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05 Sep 2008

Tzipi Livni: Grasping the nettle

Tzipi Livni addressing an audience in Davos

Tzipi Livni, Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel, at the 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is favored to assume the role of prime minister, but victory on 17 September guarantees nothing, Dominic Moran writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni appears poised to win her Kadima party's leadership primary and with it the prime minister's office.

The vote may prove pivotal in deciding both the short-term course of Israeli politics and the future of current diplomatic initiatives.

Livni has made steady progress through the ranks in the Likud and Kadima, helped by the political patronage of then-premier Ariel Sharon and a series of chance events. The most recent, of course, is the fall from grace of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is expected to be indicted on corruption charges next week.

Livni, a trained lawyer, spent four years in the Mossad (intelligence), a fact that has appeared to blunt criticism of her lack of security experience from her chief Kadima leadership rival, former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz.

She is the scion of a high-profile Revisionist family. Livni's mother was an Irgun fighter and her father the head of Irgun operations during the struggle against the British mandatory authority.

Her personal transition away from this hard-line latifundist upbringing coincided with the gradual ebb of ideological rigidity within the Likud. This evolution appears to have reached a culmination in her active support for the 2005 Gaza withdrawal and personal leadership of ongoing talks with the Palestinians.

Seeking to dispel her sometimes priggish and cold public persona, Livni's primary campaign has played on a hitherto private image of an ordinary woman who dresses informally in her free time and lives in a modest apartment.

Projecting informality and a warm inter-personal communication style remains a key electoral strategy for candidates in a society where a purported lack of sophistication and aloofness are still considered, by Israelis, a defining national character trait despite massive social changes in recent years.

Her apparently corruption-free leadership through a series of progressively more important ministerial appointments from 2001 has also served as a major source of her appeal given the seemingly endless chain of graft scandals that have blighted successive administrations.

Lauding his candidate's qualities, a key political adviser to the Livni campaign, speaking on condition of anonymity, told ISN Security Watch: "She will be a good prime minister, she is clean […] she has a cool mind, she will be very decisive on the most critical issues. She listens, she shares and she means well. She is not an egomaniac."

The impression that Livni is both incorruptible and down-to-earth are also important in seeking to paint a dramatic contrast with key premiership rivals Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu who, like Olmert, are tagged in the popular imagination as in the pockets of the business elite.

Tight vote

 Starting from a very poor organizational base within the party, in comparison to both Mofaz and fellow leadership candidate Meir Sheetrit, Livni has worked hard in recent weeks and months to shore up support and win a new following, with reportedly mixed success.

Israeli party campaigns tend to be cut-throat affairs where future prospects for the establishment or maintenance of patron-client relations play a key role in swinging blocs of voters controlled by party heavyweights and their local specialist voter registration workers.

It was the perfection of this deeply corrupt system within the Likud central committee that was one of the key reasons for the creation of Kadima, though there have been disturbing signs of the reemergence of the same in the primary campaign.

These shifting blocs and networks largely come into play in primaries marred by a dearth of independent voters casting ballots. If Livni wins on 17 September, it will be through a high turnout from the 72,000 members of the party, including a large election day showing from women.

"I believe she [Livni] is going to win," the political adviser from Livni's camp said, adding that this would occur, "If we will win the free vote, which means regular people who vote like individuals not like a group, or tribe, or workplace."

"She will take the large cities and she will give a good fight in the Arab and Druze sector," he said, confirming that his camp would be looking on polling day for Sheetrit to "bring his own people" to support her candidacy in a potential second round head-to-head against Mofaz.

There has always been a balance within Kadima between the left and right, a balance that remains in play in the primary.

Asked by ISN Security Watch to respond to this week's poll of party members, that puts Livni 20 percentage points up on Mofaz, a Kadima member of Knesset (MK) identified with the party's right said: "Most of the press support Livni so they try to present a picture that Tzipi will win, but I'm not sure at all." ISN Security Watch agreed to protect the MK's identity.

There has been speculation that a Mofaz victory in the primary could lead to a post-national election integration of the party into the Likud. It would almost certainly consign Livni to the political wilderness.

Despite this, Livni has refused to commit to staying within the party under the leadership of Mofaz; a failure seized upon by his camp in campaigning, but one which has apparently had little impact on her support within Kadima.

"Hopefully she will stay with us," the MK told ISN Security Watch. "All of us appreciate Tzipi Livni very much and would like to see her [stay] in the future."

