Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni eked out the narrowest of victories in the primary elections for the leadership of the Kadima party over her principal rival, über-hawk Minister of Transport Shaul Mofaz. Livni won by 431 votes, or 1.1% of the 39,331 ballots cast. Only a little more than half the eligible members of Kadima turned out to vote.
Ehud Olmert, who has been politically paralyzed by serial investigations for corruption, then resigned as prime minister. President Shimon Peres entrusted Livni with the task of forming a new government. Olmert continues as caretaker prime minister, while Livni has 42 days to form a coalition. Should she fail, an early election will be held in early 2009, 18 moths ahead of schedule.
Labor Party leader Ehud Barak has been making a public show of resisting remaining in a coalition under Livni’s leadership. But historically the odds are with Livni. No one asked to form a government by a president of Israel has ever failed. And according to opinion polls, Labor would be humiliated in an early election, whose most likely outcome would be to bring Likud leader Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu to power.
A woman whose military experience is limited to her compulsory service beating Mofaz, a former Chief-of-Staff and former minister of defense who ran under the banner of “security” and promoting war with Iran, marks a change of pace in Israeli politics. This may be the main significance of the election, especially if Livni succeeds in forming a government. Until 1974, only leaders who had made their mark in civilian political life served as prime minister. Since then, Israeli voters have apparently believed that having a background as a high-ranking military officer or being a leader in a pre-state underground militia (or terrorist organization, if you like) is the most significant qualification for holding high political office. Only two prime ministers who have served since 1974 — Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert — cannot claim this credential. Netanyahu served in the same elite military unit as Barak, the General Staff Commandos, but was discharged with the modest rank of captain. However, Bibi inherited an aura of military heroism because his brother Yoni died while commanding the successful Israeli raid to rescue hostages held by Palestinian and German airline hijackers at the Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976.
Livni does not bill herself as a feminist. But she is on the record saying that “guy issues” undermined Israel’s prosecution of the 2006 Lebanon war and, “Not only in the war. In all kinds of discussions, I hear arguments between generals and admirals and such and I say: ‘Guys, stop it,'” she told The Times of London last year. This has occasionally earned her contemptuous treatment from the elite male Israeli punditocracy. But her dominant image is as an intelligent, serious, disciplined, and focused leader who knows how to get what she wants done. Most of all, she is seen as honest — a valuable credential in a political season when her predecessor was forced to resign due to investigations of corruption and a former cabinet colleague and the former president of Israel recently resigned over charges of sexual harassment and rape, behavior that has become common in the Israeli military and as a result, in Israeli society more broadly.
It is uncertain how any of this will translate into the policies of a government Livni might lead, especially since it is still unclear which parties might participate in the coalition. The Mizrahi-haredi Shas party has twelve seats in the current Knesset and has been a key component of Olmert’s government. Shas leaders have announced that if Livni intends to continue to speak with Palestinian negotiators about Jerusalem, one of the core issues that must be resolved if there is to be any Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, they will bolt the government. Historically, Shas has been bought off with additional funds for its social projects, which in turn build its political power. So, while Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef has a history of provocative remarks like calling the Arabs “vipers” or calling for their annihilation, it is unclear how serious this threat is. Shas could be replaced by Meretz (five Knesset seats) and United Torah Judaism (6 seats). This would result in an unruly coalition because components of United Torah Judaism are as intransigent on Jerusalem as any other rightwing Israeli party and Meretz is the most assertively secularist Zionist party.
The “Arab parties,” as they are called in the standard Israeli political lexicon, (including the Arab-Jewish Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) have ten Knesset seats among them. Theoretically, Livni could dispense with the religious parties altogether and form a secular, dovish-leaning coalition with Labor, Meretz, the “Arab parties,” and one or both of the pensioners’ parties (seven seats between them). But any agreement such a government would reach with the Palestinians would be considered illegitimate by a large part of the Jewish-Israeli public, not only settlers and orthodox Jews; and rightwing American-Jewish organizations like the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations would surely campaign against it.
As for her personal opinions, Livni is identified with the effort to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians. She has supported the indirect Israeli-Syrian talks mediated by Syria. And she has been unenthusiastic about an Israeli military strike against Iran.
The state-run Syrian daily Tishreen has been complementary towards Livni and announced that she can have a peace deal with Syria if she wants it. The central determinant on this front is the extent of US support for such an agreement. The Bush administration has opposed a Syrian-Israeli agreement, and John McCain has attacked Obama’s Middle East advisors as “appeasers” for their support of a Syrian-Israeli peace. Sarah Palin may not know where Syria is. (Hint! You can’t see it from Alaska.) Barack Obama is on record supporting such an agreement.
Beyond the play-acting of the specious negotiations since the 2007 Annapolis conference in which Livni has played a major role, matters are much more complicated on the Palestinian front. Livni would have to form a narrow coalition with the dovish elements in the Knesset, reach an agreement that offers the Palestinians considerably more than any centrist Israeli politician has publicly proposed, and risk her political career by submitting such a deal to the public in an election in which she would be mercilessly attacked by the religious and rightwing forces and likely receive lukewarm support at best from Ehud Barak, who has the most “guy issues” of anyone in the Israeli political elite.
As ha-Aretz columnist Gideon Levy wrote, the heart wants to hope, but the brain cannot.
Joel Beinin is Professor of Middle East History, Stanford University. This essay first appeared in the newsletter of Jewish Voice for Peace on 22 September 2008.