Profile: Tzipi Livni

Will this leading light come out of the shadows?


February 17, 2011

There is a widespread expectation in Israel that elections could be held as soon as this autumn - and certainly by next spring. The governing coalition is increasingly unpopular over its handling of domestic issues. But the question asked by politicos is whether opposition leader Tzipi Livni will be able to take advantage. In recent weeks she appears to have developed a new purpose and passion. Can it take her to the head of a new coalition?

Profiles tend to emphasise her four years in Mossad. But most of her time was spent on training and in a research position. Her operational training was cut short after she decided to dedicate herself to family life, preferring a calmer career as a Tel Aviv lawyer.

Does this reflect a lack of a killer instinct? The Kadima leader's political record seems to supply ample evidence.

Ms Livni had at least three chances in recent years to grasp the top job and each time she failed. Her first chance came after the publication of the Winograd Report on the second Lebanon war, which excoriated the conduct of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

She told him privately and publicly that he should resign, but instead of leading an insurrection she meekly carried on serving under him.

If she had been more savvy, she would be Prime Minister Livni today

A year later, it was Ehud Barak who forced Olmert to resign over allegations of corruption and Ms Livni became, almost by default, the new party leader.

But once again she missed her chance when she failed to cobble together a deal with the coalition parties.

Her third miss was after the elections when, despite emerging as the leader of the largest party in the Knesset, after running a surprisingly effective campaign, she was still beaten to the prime minister's office by Benjamin Netanyahu, who was more adept at making the necessary promises and deals.

On the other hand, her political rise has been meteoric.

Tzipi Livni first entered the Knesset in 1999, at the age of 41, as a Likud MK. Two years later she was appointed to her first ministerial post by Ariel Sharon, whom she followed in 2005 when he left Likud and founded Kadima over the withdrawal from Gaza.

That was her ticket to the front line of leadership. In the five preceding years, she had filled a series of cabinet posts, in none of which she had left her mark.

But as Foreign Minister under Sharon, and then under Olmert, she swiftly became a star on the international stage, seen by many around the world as a prime minister in waiting.

She conducted complex negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without any of the details leaking, until last month's Al-Jazeera/Guardian publication. If she had shown similar savvyness in her internal political dealings, we would be calling her today Prime Minister Livni.

Before she can look forward to the next electoral duel with Mr Netanyahu, she has first to overcome the internal challenge from Kadima's number two, former IDF Chief of Staff, General Shaul Mofaz, who does not recognise her leadership.

For Ms Livni finally to become prime minister, both she and the Israeli public have to undergo a transformation.

    Last updated: 1:50pm, February 17 2011