Tzipi Livni’s victory in the Kadima primary is the result of the Israeli version of the clamor for change that we are seeing across the democratic world. She prevailed despite ruthless attacks on her experience, her judgment, her appearance and her gender. Her record of probity, her straightforward style and — most significantly — her decidedly civilian aura definitely worked in her favor.
But does Livni have it in her to capitalize on these currents and take the risks necessary to cement a new kind of politics in Israel? She faces incredible opportunities and formidable challenges. Ultimately, the test of her leadership rests on her ability to move Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to an equitable and durable conclusion.
The new head of Kadima must begin to prepare herself and her party for the likelihood of new elections in the spring. Her main opponents — Ehud Barak of Labor and Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud — justifiably perceive her as the single most serious threat to their respective political ambitions. These two former prime ministers hoping for a second chance cannot ignore the polls that consistently show Kadima under Livni’s leadership pulverizing Barak’s Labor Party and giving Netanyahu’s Likud a close contest. That is why they did everything in their power during the primaries to promote Livni’s main intra-party rival, Shaul Mofaz. Now, they can be expected to step up their attacks on her.
Livni also faces ambiguity abroad. Indeed, her key negotiating partners present their own set of challenges. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on her way out, as may be President Mahmoud Abbas, whose own term is set to expire in January of next year.
Under these circumstances, the conventional wisdom is that Tzipi Livni has two diametrically opposed options: She can put negotiations on the back burner and call for new elections as soon as possible, in the hope of taking advantage of her current popularity to consolidate her political position. Or she can try to delay new elections as long as possible — by acceding to inevitably exorbitant demands from coalition partners — and use the limited amount of time at her disposal to reach an accord with the Palestinians.
Livni may be sorely tempted to follow the first course. Her advisers and some of her closest supporters believe that continuing the negotiating process that began last year in Annapolis would be an electoral liability, especially given the growing preoccupation of the Israeli electorate with domestic socio-economic issues.
Opting to proceed quickly to the polls while foregoing the possibility of making progress on the Palestinian front, Livni would be left with little ability to affect policy in the immediate term. Livni might then opt to fall back on a politics rooted in style and personality in the run-up to new elections.
Should she choose this route, however, she will be playing directly into Netanyahu’s hands. He knows full well that several months can be a lifetime in politics, enough to darken Livni’s halo with clouds of doubt regarding her leadership abilities and her decisiveness. Wrangling with recalcitrant party cohorts and getting muddied in Israel’s political quagmire would risk sacrificing the clean image that ushered her to where she is today.
But forming a new government without elections may be impossible given the distribution of seats in the current Knesset, especially since only Labor — which can expect to do poorly at the polls — has a strong interest in maintaining a Kadima-led government. And even if a coalition arrangement is reached, the political price would be prohibitive. Capitulating to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party would prove to be a major liability down the line in terms of public opinion, and striking a deal with the Palestinians would, in any event, probably destabilize such a tenuous coalition.
Thankfully, Livni does not have to buy into the binary vise devised by the pundits. There is a third alternative: She can call for new elections and, in the meantime, step up talks with the Palestinians with a view toward concluding a comprehensive agreement that can be presented for public approval at the polls.
Such a move may speak to her Palestinian and American partners, who share her sense of urgency. It would at least temporarily confound her domestic opposition. Above all, it could salvage the last chance for a two-state solution.
The success of such a daring strategy hinges on Livni’s capacity to muster real political courage. She must be willing to inject new substance into the faltering negotiations with the Palestinians. This requires a readiness to revisit the roots of the conflict and to recognize the fundamental asymmetry that has plagued past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. While success is not guaranteed, conditions are ripe for progress — especially if Livni takes the additional (and long overdue) step of embracing the Arab Peace Initiative, something that would have strong regional as well as international resonance.
Could Livni pull this off? The answer is unclear. What is evident is that if she fails to take an audacious step of this sort, her political career will be short-lived and prospects for a negotiated settlement will dim, and perhaps disappear entirely. It is up to Livni to demonstrate that her victory in the Kadima primaries augurs a new type of leadership. Otherwise she — like her once promising predecessors — will become a footnote in the history of an Israel still desperately looking for ways to open up a new political horizon.
Naomi Chazan is president of the New Israel Fund. She is a former deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset, where she represented the Meretz Party from1992 to 2003.