The Livni Beat (Extract)

A squeaky-clean image and a no-nonsense style are the hallmarks of the foreign minister who could be Israel's second female prime minister

06zipi-udi (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. For relaxation, Tzipi Livni plays the drums. The foreign minister is a great fan of the 60s and 70s pop music she grew up with, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits. Partly as a present for her upcoming birthday, her impresario older brother brought out new ensembles of Herman's Hermits, The Animals and Marmalade for a gala concert in early June. Livni, who will turn 50 in July, was touched by the gesture. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt she clicked her fingers and stamped her feet in tune with the music, but resisted her brother's best efforts to get her to stand up and dance. More than concerts or banging away on the drums, however, Livni likes to stand tall and sing the vintage pre-state songs of the right-wing Revisionist "fighting family" - Zeev Jabotinsky's Betar movement, which morphed into Herut and then today's Likud party. Her parents both belonged to the movement and were both fighters in its Irgun underground militia. The "little Sarah," who figures in the words of the rousing "On the Barricades," was actually her mother, Sarah (Rosenberg) Livni, who once, disguised as a pregnant woman, helped rob a train carrying salaries for British Mandatory officials. The songs Livni loves to belt out in full voice idealize a Greater Israel on both banks of the Jordan River, to be won in blood and fire. Indeed, her father Eitan, the Irgun's chief operations officer, who died in 1991, insisted on having the movement's emblem engraved on his tombstone in the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery: A map of Greater Israel - including today's Kingdom of Jordan, with a bayoneted rifle across it and the caption: "Only thus!" "You can tell from the passionate way Tzipi still sings the Betar songs today just how much the love of Greater Israel is ingrained in her," says a close family friend. With this pedigree, it is ironic that Livni, who entered politics in the mid-1990s - after a stint as an undercover Mossad agent in Europe - to try to help stop the division of the land into two states, Israel and Palestine, could become the prime minister who, out of a deep inner conviction, finally lays the dream of Greater Israel to rest. According to the public opinion polls, Livni, a pragmatic, straight-thinking lawyer, is the front-runner in the race to take over from Ehud Olmert as Kadima party leader, and possibly also as prime minister in the near future when, as seems highly probable, he is forced to step down because of the allegations of corruption he is facing. Since 2001 when she - like Olmert - underwent an ideological metamorphosis while serving in various ministerial capacities under prime minister Ariel Sharon, Livni has been a leading figure in moves towards a two-state solution that would leave the Palestinians in full control of the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip. Her former Likud colleagues and other right-wingers see her political shift as a form of betrayal; moderates as testimony to her level-headedness and intellectual integrity. But Livni's political strength is not in her willingness to make concessions, but in a squeaky clean image in an era of political sleaze and in the integrity she exudes at a time when the country is searching for a moral compass. "The fact that she has come such a long way in her political thinking only adds to her credibility, precisely because the implications are so obviously difficult for her to accept," says one of several Kadima Knesset members who intend to back her candidacy. That candidacy could soon become a reality. With Labor threatening to force new elections unless Olmert steps down, Kadima decided in principle to hold a primary to elect a new leader, but without setting a fixed date. The timing could depend on the cross-examination on July 17 of New York businessman Morris Talansky, the main witness in the latest set of corruption allegations against the prime minister. If Olmert's lawyers are able to poke holes in Talansky's tale of envelopes stuffed with cash that he says he gave Olmert over a period of more than 10 years up to 2005, the primaries could be postponed indefinitely. If not, Kadima will need to choose a new leader and prepare for the possibility of early elections, perhaps even as early as this September. And in that more likely scenario, Livni, Olmert's fiercest critic ever since the 2006 Lebanon war, could well become Kadima leader and Israel's second woman prime minister after Golda Meir, unless an alliance of the right-wing and religious parties manages to get enough seats to form a coalition under the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu. But is Livni, who only entered the Knesset in 1999 and was given her first ministerial post seven years ago, ready for the top job? How did her transformation from hawk to relative dove evolve, and how coherent is her new political weltanschauung? In short, is she of the stuff prime ministers are made? Livni's Revisionist roots are deeply embedded. One of her first overt political acts was standing up as a 12-year-old Tel Aviv schoolgirl to challenge a teacher's glowing account of the mainstream Zionist underground Hagana's exploits in Mandatory Palestine. In those days of Labor-dominated Israel, the role of the more radical right-wing undergrounds in dislodging the British had been virtually written out of the history books. Livni, brought up on tales of her own parents' daring, could not contain herself. "There were other undergrounds, Irgun and Lehi," she protested. Four years later, she was protesting again, this time in the streets against Henry Kissinger's effort in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war to resolve Israel's disputes with Egypt and Syria, because of the territorial price it entailed. But soon after that, it was the Likud's Menachem Begin who returned all of Sinai for peace with Egypt and by the time she was elected to the Knesset in 1999, the Oslo process seemed to be leading to a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians too. Although Livni had entered politics to stop Oslo, she soon realized that the process had created a new set of expectations in the international community and, as far as she could see, there was no viable alternative, acceptable to world opinion, coming from the right. A major shift in her thinking occurred in 2001, after prime minister Sharon appointed her minister