Why Livni isn't riding to the rescue

A Likud-Kadima coalition could help bolster Israel but the two parties are moving further apart on the issues fueling the country's isolation.

311_bibi and livni (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
311_bibi and livni
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In editorials in the aftermath of the elections last February, this newspaper argued that Tzipi Livni would be doing the country a service if she joined the coalition.
The final election arithmetic was bitter for the Kadima leader. There she was, the valiant, successful head of the biggest party in the new parliament and therefore, surely, the prime minister-in-waiting.
Except that she wasn’t, because while the electorate had spread its vote thinly across so many parties, giving none of them so much as a quarter-share, Binyamin Netanyahu had the bigger coalition bloc.
Still, given the gravity of the external challenges facing Israel, and the apparent relative narrowness of the divides between the Likud, Kadima and Labor positions, it seemed that a strong case could be made to the effect that the wider interests of the State of Israel should trump the particular interests of Kadima and its leader.
With Livni alongside Netanyahu, we suggested, the Israeli government might be able to formulate consensual positions regarding peace efforts with the Palestinians, the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear drive, ultra-Orthodox- secular issues, electoral reform, and more. This would enable the government to better represent the people and, critically, it might help streamline the conflicted cacophony of voices advocating for very different visions of Israel into a clearer, coherent Israeli narrative that the world would more easily understand.
This week, as Israel finds itself increasingly denigrated, mistrusted and isolated in the wake of its botched intercept of the Mavi Marmara – an essential operation, gravely mishandled – the calls are growing again for Livni to do the right thing for Israel in joining our embattled government, and for the prime minister to do the right thing by inviting her in. With Israelis worldwide looking over their shoulders and tucking their Star of David necklaces into their shirts, surely we can manage a little unity at home.
It’s not going to happen.
Partly, this is because neither Netanyahu nor Livni sees a personal or partisan interest in sealing such a union. But more importantly, it is because the substantive distance between them is not narrow at all, and has only widened during the year and a quarter that Netanyahu has held office. Indeed, it seems to be widening by the week on many of the issues central to that mounting international clamor against Israel.
TAKING THE substance first, Netanyahu believes that Livni is naïve in thinking that an accord with the Palestinian Authority is remotely within reach, and that she was over-accommodating to the Palestinians in seeking to reach a deal when she headed the intensive negotiations in the last coalition under Ehud Olmert.
For her part, Livni has become increasingly convinced that Netanyahu has not fully internalized the urgency of finalizing an accord, and that for all the heartbreaking repercussions of a deal, the repercussions of not having one are far worse for Israel.
Netanyahu feels that he demonstrated his good intentions with last year’s Bar-Ilan “two-states” speech, and that he further confirmed his desire for progress by removing checkpoints and roadblocks and thereby enabling dramatic economic growth in the West Bank, and by conceding, however reluctantly, to the 10-month settlement building moratorium.
Livni derides the notion that Netanyahu, or anybody else, could do “a better deal” than the one that she was working toward, and believes that, rather than genuinely seeking an accommodation, he is looking for ways to show why one is impossible.
She knows that any deal would be immensely problematic for Israel, would involve the wrenching, violent trauma of settlement evacuation and would likely be accompanied by terror from Hamas, too. She appreciates that for Netanyahu personally and politically, the breach would be almost unthinkable. Which is why she’s convinced he’s trying to avoid it.
Netanyahu reasons that Mahmoud Abbas’s failure to seize upon Olmert’s unprecedentedly generous peace offer decisively demonstrates that the Palestinian Authority president is not truly seeking a viable accommodation.
And even as Israel’s international standing sinks, and relations with our most vital ally, the Americans, remain troubled, Netanyahu insists that a strategy that involves the firm maintenance of Israel’s vital red lines, combined with articulate and insistent explanations to Israel’s wobbling allies, will ultimately prevail.
Livni, by contrast, argues that Olmert did not even make a formal, credible offer to Abbas, and that were such an offer forthcoming, the Palestinian leader would prove himself a viable partner who would endorse a demilitarized Palestine and would not seek to overwhelm Jewish Israel with a mass influx of refugees. Furthermore, she asserted in a radio interview on Tuesday, if Israel were currently engaged in a substantive peace process, demonstrating its commitment to progress, the international community would not have rushed to critical judgment against Israel over the flotilla affair, and the likes of Turkey wouldn’t dare promulgate so vicious a campaign of demonization against us.
The bottom line here: Livni would join the coalition if Netanyahu gave her full authority over the peace process. And Netanyahu wouldn’t dream of it.
SUBSTANCE ASIDE, Livni’s tactical advisers are telling her that the last thing she should do is ride to Netanyahu’s rescue. Why help out a prime minister who just six months ago was working to cut a chunk of her Knesset members out from under her and woo them into his government without her? And certainly not now, amid an international furor over a boat – even if Livni, when submitting a Knesset motion of no-confidence in the government on Monday, acknowledged that Israel is facing “perhaps the most difficult time in our history… Not a temporary event… [but] a continuous process under which Israel is becoming isolated from the world.”
Netanyahu, it might be recalled, sat in opposition during two wars, sounding properly supportive of the government when the international assaults intensified, and biding his time.
Kadima is ahead of the Likud in the polls, and would hope to put together a Knesset slate next time that would make it still more attractive, possibly with high slots for former chief of staff Dan Halutz, TV star and nascent pol Yair (scion of Tommy) Lapid (though he may have grander ambitions than joining someone else’s party) and, who knows, maybe even ex-Shas leader Aryeh Deri. Why risk a future prospect of taking the prime ministerial post she so nearly attained last time in order to provide a fig leaf, and serve as the fall girl, for a prime minister she does not particularly respect?
From Netanyahu’s point of view, a partnership with Livni and Kadima is hardly a boon either. He has about as much respect for her abilities as she has for his. He sees no particular danger in Kadima’s current poll standings, because he is confident that the right-wing bloc will remain solidly ahead of anything she can muster.
He certainly doesn’t want to lose his current junior partner, Labor. And he believes that his government can ride out the international flotilla storm.
Were Netanyahu to bring in Kadima, Labor would have to go, or the coalition’s center of political gravity would shift dramatically to the left.
The prime minister rather likes the current coalition constellation. His inner cabinet meetings don’t leak too badly, and the leaders of the junior partners – unlike Livni – aren’t his rivals. And although the prime minister would be delighted to see the back of several members of the Labor Knesset faction, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is not one of them.
Netanyahu’s partnership with Barak, indeed, is central to his prime ministership. Needless to say, the intelligence/operational flotilla fiasco has done nothing to dent Barak’s confidence in his own military leadership capabilities. Significantly, and despite would-be defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s best efforts, it has done nothing whatsoever, either, to dent Netanyahu’s faith in Barak.
And with the most fateful of potential military challenges still lying ahead, Tzipi Livni is no substitute.