The woman who would be prime minister

Opinion polls continue to cast Tzipi Livni as one of the most popular politicians in the country and the only one capable of challenging a right-wing comeback by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Tzipi Livni, 'born-again moderate' and new Kadima leader, aims to restore integrity to Israeli politics

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 10, 2008. (David Furst/Associated Press) ((David Furst/Associated Press))

A few weeks back, Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni took time out of her campaign for the Kadima leadership to meet with members of the foreign press at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

She drew a big crowd. The possibility of the first female prime minister in Israel since the legendary Golda Meir is a narrative that even the most jaded of journalists would find hard to resist.

But there's more to the Livni phenomenon in Israel than the inevitable historical comparisons.

Opinion polls continue to cast her as one of the most popular politicians in the country and the only one capable of challenging a comeback by former right-wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Livni attends a meeting of Kadima party members in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 14, 2008. (Bernat Armangue/Associated Press)

Tall, striking and intense, Livni is sometimes labelled cold or aloof, an ice queen. But she's also an animal-loving vegetarian, a former spy and a mother of two. She loves The Age of Aquarius  and recently took up drumming. She also happens to be the daughter of heroes of the Zionist movement.

But perhaps most importantly, she has managed to sell herself as one of the few politicians capable of restoring integrity to the corruption-laden corridors of Israeli politics.

"If I ask myself who is the person that can restore the confidence of Israeli publics  more than all the other candidates, then there is only one name and this is Tzipi Livni," says Isaac Ben Israel, a Kadima member of the Knesset who supported Livni's leadership bid. 

'A very Zionist home'

There was a certain historical symmetry to the venue where Livni met the foreign press those few weeks ago. The landmark Jerusalem hotel was bombed in 1946 by members of the Irgun, a pre-state Jewish militia attacking British and Arab targets. Ninety-one people were killed in the bombing. 

Both of Livni's parents were Irgun fighters and both believed passionately in the idea of Greater Israel, a Jewish state stretching from the Mediterranean all the way to Jordan.

"She grew up in a very Zionist home," childhood friend Mirla Gal says, adding that Livni herself sometimes described her upbringing as not very warm. "Her parents fought for the independence of Israel and they paid the price. They were both in prison. Her father escaped and the existence of this country and where the country is going is really something in her blood.

Gal has known Livni for 44 years. They met in Tel Aviv when they were just six years old and have remained lifelong friends.   

Gal is a former member of the Mossad, Israel's spy agency. She is reported to have reached the top echelons in a 20-year career, but she won't talk about it other than to confirm that her friend Tzipi followed, spending two years with the agency in Paris before returning to Israel to practise law.

Livni entered politics and the Knesset about a decade ago, carrying her parents' ideological leanings and under the tutelage of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the political giant and leader of the right wing Likud party. There was no talk of giving up land for peace then.

But when Sharon left the Likud to form a new party — Kadima — pledging to dismantle Israeli settlements in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, Livni went with him. In so doing, she abandoned the dreams of her parents and became one of Sharon's front-line fighters in support of a two-state solution.

"She played a very essential role and she became very, very close to him," says Gal. "She was there the night they decided about splitting from the Likud and setting up Kadima. And maybe if he is the father of Kadima, she is certainly the mother."

Understanding political realities

The Israeli media has been surprisingly forgiving of Livni's dramatic ideological shift. Political scientist Reuvan Hazan says that's because the media is more tolerant of what some commentators have dubbed "born-again moderates."

"The media is centre-left and when you move from the hawkish end towards a more pragmatic position it's perceived as: 'Aha, you're finally getting it'," he says. "But when you move from a dovish position towards the centre … it's: 'Wait, where are you going?'"

Livni herself has described it as an understanding of political realities and what she believes it will take to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic. She told the assembled foreign press at the King David Hotel that she believes most Israelis agree with her. 

"I know that the recent understanding now, and this represents the vast majority of Israelis, [is] that the idea of two states for two people living side by side in peace and security … is in Israeli interests," she said. "It represents not only the current government policy but almost the entire Israeli people."

Hazan believes that one of the reasons Livni remains so popular is that she is still relatively untried. "It's that everybody else is tainted. She's clean. She has no record. She hasn't failed …so she's popular not because of anything she's done but because she hasn't messed up yet."

Hazan also says the media comparisons to Meir, the only other Israeli woman to serve as foreign minister, could wind up hurting Livni as she battles critics who point to her lack of military experience as a failing. The criticism comes even though Livni herself has expressed no personal affinity for the former prime minister.

"In Israel, she [Meir] was perceived as a very weak prime minister … who did not make the right decision and the horrible preliminary results of the Yom Kippur War were because she would not mobilize the troops," Hazan says. "So what Golda did has not paved the way for future women leaders in Israel — she sort of burned the bridges."

Security is a huge part of the Israeli electorate's psyche and Livni's closest competitor for the Kadima leadership was the former defence minister Shaul Mofaz. Yet she narrowly defeated the more hawkish Mofaz in a Sept. 17 primary vote to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is stepping down to battle multiple corruption allegations.

Hard work, determination

Livni is now within striking distance of the premiership of the country. Her old friend, Mirla Gal, says she can still see her childhood companion in the woman at the centre stage of Israeli politics. 

Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, left, and Livni, then both candidates for the Kadima leadership, attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sept. 14, 2008. (Dan Balilty/Associated Press) ((Dan Balilty/Associated Press))

"When she took a book she always read the last pages first and then she would return and start from the beginning which drove me nuts because I think you should start in the beginning and reach the end," she says. 

"But maybe when I think about it this is something she does today, too. She knows exactly where she wants to get and then she looks at the means and how to get there."

No doubt there's something in that description about the end justifying the means for Livni's critics to take hold of. But Gal insists Livni's means have always been straightforward honesty and determination.

Now that she has won the leadership, Livni will have to work hard to secure the current governing coalition in Israel's fractious parliament. Failing that, she'll face a general election and a real test of her popularity. 

Too bad we can't skip ahead a few pages and see how it all turns out.