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Tzipi Livni: Can She Make The Tough Choices for Peace?

With her narrow victory in the Kadima primaries, Tzipi Livni is primed to become Israel’s second woman Prime Minister. It is a mark of the progress women have made that this point has garnered very little notice. But who is … Read More

By / October 24, 2008

With her narrow victory in the Kadima primaries, Tzipi Livni is primed to become Israel’s second woman Prime Minister. It is a mark of the progress women have made that this point has garnered very little notice. But who is Tzipi Livni? She enters the top spot in Kadima, and quite likely, the top office in Israel, as something of a mystery. We have little indication from her history how she will deal with the vexing dilemmas Israel faces. And perhaps that’s a positive, since the other major contenders—Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and the now-defeated Shaul Mofaz—are well-known entities, all of whose track records give much cause for pessimism. Livni offers at least some sense that she might be open to serious diplomacy while maintaining the strong defense necessary for both Israeli security and the political credibility negotiations require. One former high level diplomat who knows her well tells me that she is smart and willing to make concessions for peace. But her ideology is only known in the most general terms. Tzipi Livni is a pragmatist, whose rightward leanings are not particularly prominent in the context of today’s Israel; she was the symbol of the “left wing” of Likud before joining Kadima. Unlike her predecessor, Ehud Olmert, she has a notable service resume, having been an agent for the Mossad for two years in the early 80s. Her actions in Mossad are shrouded in secrecy, which actually gives them a bit more prestige in some people’s eyes. She will have less to prove in terms of leading during times of conflict than Olmert did, though she might still inspire less confidence in that regard than some of her challengers. Revisionist Nobility Livni’s parents were both well known fighters in the Irgun Z’vai Leumi, the pre-state militant group that represented the right-wing Revisionists, precursors to today’s Likud coalition. She comes from Likud aristocracy, and that background surely helped her in her quick rise through the party. Elected to the Knesset for the first time only in 1999, Livni attained a cabinet position in Ariel Sharon’s first government in 2001. Over the next four and a half years, Livni quickly rose to more and more important ministry positions, finally being named Minister of Justice in October, 2005. While her family connections could well be the key reason for her quick early appointment, another factor, in addition to her own ability, explained her meteoric rise through the ministries: her strong devotion to and support of Sharon’s controversial disengagement plan. When Livni bolted Likud, she remained a relative novice in terms of her own political connections and support within the party. Bloodline will only take you so far in party politics. Sharon’s disengagement plan, which predictably ended up splitting the Likud, offered Livni the opportunity to move into a powerful role in a new party. The question is was Livni acting out of mere opportunism, or was disengagement really something she believed in? Her behavior, then and now, points to the latter. In the Footsteps of Ariel Sharon Like her predecessor, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni is very much crafted in the mold of the latter-day Ariel Sharon. She is publicly committed to negotiations and to a two-state solution. Yet she, like both of her predecessors at the top of Kadima, has a relatively conservative track record, not that of a peacemaker, as she enters her new role. Like Sharon, Livni approaches the question of peace with a great deal of pragmatism. Sharon was mistakenly perceived as a hard-nosed ideologue. In fact, he was a man who would use extreme measures to achieve his goals, but he had only one overriding goal: advancing what he perceived as Israel’s security needs. When that meant holding onto every inch of land, he facilitated land grabs by settlers and obstructed any territorial compromise. When he believed Israel’s security would be better served by withdrawal, he did just that in Gaza and, years earlier, by carrying out the dismantlement of Yamit in the Sinai. Livni shares Olmert’s more understated approach to leadership, but she also shares Sharon’s hard focus on pragmatism and his ability to shift short-term goals in pursuit of her fundamental objective. In many ways, that makes her the very picture of recent Israeli leadership. It also bodes ill for the future of Israel. A political quagmire Israel’s occupation has become increasingly costly on many levels, and, while the violence of the early part of this decade has largely subsided, the situation is more explosive now than it was just before the second intifada began. Palestinian living standards continue to decline while settlements expand and the security barrier, looking more and more like a de facto border, and hundreds and hundreds of checkpoints make commerce more and more of a wistful dream. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and newer, much more radical and dangerous groups continue to gain strength. In this atmosphere, the Israeli public is less inclined toward major concessions than ever. But Livni was put on the spot by her predecessor, Olmert, when he told the Israeli daily, Yediot Akhronot that in order to make peace, Israel would have to withdraw from all or most of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and from the Golan Heights. While most dismissed Olmert’s statements as a “nothing left to lose” comment on the eve of his departure, it’s out there, and it is resonating with those involved in diplomacy and advocacy. For those supporting a two-state solution, it is confirmation of everything they’ve been saying for years. But for those who oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, the reverberations are just as strong. Olmert implied their point as well: that the price Israel would have to pay for an acceptable, much less sustainable, peace agreement with the Palestinians is one that, in their view, would lead to Israel’s eventual demise. Olmert pushed closer to the surface the decision Israel will have to face eventually and may well be in Livni’s lap. Either Israel will have to reverse the settlement enterprise and come to an understanding with the Palestinians, or the conflict will continue without end. The holding pattern Israel has been maintaining can’t last. We’re seeing it this Yom Kippur even inside Israel, in Acre. We’re seeing it in a wave of thwarted attempts to firebomb Israeli targets. But most of all, we’re seeing it with the most radical of the settlers. Livni will have to deal with the new reality of the radical settler movement. Things changed greatly for them after the removal of settlements from Gaza in 2005. For them, the withdrawal demonstrated that it was the government of Israel that was opposing what they saw as Zionism by ceding “Jewish