Livni’s hairstyle is irrelevant

The new Kadima leader's main strength is her pragmatism, not her womanhood


‘Wife, mother, secret agent" ran the breathless headline in The Times on Wednesday, anticipating Tzipi Livni's win in that day's Kadima primaries. In case anyone had failed to notice the potential sexiness of this story, the first paragraph emphasised that Livni was a "blonde former Mossad secret agent", just ahead of the de rigueur reference to Golda Meir.

Quite apart from the jarring chauvinism of this intro - did anyone think to allude to Shaul Mofaz's shiny cranium? - it encapsulates the over-excited coverage the foreign media has given Livni ever since she achieved a top position in her party.

One can't blame journalists for a hunger to report something vaguely fresh amid the usual cycle-of-violence, international-conference, dashed-hopes-for-peace routine.

But while Livni is indeed female, that is hopefully as far as her similarity to Golda Meir, one of Israel's most dismal leaders, will ever extend. And she has - wow! - combined marriage and motherhood of two sons with a high-flying job. As for the forever-referenced "Mossad killer" story, her service was spent mostly as caretaker of a safe house in Paris. She never became an operational agent. But this myth certainly spices up the fact that she looks fairly foxy for a 50-year-old.

So it would be misplaced optimism to describe Livni as the harbinger of Israeli-Arab peace, not least because bothersome details like election law means she could not be catapulted straight into the Prime Minister's chair anyway. The Kadima leader has 42 days to form a new coalition, and if that is not achieved, general elections must follow within 90 days, with Olmert remaining the caretaker leader.

The fight ahead of her will be far more strenuous than that to win the support of Kadima itself. Having scrupulously kept her image as Ms Clean - a rare and valuable thing in Israeli politics - she now must plunge herself into the seamy business of coalition-building. She needs Shas, a party traditionally bought with child allowances but hard to keep on board if concessions are necessary in the peace process. And in general elections she would have to go head-to-head with Binyamin Netanyahu, who strangely combines being widely detested with being consistently electable.

Could she do it? She is a pragmatist, which, after all, was what Kadima was supposed to be all about. And while she doesn't have much military experience, she at least has the intelligence to recognise this. She has built up a genuine rapport, by all accounts, with her Palestinian negotiating counterpart Abu Ala. Her attitude to the third-party talks with Syria is similarly down-to-earth. And rather wonderfully for a politician, in Israel as in anywhere else, she knows when to keep her mouth shut. Thus she didn't make a fool of herself during the disastrous Second Lebanon War. And she has never had any wild foreign-policy rants, particularly over the Iranian threat - unlike her erstwhile opponent, Shaul Mofaz, who managed to rock the global oil markets with his hysterical pronunciations about pre-emptive strikes on Iran.

Still, a calm, collected and centrist leader doesn't make for particularly funky headlines. Elsewhere, Barack Obama is about to bring his message of change to a peak in the US election campaign. Even saucy soccer-mom Sarah Palin has invigorated the Republican battle. We are entering the season of Bright Young Things and Fresh New Hopes; how tempting to add Sexy Former Spy to that list of clichés.
But if Livni becomes Israel's next Prime Minister, it will have much more to do with the timing and resonance of her post-ideological message than the politics of her hair colour.

    Last updated: 1:47pm, September 19 2008