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Livni struggling to assert leadership credentials

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Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the Kadima Party leader, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Jan. 29, 2009. (Brian Hendler)

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the Kadima Party leader, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Jan. 29, 2009. (Brian Hendler)

ISRAEL VOTES 2009: CANDIDATE PROFILE

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Four months ago, Tzipi Livni was on top of the world.

Ehud Olmert had resigned as prime minister, Livni had won the Kadima primary election to replace him and coalition negotiations with the party’s existing coalition partners were expected to be a mere formality.

But the newly installed Kadima leader hadn’t reckoned on the close ties between opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party. When the chips were down, Shas refused to join her coalition and Livni was forced to go for an early general election.   

Since then, she has suffered one setback after another.

First, after her failure to form a coalition, Olmert refused to step down as acting prime minister of the caretaker government and hand over the reins to Livni. Had he made way for her, Livni would have been able to run in the Feb. 10 election from a position of incumbency, giving her a chance to establish herself in the public eye as a bona fide leader.

Her biggest weakness as a candidate is her relative lack of experience at the top, especially given that her two main rivals for prime minister — Netanyahu and Labor leader Ehud Barak — are former prime ministers themselves.

Next, Livni was hurt by the deepening global economic crisis. Netanyahu, who had a successful stint as finance minister from 2003 to 2005, is seen as someone with strong economic credentials. The crisis helped his campaign and hurt Livni’s.

The 22-day war with Hamas in Gaza helped another of Livni’s main rivals, Barak, who as defense minister was seen as the war’s architect. He won plaudits both for rebuilding the Israel Defense Forces after its poor performance against Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and for the successful prosecution of the Gaza campaign.

Although Livni was a member of the top wartime decision-making troika — Olmert, Livni and Barak — she was not seen as a wartime leader. Had she been prime minister, things might have looked very different.

Livni started her campaign as Mrs. Clean, when government corruption was high on the national agenda, after the Olmert scandal and other scandals affecting leading politicians. She promised a different kind of politics, without corruption or coalition wheeling and dealing, and with a new, more functional system of government.

But the changing national agenda has made all this virtually irrelevant in the upcoming election.

Livni was hurt, too, by Kadima’s uninspiring list of candidates for the Knesset. There were no exciting new faces in the top 10, and two of Kadima’s more zealous and heavyweight Knesset members — Professor Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, who had helped Livni position herself to take over from Olmert, and Professor Menachem Ben Sasson, who was working on a constitution for Israel — were forced so far down the list that both quit politics altogether.

Livni’s troubles made it easy for the Likud to target her as lacking the experience and gravitas necessary to be prime minister.

"Tzipi Livni? It’s too big for her," the Likud’s negative campaign slogan says.

Not surprisingly given the circumstances, Livni’s campaign is based on three main elements: establishing her credentials as a national leader; attacking Netanyahu as a prime minister who has failed once and will fail again for the same reasons; and presenting her policies as the best prescription for Israel’s long-term survival.

On the campaign trail, Livni, who normally insists on keeping her public persona and private life separate, has opened up a bit, talking about the home in which she grew up. Both her parents were members of the underground Irgun, which fought British forces in Palestine in the prestate era. From them, Livni says, she learned integrity and to fight for the values in which she believes.

Focusing on her right-wing revisionist background is intended to appeal to right-wing voters and to create the image of a tough, committed leader ready to make peace but unwilling to compromise one iota in the fight against terrorism.

With Netanyahu well ahead in the polls, Kadima is running a strongly negative campaign to discredit him. The main thrust is to depict his first term as prime minister as an unmitigated failure, especially because of his reluctance to move the peace process forward and the resultant clash with the Clinton administration.

Dennis Ross, Clinton’s special Middle East envoy, has described Netanyahu as "overcome with hubris" and "nearly insufferable."

The strongest anti-Netanyahu card Kadima has played so far has been to conjure up the specter of an even worse clash between a Netanyahu-led government and the Obama administration on precisely the same issues of personality and policy.  

Livni’s own policy pitch is to depict the two-state solution to the Israel-Paletinian conflict as a core Israeli interest and not a favor to the Palestinians. She argues that two states would secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, enhance its international standing and solve the refugee problem because Palestinian refugees would return to the Palestinian nation-state, not to Israel.

Moreover, once there are two states and Israel is no longer an occupying power, it will have international legitimacy to retaliate with overwhelming force — the way it did in Gaza — if it is attacked from Palestine.

Livni believes in creating wide international coalitions for peace and for confronting Israel’s enemies, including Iran.

She was the driving force behind U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which brought the 2006 Lebanon war to a close with an international force monitoring Hezbollah movements in southern Lebanon. (The failure to implement that resolution, however, has been a sore point for Israel, which has seen Hezbollah rearm and refortify over the last two years.)

In recent weeks, Livni has been trying to promote international cooperation against arms smuggling into Gaza. Livni believes that toppling Hamas should be a strategic goal of Israel’s, but recognizes that trying to achieve the aim could entail reoccupying Gaza, which is why she says the government decided against it this time around.

But, Livni says, the war showed that if Hamas violates conditions of any new cease-fire, Israel will be able to hit back again and again, precisely because it no longer occupies Gaza.

On the global economic crisis and the recession it has caused in Israel, Livni rejects Netanyahu’s formula of tax cuts to stimulate economic activity. Instead she advocates more government spending to create jobs, and a new joint economic plan to be hammered out by government, trade unions and industry.

Although Livni may be the freshest new voice in Israeli politics, the chances of her winning the premiership at this point do not look good. It will take a huge turnaround in a very short time and, with the campaign heading into its final lap, Livni seems to be losing rather than gaining ground.

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