How the opposition leader won the war in Kadima

Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni has all but quashed the party's rebellion. But for how long?

mofaz livni (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mofaz livni
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni had a very different experience at Wednesday’s Kadima council meeting in Petah Tikva than she did the last time the party’s governing body met exactly two months ago.
On December 24, Livni came to the council harried, straight from a tense meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in which they clashed over his effort to divide Kadima. She also met that day with her party rival Shaul Mofaz, who tried to take advantage of the party’s crisis to demand an immediate leadership primary.
By contrast, Livni came to the February 24 meeting refreshed, knowing that the two most difficult months she had endured in her political career were behind her and confident that the months ahead would be calmer. She took the scenic route through the Jerusalem Forest on her way from the Knesset, avoiding a massive traffic jam on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway caused by an overturned semi-trailer.
The obstacles that Livni avoided on her way to Petah Tikva were nothing compared to what she has overcome on her political path: A mutiny from her party’s backbenches, a fierce challenge to her leadership from Mofaz and Avi Dichter, and perhaps most surprisingly, bad press from the Hebrew media that is normally infatuated with her.
Over the past two months, Livni managed to quash the rebellion, withstand efforts to advance the leadership race, and maneuver herself politically in a smart way while defying the advisers she had been perceived as relying on too much.
While there had been a perception that Livni’s rivals would use Wednesday’s meeting to push for a primary, instead they settled for requesting the formation of a panel to work on changes in Kadima’s constitution, including the timing of future leadership races. Days after Livni announced that she would not compromise on the primary date, Mofaz and Dichter – who did not have a majority to stop her – backed down.
LIVNI TOLD The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview late Wednesday night that she initially absorbed criticism and made a point of not responding in order to avoid exacerbating the conflict in the party, but the time had come to put her foot down.
“From the last council meeting to this one, we have come full circle,” Livni said. “I don’t know if the problems are over. I know that Bibi [Netanyahu] will continue trying to entice MKs and divide Kadima. But I said what had to be said, and when I look back at the past two months and all the headlines, Mofaz and Dichter sure sound different now.”
Livni revealed that she had seriously considered accepting her advisers’ recommendation to “call Mofaz’s bluff” and initiate a super-fast primary, as Netanyahu did successfully to his Likud rival Silvan Shalom in August 2008.
“But then I thought, why should I?” she said. “If the government falls, we can do a quickie primary then like every other party. It’s right to hold the race in advance of an election. Primaries have to be based on what is right for the party and not on what is convenient for people.”
She admitted that she took into account that her refusal to compromise could result in a group of MKs leaving Kadima and joining the coalition.
“I didn’t want anyone to leave,” she said. “There are [advisers] who said that their departure would strengthen Kadima. I didn’t want to push to get there, but I was ready to pay the price.”
A Livni associate said a majority of her advisers told her to wait for Mofaz’s image to erode to its lowest point and then initiate a vote on advancing the primary, even though removing hope of advancing the primary could have persuaded MKs to leave.
“Most of us said show them the door and push them out,” a Livni adviser said. “Tzipi took the high road and quietly and coolly built her majority. She dared them to fight and then they didn’t show up for the battle.”
In an effort to maintain the newfound quiet in the party, Livni made a point of calling Dichter immediately after the council meeting and thanking him for apologizing in his speech at the event for his interview last week with the anti-Livni newspaper Israel Hayom. In the interview, he accused Livni of “thinking only about herself” and “peeing on us from a diving board” – a Hebrew idiom for arrogantly disregarding.
Livni has made a point of meeting with Kadima MKs one-on-one more often and asking them for advice. The result has been that two months after more than a dozen Kadima MKs met with Netanyahu behind her back, when legislators from her party were invited to meet the prime minister this week, they told Livni in advance and reported back to her immediately after their meetings.
Sources close to Mofaz cite the meetings that Netanyahu and his political adviser Shalom Shlomo continue to hold with Kadima MKs as proof that the crisis in the party was not really over and would only end when Livni agrees to advance the primary. They said he could have left Kadima with the minimum seven MKs, but instead he is still working on drafting a majority of the faction’s 28 MKs in favor of joining the coalition and moving up the race.
“Mofaz knows it could take a while, but eventually the faction will force her to compromise,” a Mofaz associate said. “He knew she wouldn’t agree at first and she would resist as long as she could, but he has patience. The journalists can write now that Livni won and Mofaz lost, but he doesn’t care, because he understood from the start that it would take time.”