Livni’s Mossad past charms our media

Profiles of Ehud Olmert’s heir-presumptive, Tzipi Livni, focus on her James Bond credentials

The idea of a woman PM is still unusual enough to make the progress of Tzipi Livni to the top of Israel political tree fascinating. Israel may have been here before, in the age of Golda Meir (1969-74), but it is long enough ago for this generation of political watchers to have forgotten.

What makes Livni’s rise remarkable to the Western media is the circumstances of her likely arrival in the top job and her exotic background. Livni is portrayed as the Ms Clean potentially coming in to remove the stain from Israel’s politics after the alleged corruption of Ehud Olmert. But what really makes her different is her past as a Mossad officer, something which in Britain’s James Bond-obsessed world sets her apart.

The Sunday Times’s Tel Aviv correspondent Uzi Mahnaimi, a reporter who specialises in intelligence stories, sketched Livni’s espionage career.

“Tzipi was not an office girl,” Mahnaimi quotes a source as saying. “She was a clever woman with an IQ of 150. She blended in well in European capitals, working with male agents, most of them ex-commandos, taking out Arab terrorists.”

Her closest associate on European assignments, Mira Gal, tells him: “The risks were tangible. If I made a real mistake the result would be arrest and catastrophic implications for Israel.”

Underground operations are in the Livni blood. Her father Eitan, Ned Temko noted in the Observer, was chief of operations in Menachem Begin’s anti-British Irgun underground and her mother Sara was an Irgun foot soldier steeped in the enduring loyalties of Begin’s so-called “fighting family”.

This aspect of her background entranced the Israel-sceptic British press during Livni’s first visit to London as foreign minister soon after Kadima’s victory in the polls. Her interlocutors at a Kensington press briefing seemed more interested in events at the King David Hotel in 1946 than in her attitudes on Israel-Palestine.

Mahnaimi’s assertions about Livni’s role as a Mossad agent were considered to be sufficiently different and original to be picked up in the American media, which quoted the Sunday Times on Livni’s derring-do.

In his Observer report, Temko traces Livni’s development from opponent of the Oslo accords to supporter of a two-state solution. The dream she grew up with was of a “Jewish democratic state in the Land of Israel”. But she painfully came to realise that the Jewish state faced mortal risk if Israel continued to rule over millions in the Palestinian territories. Two states were to become for her a national imperative, not only for Israel, but for the Palestinians too.

According to the media profiles, Livni is not an office-bound leader. The Observer report tells of how a visiting diplomat, landing in Tel Aviv, was told to join her at a seaside restaurant on the southern edge of the city where she was already tucking into a plate of hummus. In March 2007, she held secret meetings with Palestinian leaders Yasser Abed Rabbo and former finance minister Salam Fayyad to pursue peace talks.

The main difficulty the UK media has with Livni, however, is her seeming lack of loyalty to her party leader and to the notion of “collective responsibility”, a semblance of which still exists in the cabinet in Britain. In May 2007, after the Winograd report, she called for Olmert’s resignation. She was still at it in May 2008 as reports of brown envelopes made headlines. Yet she remains a leading member of the Kadima-led cabinet.

There will be those who question whether Livni has the inner toughness to lead a nation perpetually at war. But tales of days as a Mossad agent should put pay to any suggestion that Livni is any less of an “iron lady” than Meir.

    Last updated: 4:21pm, June 5 2008