Analysis: Livni’s time will come again soon

Livni meets US envoy George Mitchell

Livni meets US envoy George Mitchell

Once, in the days after Ehud Olmert took over from the unconscious Ariel Sharon, Tzipi Livni was Israel’s Acting Prime Minister, replacing Mr Olmert when necessary and designated to take over from him should the worst happen a second time.

Unfortunately for her, acting prime minister may have been as close as she was going to get to the prime minister’s chair. While the Netanyahu government has survived its first real crisis, when the premier outlined his vision of peace, the leader of the Opposition is increasingly absent from the public eye — and Israelis are beginning to ask whether she is past her prime.

For this daughter of the Israeli right-wing elite — one of the few political “princesses” among the Likud “princes” — was widely expected to win February’s elections as the leader of the Kadima party.

She had failed already to form a coalition after the resignation of Mr Olmert. Then she failed again: she had more seats than Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud, but she could not persuade enough parties to join her government, so Mr Netanyahu was asked to form his instead.

Livni, who will be 51 next month, refused to enter Mr Netanyahu’s coalition unless he agreed to back Kadima’s position of a two-state solution. Now, apparently, he has done just that, and Livni is left hanging outside as the leader of the Opposition.

But as Arye Naor, Cabinet Secretary in the first Begin government, acidly observed: “She really means it, about the two-state solution. But it was Netanyahu who said it. He was the one who made an ideological shift towards the position that Livni holds. That rather narrows the gap.”

Other commentators agree. Uri Dromi, a former director of the Israel Government Press Office, said: “She was the one who was pressing Bibi on the issue of the two-state solution. Now he’s supposedly embraced it, where does it leave her?”

It’s a good question. Livni, since going into opposition, is hardly seen on TV and barely speaks to Israelis.

“People don’t really know her game,” says Mr Dromi. “They don’t know why she didn’t join the government.”

Those who voted for her are very disappointed. They would be surprised to see the way in which a sleekly coiffed Livni powers her way through the Knesset corridors, for all the world like a star player in The West Wing.

If Ms Livni doesn’t have much to say to her erstwhile voters, she’s still happy to set out her stall to people she thinks may carry the Kadima message.

Last week, she received a group from British JNF in the shadow cabinet room of the Knesset. In brisk, no-nonsense fashion, the one-time Mossad operative and former Foreign Minister set out her vision for keeping Israel as a secure and democratic state, with “shared values and common goals”.

She was too sharp to dissect Mr Netanyahu’s speech in front of this foreign audience, but perhaps her remarks were more notable for what she did not say than for what she did. For example, she made no mention of his “red line” that the Palestinians should recognise Israel as a Jewish state. She was much keener on establishing that the right of return for Palestinian refugees was not an option.

She made clear that on a “basic understanding of the threats against Israel”, there was little difference between herself and the Prime Minister — and, she noted wryly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had heard more concern about Iran from those in the Arab world than from Western leaders.

But as a whole, Livni declared with awolfish grin: “Sooner or later everyone adopts the Kadima platform, and I could hear the beginning of that in the Prime Minister’s speech.”

In a sharp reminder to Netanyahu, she insisted: “Stagnation is not an option. We need to see if we can end this conflict with the support of the Arab world.”

In other words, it is not enough for Mr Netanyahu to have made the speech. He has to go on and do something about it.

And it is there, perhaps, that the ambition of Tzipi Livni lies. Although the only game in town is that between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu, Ms Livni still wants to be a player.

She is content to wait until Mr Netanyahu is unable to deliver on his pledges to Mr Obama without alienating his right-wing coalition partners. Once his partners leave and he needs Kadima, she reasons, she will be back in the game.

From that perspective, Ms Livni is not yesterday’s woman, she is tomorrow’s.

“In Israel,” says the veteran politician Yossi Sarid, “there is a tendency to declare someone politically dead. The rumours, in Livni’s case, are exaggerated.”

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010