at the ministry, a few disgruntled workers leaking some kind of information about what is truly going on behind the tightly shut doors of the negotiations with the Palestinians - maybe something about discussions about Jerusalem - could severely complicate her primary race with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. The Kadima primaries are now entering what could be fairly termed the ugly stage, when each candidate's campaign will be looking for - and leaking - dirt on the other. For example, someone leaked this week to Yediot Aharonot that a number of workers at the Eilat port were absent, yet got paid, for attending a political rally for Mofaz. Livni's party-going at the ministry, seen in this context, is simply good preemptive medicine. But Livni's newfound social focus is not the only sign she is embroiled in a close race with Mofaz. Another sure sign is that there has been a noticeable change in recent weeks in the tone of her rhetoric. For instance, the widespread public perception of Livni, indeed a perception she has nourished, is that she is indeed very much in the center, having moved away from her strong, familial, right-wing roots. The idea of a "shelf-agreement" with the Palestinians - that a "political horizon" is clear to the Palestinians, so they see what they have to gain by reining in the extremists, an idea that now underpins the Annapolis process - started with Livni. Furthermore, Livni presented herself to the Winograd Committee, established to examine the Second Lebanon War, as a minister who thought that what was being discussed was a limited operation, not a full-blown war, and that from the very early days of the war she was promoting a diplomatic solution, believing there would be no military victory. In other words, Livni's persona is not that of a gun-slinging hawk. IT WAS therefore somewhat out of character when, at a cabinet meeting two weeks ago that dealt with continued Hamas violations of the cease-fire in Gaza, it was none other than Livni who said that if Hamas fires on Israel, Israel should fire back: not go through diplomatic channels, not send warnings, not worry about how this would impact on the Palestinian Authority, but fire back, as in mortar-for-mortar, rocket-for-rocket. One government source at the time, surprised by the toughness of Livni's words, said it was linked to the primaries, and that she was battling for votes on Kadima's right flank with Mofaz, who has a hawkish public image. What was telling about Livni's comments at that meeting was not only that she made them, but that this was precisely what her handlers released. Cabinet meetings go on for hours, and after most of them, the cabinet secretary briefs reporters on what happened, concentrating on decisions made, and on the prime minister's positions. The various spokesmen for the other ministers often, but not always, send out messages of a few lines highlighting what their ministers said. Obviously, this is not all that the ministers said at any given meeting, but what they want the public to know that they said. It was instructional, therefore, that this "fire-for-fire" line was what Livni and her handlers wanted the public to hear. And this is not the only example. On June 27, Livni issued an uncharacteristically sharp demand for an immediate IDF response to a Kassam rocket attack on Sderot. Livni, before a meeting with visiting Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere in Tel Aviv, said, "It doesn't interest me who fired it, we need to respond militarily and immediately to every infraction [of the cease-fire] like this." Her response went well beyond that of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who said consultations on the matter were being held. One ministry source quipped at the time that this was not "characteristic" Livni. She is generally the one "who wants to think twice, and is worried about [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas's standing," the source said. It is clear that for the next six weeks, until the September 17 primary, Livni's main focus will be her competition with Mofaz. The diplomatic front will obviously take second fiddle, as beating her rival and positioning herself to be the next prime minister will become more important than overseeing the country's diplomatic relations. And in that race, Mofaz - as evidenced by his decision this week to use the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem as the backdrop for his official announcement that he will run for Kadima's leadership - has positioned himself on the right. It is Mofaz who is speaking about not dividing Jerusalem; Mofaz who is speaking very tough on Iran. NO ONE really knows who are the 70,000 people who have signed up as Kadima party members now eligible to vote in the primaries, but Mofaz - with his rhetoric - is surely gambling that a majority of them are leaning to the right. Livni also doesn't know who these Kadima members are, but has found herself pushed to the right because she has to play it safe - cover all her bets. One thing that, ironically, could make her race more difficult would be the release now - before the Kadima primaries - of a paper documenting where the Israeli and Palestinians are in their negotiations, codifying what has been agreed upon over the last eight months of negotiations, and perhaps also documenting what was not agreed upon. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is expected back here on August 20, is - according to Israeli officials - keen on this document being produced before the UN General Assembly meeting on September 16, because it would show the world that intensive US efforts on the matter have not been in vain, and that there is something tangible - a piece of paper - to show for it. But the timing, according to Israeli officials, does not suit Livni, and she is not enamored of the idea. Any document charting where the negotiations stand would indicate an Israeli willingness for further withdrawals from the West Bank, not an overly popular position to take to the Israeli electorate, even the limited electorate of a centrist party. Livni also doesn't need any potentially explosive subjects to be leaked out of her meetings with the Palestinians, such as that there may have been discussions on Jerusalem, something that would hurt her primary chances. "What Tzipi needs," one government official said, "is six quiet weeks. She doesn't want anything to come out of her meetings with the Palestinians." In that, the official added, the Palestinians are likely to oblige, happy with the fact that she is leading the negotiations, not Mofaz. Indeed, a lead headline in Haaretz this week read: "PA sources: Mofaz as Kadima head would be disastrous for peace process." The Palestinians are unlikely to leak anything from the negotiations that Kadima voters might find troubling. That potentially damaging front is covered for Livni. But her visit to the party at the Foreign Ministry this week shows that she is keen on covering another possible front as well. It's campaign season and she wants to plug leaks, even before they spring.