He believes that Mofaz will win the primary because "most of the Kadima membership came to our party from the Likud. [Their opinions] are closer to Mofaz' concepts and policies." He believes that Mofaz is also in a better position to unify the party post-primary.

If she is victorious and succeeds in placating the Kadima right, Livni will have an opportunity to stamp her own imprint on the still nascent party.

Policy positions

The most important foreign policy decisions of a future Livni-led government have already been taken by Olmert, with the resumption of peace negotiations and efforts to promote a direct dialogue with Syria likely to continue under any reconstituted governing coalition.

Livni has expressed her opposition to the current indirect talks with Syria in the absence of a change in the Baathist government's positions and behavior. Nevertheless, it seems likely that her government would engage in direct talks with Damascus should US support be forthcoming.

Given strong domestic popular opposition to the alienation of the Golan Heights, and her own lack of trust of Syrian motivations, Livni may choose to defer a deal with Syria, instead focusing on the Palestinian peace track.

It is Livni's position as foreign minister - above the fray of the post-Lebanon War backlash - that has allowed her to emerge unscathed in the aftermath of the conflict.

While widely interpreted as a personal power play, her March 2007 call on Olmert to resign over his handling of the war added to her aura as a forthright politician. This image is further reinforced when seen against the background of Livni's successful efforts to encourage the bolstering of UNIFIL and revelations concerning her advocacy of a far less invasive and sharply delimited military strategy during the war.

As head of the Israeli negotiating team in talks with the Palestinians, Livni has also burnished her image through representation in the Israeli press as having established a close working relationship with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - who has described Livni as a "friend."

She has been able to avoid courting controversy in this role through the secretive nature of the negotiations between her team and their Palestinian counterparts.

While Olmert favors a year-end framework agreement, Livni prefers an open-ended negotiating approach that deals with all fundamental issues in the conflict - save Jerusalem - in pursuit of a comprehensive peace agreement.

She refuses to countenance the large-scale return of refugees to Israel proper or the alienation of large settlement blocs to the Palestinian Authority. Importantly, Livni sees the talks as the last chance for Israel to succeed in preserving its strategic interests from a wider internationalization of the peace process.

Livni believes that without a resolution of the Gaza issue no progress can be made, though it remains unclear whether she would support tentative efforts to promote a dialogue and detente between Fatah and Hamas. There are indications she would be willing to continue indirect talks with Hamas via Egypt on a prisoner swap.

She has supported declaring Gaza a "hostile entity" in the past and supports the isolation of the territory and Hamas government, alongside retaliatory attacks to militant rocket fire, but looks unlikely to work actively to undermine the current temporary truce agreement.

The political adviser told ISN Security Watch that the international media focus on prospects for the peace process missed the point. "Most of the [Kadima] party activists have local interests, personal interests, ego-mania. None of them sleep at night and dream of the Middle East peace process," the adviser said.

"She [Livni] wouldn't go [to a national election] on an agenda of the peace process," he opined.

Uphill task

With the Likud refusing to play a role in a post-primary unity government, it is clear that the onus is on Livni to form a coalition from current and recent member parties or risk fresh elections, should she win the primary.

Her problem is a shortage of potential coalition partners on the religious right. Sephardi religious party Shas has come under tremendous pressure, through the flight of Yisrael Beiteinu from the Olmert cabinet, to throw in its lot with the opposition, given the predominantly right-wing political propensities of its base constituency.

Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox list United Torah Judaism (UTJ) will also seek guarantees that the government will not pursue talks on Jerusalem it if agrees to support or join a new coalition.

Livni knows it will be a hard task for either party to support a woman prime minister given that neither has ever fielded a woman MK. Shas spiritual leader Rav Ovadia Yosef once decreed that a man must not walk between two women, just as he should not walk between donkeys, in case his mind become contaminated.

"If Tzipi will lead us […] I'm not sure at all that they will join with us, the MK told ISN Security Watch, referring to Shas and UTJ. "In this case the next elections will be maybe next year in February/March."

The political adviser from Livni's camp also believes the formation of a new coalition will prove impossible, forcing fresh elections in which she will run on her corruption-free image, promoting an agenda of political renewal.

It is unclear whether this strategy will work given the increasingly apolitical nature of the Israeli polity.

Coming weeks and months will determine whether Livni succeeds in snaring enough support from Kadima, the Knesset and an increasingly disgruntled public to secure her own political future and that of her party.


Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.

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