for regional cooperation. "It was the first time she had come to grips with the Palestinian problem from close-up, and the first time she realized the extent of international involvement in Palestinian and regional issues," says Deputy Foreign Minister Majalli Whbee, then the ministry's director general. Although the second intifada was at its height, Whbee, a Druse with extensive contacts among the Palestinians and in the Arab world, arranged a string of secret meetings between Livni and peace-minded Palestinians, mostly in fish restaurants in Jaffa. "She started to understand that the Palestinian issue needed to be solved and that 'two banks to the Jordan' was no longer relevant. It changed her a lot," Whbee says. The lesson Livni, the lawyer, took from her short stint in the ministry was the overriding need for Israel to retain international legitimacy. What this meant was finding a balance between Israeli power and what the international community would accept. Like her mentor Sharon, she held that Israel could only realistically hope to achieve what the United States would back. In January 2004, she urged Sharon to allow her to go to Washington to persuade Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (then national security adviser) that in any two-state solution, Palestinian refugees should return to Palestine, not Israel. Language to this effect was included in President George W. Bush's ground breaking April 2004 letter to Sharon. "I convinced the international community that that Palestinians go to Palestine and Jews to Israel," Livni likes to say, commenting on what she sees as her greatest foreign policy achievement to date. In Livni's view, the occupation of Palestinian territory must be wound up for two reasons: to ensure that Israel will remain democratic with a Jewish majority, and to preempt attempts to use the ongoing occupation to delegitimize the state. But after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by an increase of rocket fire on Israeli civilians, Livni remarked that next time "we can't just throw the keys over the fence" - not even for the sake of international legitimacy. In other words, there will have to be agreement with the Palestinians and possibly international guarantees before Israel makes any further withdrawals. Livni is currently negotiating a deal known as the "shelf agreement" with the Palestinian Authority, so called because both sides know that it will remain unimplemented until conditions are right. For Livni is intended partly to show the international community that Israel is prepared to go all the way towards a two-state deal, even if it can't be implemented because of continued Hamas-initiated violence from Gaza. "If we reach an agreement for a Palestinian state and Hamas doesn't stop the violence, then the Palestinians and the world will know that the fundamentalists have destroyed their chance for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel," says Whbee. Although they regard her as a tough negotiator, her Palestinian counterparts have also been impressed by her integrity and candor. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat describes her as a "lady of distinction and leadership," although he complains that she seems to be obsessed with the refugee issue. Tall and slender with fair hair and hazel green eyes, Livni cuts an impressive figure in her customary high-collared tailored pantsuits. Friends say she is shy, others call her aloof. Foreign Ministry staff complain that she often passes by without greeting them. Suspicious to a degree and paranoid about leaks, she prefers to work with small trusted teams. At the height of negotiations with Washington in the lead up to the Annapolis peace conference last November, she kept the ministry's North American desk out of the loop. Although she can be charming, she does not believe she has to please. She has a ringing, infectious laugh and a keen sense of humor, but can turn cold and formal virtually in mid-sentence. No backslapper like Olmert, she mostly avoids the rounds of bar mitzvas and weddings most Israeli politicians feel they have to attend - although now that primaries are in the air she was seen at a Kadima activist's wedding reception in early June. But what she loses for lack of "spontaneous" warmth, she seems to gain in perceived gravitas and credibility. Strong on principles, Livni is not afraid to stand up for what she believes, although her record shows she does not always follow through. When she was justice minister in 2005-2006, she took on the might of liberal Justice Aharon Barak's Supreme Court, calling it too like-minded in its composition, and insisting on the appointment of conservative law professor Ruth Gavison. When the signs were that the vetting committee would not produce a majority to approve Gavison, she refused to convene it for more than a year, holding up the much-needed appointments of other candidates. Still, Gavison's appointment was never approved. Livni was also the only cabinet minister to demand Olmert's resignation after the Winograd Commission's severe criticism of his performance in the Second Lebanon war, but came in for a welter of criticism when she failed to take the next step and resign after he refused to step down. Livni rarely gives sit-down media interviews and adamantly refuses to talk about her private life, insisting on the right to keep her private and public personas separate. When asked what she feels, she turns red and snaps, "Feelings I discuss with my children." Not everyone in Kadima shares the public's admiration for Livni. Supporters of Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz for party leader argue that the public perception of her is far more flattering than the real Livni, who, they say, is actually timid, shirks frontal confrontations and won't do anything unpopular. In short, she lacks leadership skills and is not ready to be prime minister. "What has she done?" Mofaz, a former defense minister, challenges, implying that she does not have the credentials to handle Israel's huge secu-rity problems. Livni's cohorts retort that this type of criticism is leveled at her only because she is a woman. Other female legislators agree. Zahava Galon, of left-wing Meretz, insists that Livni is by far the best of the Kadima candidates for leader, and sees in Mofaz's mocking denigration sexism pure and simple. "Anyone can see just how much damage the men have done over the past few years, so maybe it's time to give a woman a chance. And I think Tzipi Livni could make an excellent prime minister," she declares. Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.