Tzipi Livni’s public image, both in Israel and abroad, is most closely associated with the peace talks she has administered in recent months with the Palestinians. And yet, it would be a mistake to assume that the Palestinian track will be her top priority now that she has been elected leader of the Kadima Party.
With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert having submitted his resignation, her first priority will be finding a way to actually take the reins of power. This will be no easy task, and will be made all the more difficult by instability within Kadima, as well as the ambitions of former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom are determined to make political comebacks. If Livni cannot form a new government, she will have to prepare for elections.
Livni, however, is a formidable politician, and she could very well succeed in forming a coalition or emerge victorious from new elections. And so it’s worth taking a look at the complicated and interlocking set of political, diplomatic and strategic challenges that she would face.
For starters, Ehud Olmert, in his tenure as caretaker prime minister, is liable to preempt Livni by continuing to negotiate a framework agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even as Livni woos potential coalition partners, thereby complicating her political life. Those coalition talks could well reach fruition and produce a new Israeli government more or less at the time a new American president is elected in early November, injecting another element of uncertainty into the mix.
As prime minister, Livni’s political and diplomatic priorities would be affected both by the demands of her coalition partners and her need to consider the requirements of the new American administration. On the home front, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party will seek to constrain her freedom of maneuver regarding Jerusalem. Meanwhile, some of Kadima’s more right-leaning lawmakers could oppose continuing the talks with Syria.
Whereas Olmert awarded Livni a prominent role in negotiating with the Palestinians, he excluded her from the Syria talks, which have been run by two of his closest aides. Livni, who perhaps as a consequence never seemed enthusiastic about those talks, will soon be briefed by key officials within the Israeli security establishment regarding the high priority they assign to a deal with Damascus.
The Palestinian track will become even more problematic as Abbas decides whether to retire this coming January, run for reelection or stay in office for another year, despite Hamas’s demand for new presidential elections. His decision is likely to be made more or less at the time that Israel’s six-month cease-fire with Hamas expires in December. Changes in the Palestinian leadership scene and fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas could delay renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations even further.
Most significantly, it’s hard to imagine Livni pursuing any peace talks at all prior to a serious consultation with the incoming American leader. Regardless of whether it is Obama or McCain who wins in November — irrespective of the lip service the newly elected president will pay to the need for a settlement with the Palestinians — the true priorities for the next occupant of the Oval Office will undoubtedly focus on areas well to the east of Israel: withdrawal from Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program and the worsening situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These issues will present Livni with her first and most important strategic task: She must persuade the next administration to consider Israel’s broad security needs as it withdraws from Iraq, lest by withdrawing it increase Iran’s influence there to the detriment of Israel and its neighbors. Indeed, she must insist that if the incoming president wants to drop negotiating preconditions and talk to Iran, he should stop off in Jerusalem on his way to Tehran and gain a proper appreciation of Israel’s security concerns. After all, someone has to warn the Iranian leadership of the dire consequences for itself and the entire region of its current nuclear policies and hegemonic drive for regional power.
Livni will probably quickly discover that the Arab-Israeli negotiations that are of greatest interest to the new administration are those with Syria. A successful Israeli-Syrian peace deal will produce a far more significant strategic payoff, not only for Israel but for America as well. Success on the Syrian front will be defined by Washington and Jerusalem as pushing Iran out of the Levant, weakening Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, kicking the Hamas leadership out of Damascus and genuinely sealing the Syria-Iraq border. For Israel, those benefits are worth giving up the Golan Heights, even assuming that the actual peace with Syria is a frosty one. These benefits would almost certainly outweigh anything that the problematic Palestinian track is likely to generate in the near future, given that the weak Palestinian Authority is unable to speak for the Gaza Strip.
One of George W. Bush’s biggest mistakes in the Middle East in recent years was ignoring Bashar al-Assad’s invitation to support Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Hopefully, the next American president will know better. If Livni becomes Israel’s prime minister, and even as she seeks American backing for maintaining some sort of momentum with the Palestinians, she will likely be obliged to adjust her peace process aspirations accordingly and give priority to the Syrian track.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He co-edits the bitterlemons family of Internet publications.