Why the ‘almost’ Israeli prime minister never made it

The United States wanted Tzipi Livni to lead the Jewish state, but if she failed it was thanks to her negotiating partners, not her personality.

Zionist Union Knesset member Tzipi Livni arrives for a Zionist Union faction meeting at the Israeli parliament on Dec. 25, 2017. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Zionist Union Knesset member Tzipi Livni arrives for a Zionist Union faction meeting at the Israeli parliament on Dec. 25, 2017. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

This week former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni announced that she was dropping out of politics. Livni came as close to being prime minister as you can get without actually having the job more than once. But only a decade after leading her party to a first-place finish in the 2009 Knesset election, she is finally giving up.

Insiders put her down as a difficult political partner. That’s the generally accepted answer to the question of why, after being part of so many coalitions, she was left standing when the music stopped in the game of political musical chairs this year. Yet with a résumé that included a stint in the Mossad and service as a competent minister in charge of various departments, hers was an impressive career.

But the explanation for her rise and fall ought to be of particular interest to American observers. If Livni’s political career fizzled, it’s because those Israelis who stake their claim to leadership on the basis of support from liberal Americans and an ability to negotiate with Palestinians are always doomed to failure.

Livni was subjected to a lot of abuse for being an inveterate party switcher. She began in the Likud, her family’s political home. Her parents were both members of the Etzel (Irgun Zvai Leumi) and her father, Eitan Livni, served three terms in the Knesset for the Likud. He insisted that the symbol of the Irgun (a map of Israel that included the West Bank and Jordan) be engraved on his gravestone.

But his daughter ultimately rejected his belief in Greater Israel and dedicated her career to trying to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. While she ran for the Knesset for Likud, Kadima, Hatnua and the Zionist Union before finally giving up on another try under the Hatnua banner, instead of being a pure opportunist, she was always looking for a political home that could accommodate her beliefs.

She seemed to be on an unstoppable path to the prime minister’s office when she followed then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert out of the Likud, along with some leaders from the Labor Party into a new centrist party called Kadima. Its goal was to separate the Jewish state from the Palestinians. Their platform centered on the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, an experiment that ultimately most Israelis judged a failure because it wound up putting Gaza in the hands of Hamas.

When Sharon was felled by a stroke in January 2006, Olmert led Kadima to victory in an election held just two months later. But his incompetent leadership during the Second Lebanon War and corruption charges that eventually sent Olmert to jail marred his prime ministership. As foreign minister, Livni split her time between efforts to force Olmert to resign and a failed attempt to hand almost all of the West Bank, as well as part of Jerusalem, to the Palestinians as part of a two-state deal backed by the George W. Bush administration.

The Palestinians gave the same negative answer to that offer that they gave to previous attempts to make peace. But she was undaunted when, due to an unexpectedly strong showing by the parties to Likud’s right, Kadima, with Livni at its head, won the most seats in the 2009 election. But Livni was unable to form a government since the majority of those elected wanted no part of a prime minister whose goal was to keep offering the Palestinians what they’d already rejected.

It was during this period that Livni became America’s favorite Israeli, as magazines like Newsweek and Forbes acclaimed her as one of the world’s most important women. Livni was the toast of American Jewry, which, for the most part, infinitely preferred what they considered to be her moderation and belief in a two-state solution to Netanyahu’s views. Even more to the point, the Obama administration spent much of 2009 and 2010 ginning up fights with Netanyahu and plotting to either depose him in favor of Livni (as Atlantic editor and Obama whisperer Jeffrey Goldberg reported at the time) or bring her into his cabinet.

The latter actually occurred after Netanyahu’s election victory in 2013, when Livni joined his government and was given responsibility for negotiating with the Palestinians. But her failure in that role was primarily due to the Palestinians again refusing to negotiate in good faith, despite the efforts of the United States to skew the talks in their favor.

What followed for her was another political turnabout as Livni joined forces with the Labor Party, which was renamed the Zionist Union. Four more years in the opposition ended with Labor leader Avi Gabbay gracelessly dumping Livni without prior warning in a speech while she sat next to him. When polls showed that she would fail to make the Knesset if she ran on our own, Livni gave up and withdrew from politics.

That’s quite a fall after reaching so high. But while some commentators focused on how disliked she was by the leaders of the centrist and left-wing parties that she tried in vain to unite this year, the verdict on Livni’s career is more of a commentary on the two-state solution than about her personality. Instead of carping about her particular qualities, those assessing her time on the stage need to see her as one more victim of a peace process that destroyed political careers in Israel and also led to greater violence.

Like her or not, Livni sincerely believed Israel’s future depended on creating a Palestinian state. If, despite her efforts and those of Obama and his predecessors, it didn’t happen, it wasn’t because of her flaws or even bad luck. Had the Palestinians been able to accept the peace she offered, she would be in Netanyahu’s office preparing for re-election. Instead, her descent into obscurity isn’t so much the fault of bad political skills, but of a Palestinian political culture built on hatred that destroys every Israeli who thinks it doesn’t matter.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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