Diplomacy: Tzipi, we hardly know you

Livni and the public think she's best suited to serve as the country's next leader.

Livni cool 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Livni cool 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The paradox that is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was on abundant display late Wednesday afternoon at the Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. There, standing around the pine-tree shaded grave of David Raziel, the former IZL commander whose 67th yartzeit was being marked, Livni - along with some 25 IZL old timers - sang the Betar anthem, "Tagar" (defiance: "On all obstacles and hindrances/ Whether you succeed or fail/ In the flames of the revolt/ Carry the flame to kindle/ For silence is mire/ Sacrifice blood and soul/ For the sake of the hidden glory." "To die or to conquer the mountain," the song concluded, and Livni chimed in. "Yodefat, Massada, Betar." The paradox here is a double one. First the ideological paradox: Livni, chief negotiator of the Israeli delegation reportedly willing to cede 91 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, singing the famous words of Ze'ev ("both-banks-of-the-Jordan") Jabotinsky. And then there was the more practical, political, paradox. Indeed, one couldn't help but wonder what was going through Livni's mind as she sang the words, "for silence is mire," and "to die or to conquer the mountain." Two of the most oft-voiced criticisms of Livni of late have been her silence in the face of the investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and a lack of "fire in the belly" needed to capture the mountain, in this case represented not as part of Eretz Yisrael, but rather the zenith of Israeli politics: the prime minister's chair. Unlike a year ago, Livni on Wednesday - following the damning testimony of Morris Talansky - left it to Defense Minister Ehud Barak to call for Olmert to step down, without then having the gumption to do so himself instead of serving another day under a man in whom he not longer had confidence. Livni, last May, made a similar call to Olmert after the publication of the Winograd Committee's interim report. "I told him that resigning would be the right thing for him to do," she said at the time, but then shied away from drawing her own conclusions and quitting the government if he did not. And, for really the first time in her very charmed political career, Livni got clopped on the head in the media at the time for this seeming hypocrisy. BUT NOW, she's obviously learned her lesson. Now, rather than calling a dramatic press conference and drumming up expectation, she summoned the press to the memorial service that was barely on the media's radar screen. And rather than speaking bluntly, she hinted broadly. And at the end of the day Wednesday, it was Barak, rather then Livni, who got clopped by the press. "The state is not just a technical matter of borders and citizens; it is not just symbols, a flag, and an anthem," Livni said. "The state has a vision and values that obligate its citizens and its leaders." And then, she added, giving a clear indication of what was on her mind, "Before we can be a light unto the nations, as we would want, it is fitting for us first to work inside our home to show the light." Livni, obviously, feels she is best suited to serve as the nation's candle-in-chief. And, if the polls are any indication, the public feels the same way - another Livni paradox: The country loves her, if only because it knows so little about her. The one thing it does know is that she is clean and straight, and as the country emerges from the Omri Sharon-Moshe Katsav-Haim Ramon-Avraham Hirschson-Ehud Olmert era, it will be looking for one thing - a clean and straight candidate. Israelis are now obsessed with corruption, and Livni is widely viewed as the one candidate who can regain the public's trust in the system, who can take corruption off the agenda. "Is she really Snow White?" one of her associates was asked. The reply: "She is definitely not corrupt." She is also not lavish, not cut in the same cigar-loving, living-the-good-life mold of Olmert, Barak or Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu. In one of the few in-depth profiles of her, a piece last year in The New York Times Magazine, Livni said, "I prefer jeans to a suit, sneakers to high heels, markets to malls ... In general, I don't like formality at all. It is just part of what I do. You know, when I was young, I went to the Sinai and worked as a waitress." That lack of excess is also bound to have an appeal to Israelis, rebounding from hotel suites costing thousands of dollars, be they for Olmert in Washington, or Netanyahu during the Second Lebanon War in London. It is no coincidence, by the way, that there are so few in-depth profiles of Livni. Over the last year she has carefully guarded her media image, speaking almost exclusively on the radio or television, where she has complete control of content. And, even then, she keeps those appearances to a minimum, seemingly a firm believer in the dictum "more is less." And, as a result, the public does not know much about her positions. What they do know they often hear in long, painfully convoluted sentences at press conferences that sound good at first blush, but then on second take don't really mean that much. As a result, if the public backlash against having leaders who could feature in that 1980s television show, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" sweeps Livni into office, the open question is where will she lead the country? And this is where she falls short. One associate, who said he would vote for Livni, added - in the same breath - that she lacked the "vision thing," is not a particularly good manger and is indecisive. Colleagues who have worked with her describe a micro-manager who has trust in very few people, and does not give those who work under her a sense that she has faith in their judgment. They describe a person who changes her mind a great deal, and who can take an inordinately long time making a mundane decision, such as filling a personnel vacancy. She has also been described as awkward in personal relations, but not arrogant as it sometimes appears; impatient and somewhat "testy." An indication of a rather mercurial managerial style is the fact that over the last year eight of her top staffers - people filling positions such as chief of staff, chief political adviser and media adviser - have stepped down. On the up-side, however, she is described as someone who listens and thinks things through. Regarding diplomatic policy, those on the Right who harbor hopes about the woman who can sing the Betar anthem by heart and has an impeccable Revisionist pedigree (her father and mother were both IZL fighters), will be sorely disappointed if they think her policies toward the Palestinians would be fundamentally different from Olmert's. The Annapolis process, or better yet the idea of a shelf-agreement with the Palestinians, is an idea she hatched at the tail end of 2006, and then sold in 2007 to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has since taken the ball and run with it. Unlike Olmert, who diplomatic officials say is skeptical that the agreement can be worked out, Livni - who is heading the negotiations - actually believes it can. There are no major divisions between her and Olmert regarding borders, security and Jerusalem, with the only glaring exception being that she is much more adamant than Olmert that Israel must insist, before an agreement is signed, that the Palestinians completely reject any claim to a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. One diplomatic source said, however, that another difference between her and Olmert is that Livni - ever the lawyer - sees the drawing up of a peace agreement itself as an achievement, that the agreement, the piece of paper, is what is important. Olmert, the official said, places less importance on the document. As to the fledgling Syrian track, Livni's position is not clear. She sounded less than overly enthused last week by the announcement of indirect talks with the Syrians through the Turks, but this may be more because of a sense of pique at being left in the dark over the negotiations than anything else. She did, however, take what the international media would call a more "hard-line position," on the talks than Olmert, saying that in order for there to be an agreement, the Syrians would have to renounce support for Hizbullah and Hamas, and end its "problematic connections" with Iran. Olmert was less explicit in publicly broadcasting those positions. One area where there may be a more pronounced difference with Olmert's policies is in relations with Europe. While known to have a good and friendly relationship with Rice, Livni - according to diplomatic officials - would likely place more of an emphasis on Europe. As foreign minister, Livni has spent untold hours in conversation with the Europeans, and has grown to appreciate their importance. Livni would certainly not ignore the US, the officials said, but would likely spend more time than Olmert paying attention to the EU and dialoguing with it. According to one diplomatic official, in this regard, Livni would likely be more like Shimon Peres than Yitzhak Rabin. "Rabin was 100 percent oriented toward America," the official said. "Peres understood America, but his heart was in Europe. Livni would likely be more like him." Regarding how to deal with the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, one official said that as a result of her lack of security experience, Livni would probably have more of an inclination to follow the IDF, which itself is currently split on the wisdom of a large-scale military incursion. But if she decided to go in, the official added, knowing her style, she would want to have an exit strategy clearly and carefully mapped out beforehand.