Middle Israel: The problem with Tzipi Livni

One can't avoid the impression that she simply isn't sure she can, should or even wants to be PM.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Having understood that a leading contender to succeed Ehud Olmert is a woman, some foreign journalists legitimately suspected, maybe also hoped, that they would soon witness a war of the sexes, and that Tzipi Livni would play Joan of Arc, or at least one of her poor imitations, say Hillary Clinton or Segolene Royal. Well, what an anticlimax. Hopes for a feminist showdown were dashed once Livni demonstrated a kind of reluctance, ambiguity and understatement that some here interpreted as non-leadership, others as cowardice and yet others as sober calculation. Either way, the showdown that wasn't still shed some light on the state of feminism, machismo and modesty in Ehud Olmert's Israel. The most venomous remark following Livni's nearly whispered call for Olmert's departure was made, anonymously of course, by one of Olmert's brave spin doctors, who said Livni showed she could be a very good leader of WIZO, but not of the government. Besides this man's appalling insinuation that the universally admired organization's stewardship is some kind of sissy stuff, his remark also conveniently ignored Livni's popularity. Had Middle Israelis shared that enlightened aide's scorn for women, they would not have granted Livni so much support, and Olmert so little. Then again, it isn't unlikely that a man too deaf to hear 200,000 people shouting "resign" in the middle of Tel Aviv will also be too blind to see that the country's Supreme Court, parliament and two largest banks are led by women, and to realize that our society has long been ready for female leaders. It follows that Livni's failure this week to forcibly unseat Olmert is less of a statement about us than it is about her and her enemies. IN HER failure to do herself what she was asking Olmert to do, Livni has conceded that while the country needs a new leader, that leader cannot be her. The former Mossad agent and corporate lawyer is clever enough to understand that the Winograd Committee handed her the kind of springboard to power for which other politicians would gladly sell their mothers. How could she not seize this rare moment and storm the top, wondered pundits, hacks and power brokers across the political spectrum. How, really? Simple. The problem with Livni is that she is not full of herself. One can't avoid the impression that she simply isn't sure she can, should or even wants to be prime minister. She only knows who shouldn't be - as does everyone else. As for herself, having finished reading the Winograd Report, she washed her face, wiped her eyes, looked in the mirror and searched for David Ben-Gurion's and Menachem Begin's successor, or at least Yitzhak Shamir's and Shimon Peres's, and said to herself: "You're no prime minister; you're just Tzipi from Ironi-Alef High School, the counselor from the Betar youth movement, the basketball center from Elitzur Tel Aviv. Slow down." Now believe it or not, in today's Israel this is not taken for what it is - old-fashioned modesty - but for indecision, cowardice and manipulation. It follows that Livni's problem is not that she is or isn't eligible for the premiership, nor is it that she acted wisely or unwisely in having handled the Winograd situation the way she has. The problem is that in her reluctance to charge the summit foaming at the mouth, she defied a whole zeitgeist, an age of arrogance that has been with us for more than a decade during which a succession of Napoleons habitually took major decisions with minimum consultation and fateful results, apparently convinced they had been divinely anointed, endowed and empowered. Having been led this way for so long, we too have grown accustomed to politicians of whatever persuasion, training or experience, from failed mayors and second-rate generals to third-rate hacks and X-rated presidents, really believing they are not only ready, but also predestined to lead the Jewish people. WE JEWS have historically resisted human leadership. Moses, for instance, was much better at defying government than at exercising it, and Saul, the first Israelite monarch, could not sustain his grip on power because he was too modest, at least according to the sages. Gideon, one of history's only examples of a true leader who rejected an offer to be king, said in turning down the people: "I will not rule over you myself, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord alone shall rule over you." Can anyone imagine Olmert, Sharon, Barak or Netanyahu saying anything quite as humble? If anything, theirs has been the era of the thornbush from the parable that Gideon's youngest boy, Jotham, shouted from a distance at his brother, Abimelech, who had just slain all their 70 brothers "on one stone" as he assumed violently the power that their father would not assume peacefully. "Once the trees went to anoint a king over themselves," said the brave child before fleeing the scene and disappearing from the Bible's pages. "They said to the olive tree: 'Reign over us,' but the olive tree replied, 'Have I, through whom God and men are honored, stopped yielding my rich oil, that I should go and wave above the trees?'" The trees then proceeded to offer their leadership to the equally productive and noble fig and vine, only to be rebuffed in a similar tone. Intent on being led by someone, the trees finally went to the thornbush, and it, as if speaking from our current leaders' mouths, said: "If you are acting honorably in anointing me king over you, come and take shelter in my shade; but if not, may fire issue from the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon." Tzipi Livni may not be prime-ministerial material, and the modesty she displayed this week, while diametrically antithetical to Olmert's arrogance, may be equally unsuitable for the job's requirements. Still, the fact that most of us could no longer even detect, let alone appreciate, the humility she displayed says less about her and so much more about us and where we have arrived.