Livni Is Learning To Lead Again, This Time As the Loyal Opposition

Transformed: Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, a woman with an outstanding right-wing pedigree, has become the symbol of Israel’s political center.
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Transformed: Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, a woman with an outstanding right-wing pedigree, has become the symbol of Israel’s political center.

By Jane Eisner

Published May 06, 2009, issue of May 15, 2009.
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Tzipi Livni, who twice nearly became the prime minister of Israel, walked into a chic, crowded Madison Avenue café with little fanfare, save for a few security guards, and had to wait for a table. She had come to New York fresh from Washington, where her address to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was evidently deemed so unimportant that it wasn’t even posted on the organization’s Web site.

Welcome to the opposition.

Although Livni’s Kadima party received the most votes in February’s national election, it was Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu who was asked to form a government. Livni declined to join, for reasons she will gladly explain. Now, the woman with the stellar right-wing pedigree, who became the symbol of Israel’s nascent political center, is transforming herself again, this time into the loyal opposition. And it’s clear that she intends to be loyal on some issues — chief among them, Iran — and in firm opposition on others: primarily the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something the current government in Jerusalem does not endorse.

On this, she is passionate. “Dividing the land into two states is in Israeli interests,” Livni said in a wide-ranging interview with the Forward on May 5. “My ideology is not connected to the Palestinians. I don’t think that I’m doing them a favor. My ultimate goal is the nature of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. The vision is not Jews living in the land of Israel but Jews living in a democratic state, which means a Jewish majority.”

Her words may have been well-rehearsed, but that doesn’t dull their impact. Although she’s used to a place on the world stage as a former foreign minister and ruling party leader, Livni, 50, can be just as articulate in the confines of a noisy café.

She shed her jacket as she sat down, pulled back her hair, and warmed up to the conversation. A cappuccino — “very strong” — may have helped, but it’s clear that she’s not relinquishing her voice in her new role.

Leading the opposition, she acknowledged, is complicated. Afraid that her enemies will exploit too much criticism of Israel, Livni is cautious about directly criticizing Netanyahu, especially outside of Israel, and won’t be drawn into speculating about how his differences with the Obama administration will play out. The United States and Israel “had also in the past some differences,” she said with a shrug.

Instead, her approach is to acknowledge the common ground she and Netanyahu share about the threat posed by Iran, and then to emphasize her own staunch support of the two-state solution. She’s willing to advocate shrinking the footprint of Israel, knowing full well what that means historically and ideologically. After all, this is the daughter of an Irgun fighter who insisted that an engraving of the whole biblical land of Israel with a gun and bayonet be carved onto his tombstone.

“I believe in the rights of the Jewish people to the entire land. I still feel this feeling I had as a child. I can understand the settlers in terms of understanding their feelings,” she said, her voice husky, as she gestured to her gut. But without two states for two people, “we are losing something which is more than just the existence of Jews in the land of Israel. It’s the values of the nature of the state of Israel.”

When told of a theory discussed in Israel — that Netanyahu would tell President Obama that Livni’s refusal to join a coalition meant that he had no choice but to create a right-wing government — the normally reticent Livni did something unusual: She laughed out loud.

“We are all grown-ups. Hello!” she exclaimed. In her view, Netanyahu had two options: Create a narrow government with parties to his right, or join Livni in a broader coalition of equals. (After all, Kadima won one more seat in the Knesset than Likud.) From her perspective she earned a legitimate place at the governing table, but Netanyahu offered her only a spot on the sidelines.

As a lawyer, she said, she would tell a client, “You can’t put your name, recognition, your money in a company without having share in the control.” As a political figure, she couldn’t join a government that didn’t offer her a genuine opportunity to lead. And she wouldn’t take a post as minister-of-whatever just for the title.

“The idea of the opposition is to keep the alternative, to give hope for those who believe in our way, that we didn’t abandon our way just to be ministers,” she said, in a not-so-subtle dig at Labor Party leader Ehud Barak.

Livni is out of power, but not bowed by being the outsider. As the child of Likudniks, she learned early on how to stand up for herself in a country that was dominated by Labor. As a woman in a political world still largely ruled by men, she has shown a toughness that has surprised even her detractors.

“Tell me about it!” she laughed, when asked about the role of women in Israeli society. “Just imagine how it is to enter a room with all the generals around, and the only way they see a woman is serving them coffee.”

And with that, Livni donned her jacket and prepared to move on to her next appointment — with former President Bill Clinton, also out of power, but hardly removed from the world stage.

Contact Jane Eisner at eisner@forward.com.


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