Livni, the ‘spy’ who seduced the press

By Alex Brummer, September 26, 2008

The new Kadima leader has received plenty of positive coverage, thanks to her gender and Mossad past

Amid headlines dominated by the meltdown of global banking, few other international stories have caught the imagination of Britain's notoriously fickle press in recent days. Among the small band of exceptions was the story of the narrow victory of Tzipi Livni in the Kadima leadership election, which is likely to result in her becoming Israel's second female prime minister.

Livni is fascinating the British press for several reasons. Most importantly, Livni sits on the dovish wing of Kadima - where most UK titles want Israel to be. She is a woman and this invites comparisons with other female politicians, including her Israeli predecessors Golda Meir, and the Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. And she worked for the Mossad, if only briefly. Spies and the perceived success rate of the Mossad, compared to other intelligence services, still fascinates in the home of James Bond.

Among the more surprising responses to Livni's selection was a relatively friendly leader in The Independent. It noted firstly that it is not wise to raise expectations too high. But it goes on to observe that "Tzipi Livni was the best on offer in the bunch contesting the leadership... and probably the best hope for peace among the Israeli politicians who will jockey for power in the country's next general election."

Livni, The Independent noted, "wants to break with the wheeler-dealing tradition of Israeli politics and restore public trust in the political process". The friendly tone of The Independent's welcome is the first indication that under the feisty editorship of Roger Alton - the former Observer editor who moved to the Indy after a series of policy differences with the Observer/Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger - the tone of the paper's Middle East coverage might change.

At The Observer, Alton was a maverick and his take on events was never predictable. In contrast to the Guardian, his paper was a supporter of the war against Iraq and on the Observer's pages he found room for alternative voices on the Islamic threat, such as columnist Nick Cohen. There will still be room in The Independent for traditionally critical voices on Israel like Robert Fisk, because Alton admires opinionated reportage, but the leader columns may become less hostile.

A Times leader on the prospects for peace following Livni's election to Kadima was considerably more guarded. It drew attention to the concessions she would have to make to "the ultra-Orthodox Shas party over the parameters of a possible peace deal with the Palestinians". It also questioned her ability "to manage a crisis with Iran, negotiations with Syria and the possibility of a third intifada".

But it was not the peace process but gender and the Mossad which ensured that Livni received headlines and large pictures in most of the press. Above a picture of the photogenic Kadima leader, she was hailed as the "New Golda Meir" in the Times news headline. This despite the fact that Livni is quoted by The Telegraph as saying she "certainly did not admire Meir".

Elsewhere the papers sought to uncover more about the details of her Mossad career. Previous suggestions - when her name first hit the British press - that she may have had a frontline role in eliminating Israel's enemies overseas are now being air-brushed. Instead, we are told she was the keeper of a safe house in Paris, from where Mossad agents operated.

What all the UK papers are agreed on is Livni comes to the post of party leader and likely prime minister with clean hands. After the corruption allegations against her two immediate predecessors this can only be a fresh start for the year 5769.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail



Last updated: 12:56pm, September 25 2008