Livni's folly

Livnis folly

When Kadima head Tzipi Livni surveys the state of her party this morning - the threat of a massive desertion by her MKs on the one hand, and a concrete challenge to her leadership by rival MK Shaul Mofaz on the other - she needs to stop blaming others for these woes and own up to her own responsibility for the current sorry state of Kadima affairs. The gods of politics rarely give people more than one chance to climb to the top, or near top, of the national political pyramid. Livni was lucky. She received two chances, and blew them both. At a certain point this raises questions not only about her political acumen, but also about her leadership. In September 2008, when then prime minter Ehud Olmert formally submitted his resignation, President Shimon Peres gave Livni a silver-platter chance to form a government. She failed, blaming both Shas and Labor head Ehud Barak for making demands she could not live with. She was, after all, a politician identified with integrity. So the country went to early elections. During those elections, with corruption high on everyone's mind, Kadima did better than most predicted and actually beat Likud by one mandate. Nevertheless, the center-left block Livni led took a thumping from the right, and this time Peres charged Binyamin Netanyahu with forming the government. And then came Livni's second chance. Granted, this time it was not to become prime minister - the electorate denied her that; but rather it was a chance to enter the government on exceptionally favorable terms and have a real opportunity to shape this country's policies. Netanyahu, Peres and many in her own party entreated her to do so. Livni refused, couching her refusal in ideological terms, saying that some things - such as "Kadima's path" - were more important even than sitting around the cabinet table. But with Netanyahu having in his first nine months in office accepted the principle of a two-state solution, and having declared a moratorium on new housing starts in the settlements to move the diplomatic process forward, one is hard pressed to figure out what it is exactly along that vaunted "Kadima path" that has kept Livni from joining the government. TWO REASONS come to mind. The first is ambition, and the second an overblown sense of indispensability. Regarding ambition, as a politician who has continuously slammed Netanyahu for "petty politicking" and doing anything to stay in power, her decision to stay out of the government seems less motivated by ideology and more out of pique that she would have to sit next to the prime minster's chair in the cabinet meetings, and not in it. And, secondly, she seems to have become intoxicated by the positive reviews she earned abroad as Olmert's foreign minister and believed a right-wing government could not make it in the new world led by the Obama Administration. Eventually, she gambled, the government would either fall or come up against so much international resistance that Netanyahu would have no choice but to offer her a rotating agreement as prime minister. She was wrong, and badly underestimated Netanyahu's abilities as a politician and a diplomat to adroitly tiptoe through the domestic and international minefields with his government intact. Consequently, it is from a drastically weakened position that she must again now consider Netanyahu's latest unity government overtures. ALL THESE developments have not been lost on Kadima's MKs, watching impatiently as the party's relevance fades, along with its strength in the polls. Besides, with the country a year removed from the corruption allegations that brought Olmert down, the "Mrs. Clean" image that carried Livni so far has lost much of its luster. It's still important, but not as important as, for instance, diplomatic and security issues. And in those matters, Netanyahu continues to enjoy high public approval ratings. Livni's dilemma was encapsulated in the arguments former prime minister Ariel Sharon's son, Gilad, used last Wednesday in trying to keep a handful of unhappy Kadima MKs from bolting. "Do it for dad's sake," he reportedly told them. As noble a filial sentiment as that might be, it's definitely not enough to cement a party together. Livni's failure is that she has been unable to provide any substitute glue.