Politics: Not afraid to speak her mind

Politics Not afraid to

Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat is not afraid to take steps that could harm her political career. As education minister, she sparred against teachers unions protesting her reforms and refused to surrender to a vocal, personal campaign they launched against her. When she was communications minister, she refused to give in to pressure from tycoons who did not want her to allow competition against Bezeq for long-distance service, permit satellite broadcasts to compete against cable companies or enable a third cellphone company, Orange, to enter the market. Livnat might have taken another risk on November 26, when she told Likud activists in Beersheba that Israel had "fallen into the hands of an awful American administration." Livnat had no idea there were reporters in the sympathetic audience at a speech in which she was brutally honest. "The administration isn't what it once was; it is harder [on us]," she said. "I know that the prime minister is in distress. The pressures are great, and it is not easy to stand up to the American president. I know what a campaign of tribulations he placed before the prime minister." NETANYAHU DISTANCED himself from Livnat's comments almost immediately after they were reported. But in an interview with The Jerusalem Post at her Knesset office this week, Livnat said that even though she won't use the word "awful" again to describe the American leadership, she did not regret what she said or take back her words. Asked if she had harmed herself politically with comments that could make her an unlikely candidate for foreign minister in the future, Livnat said: "There are politicians who do what people will like to advance themselves and those [like me], who do what is right and do not consider what might help or hurt them politically." Then again, Livnat's comments might not have done her too much harm politically. Despite holding a relatively junior position, her quotes were reported all around the world. She was praised by speaker after speaker at a Likud rally three days later, and politicians have quietly told her that they agreed with her and wished they had the courage to say what she said. "Many people in the government think the same thing I do," Livnat said. "Saying it with dramatic words didn't help me prove my point, but the facts are the facts: This American administration is not easy for us. From the reactions I got, a large portion of the public sees the current administration as one that is hard on Israel." The only minister who came close to endorsing Livnat's comments was Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin, who told Likud activists from Judea and Samaria at the Knesset last Tuesday that US President Barack Obama's views on the issue of West Bank settlements were more challenging for Israel than those of much-maligned former president Jimmy Carter. "This administration is not even like that of Carter - and we realized, in retrospect, who he was," Begin told the activists. "It is unlike the administrations that preceded it, which came to certain understandings regarding construction in Judea and Samaria. This administration says all construction is illegitimate." Begin made reference to Obama's June 4 speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in which he declared that the US does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements and Carter's statements about settlements being illegal. According to Begin, while legality is a technical issue, legitimacy is a matter of political policy and therefore Obama's views were more problematic than those of Carter. But while Begin made a point of repeatedly stressing that Obama was actually very helpful to Israel on issues other than settlements, Livnat had nothing positive to say about the president, and she mocked politicians who have blamed Netanyahu for perceived tension between Jerusalem and Washington. "I hear [opposition leader] Tzipi Livni attack Netanyahu and say he caused a conflict with the United States and that when Kadima was in power there were good relations with America," Livnat said. "I expect her to not mislead the public. She knows, just as the public knows but sometimes forgets, that the Bush administration was especially friendly to Israel and it had nothing to do with who was in power over here." BUT DESPITE Livnat expressing understanding for the pressures Netanyahu is under, she still opposes the 10-month West Bank construction moratorium, in part because Obama failed to win reciprocal gestures from the Arab world or commitments from the Palestinians to restart negotiations. "Obama promised gestures like Israeli planes flying over Saudi Arabia, but there has been no gesture from the Palestinians or the Arab world," she said. "The Palestinians rejected the freeze from the beginning. If the US would have gotten a pledge from the Palestinians to start talks within 60 days at a festive ceremony, at least there would be hope that there would be some cooperation from the other side. Instead we get the opposite: Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] attacking us around the world." Livnat said she seriously doubted that negotiations with the Palestinians would begin within the 10 months or that pressure on Israel would decrease during or after that time. While some ministers supported the freeze because of the potential for maintaining international support for preventing Iran's nuclearization, Livnat said that none of the arguments in support of the freeze persuaded her. "I heard the case for the freeze in the security cabinet and I talked to the ministers in the inner cabinet and I wasn't convinced," she said. "No matter what we do, we will be under constant pressure that will only grow." Hillel Schenker, vice chairman of Democrats Abroad Israel, responded to Livnat that the perception that the Bush administration was good for Israel was incorrect because not doing anything for seven years to achieve Israeli-Arab peace did not help Israel. He said the Iraq war removed the primary foe to Iran and worsened the strategic situation in the region, while the Obama administration is taking serious step to prevent the nuclearization of Iran. "President Obama met with President Shimon Peres at the Copenhagen climate change conference last week and complimented Obama for his commitment to Israel and efforts to achieve peace," Schenker said. "To help Israel, the US needed to rebuild its status as an honest broker, which was harmed in the previous administration, and rebuild its standing in the international community. Now that he has done that, he is in a position to help Israel achieve its security needs that can be guaranteed by obtaining peace with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries."