Politics: Tzipi's Golda problem

Has the country's first female PM come back to haunt Livni's campaign to become its second?

livni pensive 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
livni pensive 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
When Kadima leadership candidate Tzipi Livni goes to work, on her way into her office at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, she passes through a corridor full of framed portraits of her predecessors. She sees the faces of 13 men and one woman who served in the office longer than each of her male counterparts. Should she move to the Prime Minister's Office following the September 17 Kadima primary, she would see the faces of 11 men and that very same woman. Livni's associates revealed on Thursday that she is "haunted" by comparisons with the woman in the corridors, former prime minister and foreign minister Golda Meir, who may have paved the way for Livni by becoming not only Israel's first female prime minister, but also the first woman in the world to become prime minister without a prior family connection to one of her predecessors. The comparisons between the two women are only natural, and will only intensify if Livni wins the Kadima race. There are many differences between them, but one obvious similarity is their reluctance to use the gender card in politics. Livni has made a point of not bringing up her gender when she speaks, and she seems annoyed when asked about it. Meir, who is seen as an icon by feminists now, was a vocal critic of feminism back then. "Women's liberation is just a lot of foolishness," she said in a famous quote. "It's the men who are discriminated against. They can't bear children. And no one's likely to do anything about that." Livni told an interviewer in Yediot Aharonot last week that she "had no role models," and that she "certainly did not admire Golda." That quote resulted in many outraged talkbacks on The Jerusalem Post Web site, ranting: "Meir cannot defend herself," and "Golda is spinning in her grave." SOURCES CLOSE to Livni say that she did not mean to show disrespect, but that due to her upbringing in a right-wing household, she had "serious ideological differences" with Meir. Livni is also against the hero worship of politicians of the past, a phenomenon that the ostensibly post-ideological Kadima was intended to stop. "She has no problem with Golda, and she does not want to take anything away from what Golda did," a Livni associate commented. "But she wouldn't be compared to Golda if she were a guy, and she resents that. She tries to put the gender issue aside, and she gets criticized by women's groups for that. I admit that gender has been an issue in this race, but she wasn't the one who raised it." The one who raised it was Livni's main competition in the race, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who has made Livni's inexperience on security issues a central part of his campaign. He released several attacks on Livni this past week, but perhaps none was as pointed as the one he made in a candid interview with Yediot. Mofaz made a point of comparing Livni to Meir, who despite her sterling reputation abroad is still much maligned in Israel, because she was blamed for not mobilizing enough forces and allowing Israel to get surprised by the Egyptian and Syrian attacks that started the 1973 Yom Kippur War. "With all the respect I have for [Meir], I think that in the Yom Kippur War, she was helpless in the debate between her defense minister [Moshe Dayan, who opposed large-scale mobilization] and IDF chief of General Staff [David Elazar, who advocated a preemptive attack]. She had a difficult time deciding between them. I hope we don't find ourselves in a similar situation of having a prime minister lacking knowledge on security issues and in a war like the Yom Kippur War." The quote was surprising, because the unpopular prime minister whose wartime mistakes were expected to be dragged into the Kadima campaign was not Meir but Ehud Olmert. Mofaz's decision to compare Livni specifically to the only female prime minister was seen as proof that 34 years after Meir left the Prime Minister's Office, gender issues are still alive and well in Israeli politics. Meir does not have the advantage of having a government-funded center to memorialize her as do her successors, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin. But Meir's biographer, family friend and former spokesman, Meron Medzini, responded to Mofaz's attack on her behalf. "She can't respond from the grave," Medzini said. "But Mofaz is full of baloney. [Former prime ministers David] Ben-Gurion and [Levy] Eshkol also didn't have previous military experience, and Eshkol was not a bad defense minister, which we saw ahead of the Six Day War." But Medzini added that Meir "would agree with some of the arguments against her," and "would be the first to point out her shortcomings." He said that Meir "will never outlive the Yom Kippur War," and that she regretted going against her own intuition. Regarding Livni, Medzini said that she and Meir had in common their insistence on documented, ironclad details in any peace agreement, and they differed in that Livni has a normal family life that Meir did not have in nearly 50 years of public service. Medzini noted that Meir never had to face a primary. He said that despite the emphasis on the military that existed back then and still does today, she was chosen by her party leaders because of a lack of other alternatives, and that her gender was not a factor. Asked what Meir would have thought of Livni, Medzini said, "She probably would have thought it was a bit too early for her and that she was not ripe enough." That's a message that Mofaz is trying to transmit to Kadima members. Comparing Livni to Meir was intended to use negative memories about the first female prime minister to persuade Kadima members not to elect a woman to head their party. If that strategy succeeds, then Livni's fears of Meir haunting her campaign will prove justified. But polls indicate that they either haven't heard the message or they disagree that Livni's military inexperience is a problem. A Teleseker poll published in Ma'ariv on Thursday gave Livni a 19 percentage-point lead over Mofaz, the largest margin between them since the race began. The poll indicated that Mofaz's attacks on Livni this week hurt him as much as Labor chairman Ehud Barak's attacks on her the week before hurt Barak. If Livni continues to prove herself adept at fending off political attacks and also succeeds in the political battles in the field, she could win the Kadima race. This week's budget battles proved that it is very unlikely that she, or anyone else, could form a government before a general election. But Livni could still become prime minister as early as next month if Olmert is forced out of the caretaker government that would automatically be formed under his leadership after he keeps his promise to resign the day after the Kadima primary. An indictment against Olmert could also send Livni to the PMO. If that happens, Livni will be seeing Meir's picture outside her new office. And whoever comes after her will see two women's portraits on his, or her, way to work.