land” to the Palestinians. While always defiant, this sub-group of settlers started preparing to fight Israel itself for what they believe is the greater good for the Jewish people and Zionism. This is reflected in the increase in violent settler activity, directed at both the Palestinians and the Israeli police and soldiers. More and more, even mainstream Israeli leaders have denounced the settlers’ actions, up to and including Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as Olmert. The situation in the West Bank with the settlers combines with the continuing lack of improvement in the lives of the Palestinians. Militant activity is gaining popularity among Palestinians once again, and it is manifest in the violent incidents we have seen in recent months in Acre, in the West Bank and in Jerusalem. Will Tzipi Livni be able to make the bold decisions necessary to resolve the coming crisis? The Navigable but Winding Road There remains a question as to whether Livni, confronted with this boiling cauldron, will choose the more difficult road of pursuing peace or will abandon all but the flimsiest pretense of negotiations. But assuming, as seems more likely, that she will pursue some sort of negotiated settlement, will she have the tools she needs to attain it? Not by herself. Internally, Livni will face serious obstacles, even from within her coalition. The biggest will come from the Shas party, which, with 12 seats in the current Knesset, tends to hold the fate of any coalition—right, left or center—in its hands. Shas will, at least initially, insist that Jerusalem be off the table, a condition that, by definition, will preclude a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians. But Shas can usually be dealt with, for a price. Though a religious party, and certainly committed to keeping all of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, in Israeli hands, their primary concern is always getting more funding for their schools and other institutions and for increased child allowances (essentially, welfare). With enough money, they can be kept in a coalition that could strike a deal with the Palestinians. The Israeli public, ill disposed to concessions to either the Palestinians or Syria right now, can be swayed by strong leadership. This is exactly what happened with the withdrawal from the Sinai in 1982-83, the Oslo agreements in 1993-94, the withdrawal from Lebanon in 1999-2000 and the withdrawal from Gaza in 2004-05. But that requires consistent leadership and a commitment to the plan. Whether Livni has the strength to stick with that through political storms is something we won’t know until she tries it. But she also needs support. Concessions will not be greeted warmly, and will be passionately attacked from the right. Labor seems to be a shaky ally, with Ehud Barak very much having his own agenda, and even within Kadima, the competition with Shaul Mofaz has sown at least some division in the party. Livni is also handicapped by her relative inexperience in politics. Having been in the Knesset only since 1999, she doesn’t have a lot of political capital behind her. She does not have loyal supporters, as more veteran figures do, nor does she have the party connections Ehud Olmert had (indeed, this was precisely why some believed Mofaz would defeat her). This will make it harder to sell negotiations, but not impossible. To succeed, Livni will need help from outside of Israel. Outside Actors Obviously, one key player Livni will need help from is the Palestinians themselves. She will need to show the wisdom her predecessors could not and recognize that Hamas can no longer be isolated from Palestinian politics. At the same time, Fatah will need to find a way to unify the Palestinians while not accepting the Hamas agenda which, by definition, makes a durable peace with Israel impossible. Israel can do much to make that happen, by following through on their rhetoric that the Fatah approach of cooperation will bring improvement in the lives of Palestinians, despite the activities of militants. There is something to build on here, as Israel has noted that the Abbas/Fayyad government has taken serious steps to impose law and order. Egypt has also made some progress in dealing with smuggling and tunneling into Gaza. These are measures that can and should be expected to be enhanced, with Israeli efforts at easing conditions in both Gaza and the West Bank. As has been noted elsewhere, these measures provide a foundation for more work, and, coupled with the fact that Hamas has kept its word regarding the Gaza cease-fire can provide the opening for creating a Palestinian entity that can make good on its commitments and can speak for all of the people. For its part, the Arab League must stick to its commitment to the Saudi Peace Plan, and offer some concrete steps that will assure Israelis that peace will pay dividends. But the key outside actor, as always, is the United States. With what is looking like an Obama victory in November, the US will surely be changing the disastrous course that George W. Bush drove like a drunken driver. The US must maintain its support of Israeli defense while also stepping up its diplomatic efforts aimed at scaling back the occupation. This is the real key for Livni. If the US can take a clear and firm stand on the illegal outposts and the expansion of settlements, she can act against the lawless atmosphere on the West Bank and will not lose her office as a result. This will pave the way for easing restrictions on Palestinian movement that currently strangle any attempt at improving the economic conditions for Palestinians. That would, in turn, strengthen Abbas’ and Fayyad’s hand in reigning in terrorists, and from there, the United States could be instrumental in supporting not only a stronger Palestinian government, but also in helping Israel financially and politically to start removing the settlers from the West Bank. In such an atmosphere, negotiations toward a permanent status solution would have a real chance. An Obama presidency would also almost certainly take the shackles off of Israel in terms of negotiations with Syria, which would, in turn, reduce the threat from Hezbollah. But all of this requires concerted, and politically risky, action on the part of a new administration. They will certainly be reluctant. But they will respond to a real demand from Americans, and especially American Jews, for such concerted action. With the smashing success of the newly-formed pro-Israel lobby group, J Street and the clear Jewish momentum behind a two-state settlement coming sooner rather than later, there is real potential to push an Obama administration into promoting a real, durable effective peace between Israel and all its neighbors. The moment has come for Jews everywhere to stand up and be counted. Tzipi Livni and Barack Obama both can be pushed either toward or away from peace. We know that both will face considerable pressure to avoid the difficult but necessary steps peace will require. We can push, and push harder, in the right direction. The only question is whether enough of us will.

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