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Livni, lacking baggage, would find friends in Washington

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ISRAEL VOTES 2009

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Tzipi Livni lacks familiarity with the senior figures in the Obama administration — that may be a plus.

Livni’s Kadima Party emerged as the leader in Tuesday’s elections in Israel, a surprise given the lead that Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party, had shown in the polls.

While it remains unclear who will be Israel’s next prime minister — despite Kadima’s victory, the Likud-led right-wing bloc has a majority of seats in Israel’s parliament — it seems apparent who the administration in Washington would prefer to see in the Prime Minister’s Office, even if members of the administration have not said so explicitly.

"The American political establishment would prefer to have Tzipi to Bibi," said Steven Spiegel, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, using Netanyahu’s familiar nickname. "She’s a person who is seen as moderate; she’s seen as the most likely to cooperate with the administration; there’s admiration for her feistiness. She’s not known like Bibi or Ehud Barak, but that means she’ll get the benefit of the doubt."

Livni, 50, enjoyed good relations with the Bush administration, particularly with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. However, eight years ago, the last time Democrats occupied the White House, Livni was a little-known Likud Party Knesset backbencher known for little more than being effective on political talk shows.

But after an election that held the possibility of a return to the tense relations between a Democratic White House and Likud-led Israel, when Netanyahu was prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Livni might be a breath of fresh air.

"It’s clear that the Obama administration would be more comfortable with Tzipi Livni as prime minister of Israel because she at least talks about the issues that are important to the Obama administration, such as restarting the peace process with the Palestinians and reaching an agreement with the Palestinians," said Haim Malka, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "She doesn’t have the same kind of political baggage and history that Bibi has."

Veteran Clinton administration officials who have joined President Obama’s Middle East policy team tend to regard Netanyahu as unreliable. Dennis Ross, Clinton’s top Middle East negotiator who is set to join the Obama administration in an expanded version of that role, once wrote that Netanyahu was "nearly insufferable" in his first meeting with Clinton.

Livni’s reputation is that of a reliable political ally. As foreign minister under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, she hewed to the parameters of the peace talks that Rice had revived, backing Rice’s efforts to engage intensively with the moderate West Bank-based leadership of the Palestinian Authority and pressing in Israel for the opening of the Gaza Strip border crossings.

Netanyahu ran on a pledge to slow down the peace process, just when the Obama administration was determined to speed it up.

Dovish pro-Israel groups were vocal in their relief at the notion that Livni at least had a chance of forming a coalition and leading Israel’s next government.

"These results are encouraging," said Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. "They are much better than what polls have recently shown. The efforts of the next few days and weeks to form a government coalition will hopefully make this night a victory for the path of negotiations and peace over the nationalist, dogmatic agenda of the hawkish right and the extreme right."

Diane Balser, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom’s executive director, echoed Nir.

"We welcome preliminary reports that Tzipi Livni has led her party, Kadima, to electoral victory, as we do the clear implication of these results that the Israeli electorate remains committed to a negotiated, two-state resolution to the conflict," she said.

Mainstream Jewish groups were more circumspect, preferring to wait out the grueling negotiations over who would lead the new government.

Only the Anti-Defamation League weighed in.

"We congratulate Tzipi Livni and the Kadima Party on their victory," the ADL said in a statement. "We wish Ms. Livni well as she works to form a unity government that is reflective of Israel’s diverse society, committed to ensure its democratic system and can heal fissures within Israeli society, just as it will responsibly confront Israel’s numerous domestic and international challenges."

Livni speaks bluntly and enjoys engaging her political enemies. At a Jan. 16 appearance at the National Press Club here toward the end of Israel’s operation in Gaza, when a left-wing journalist called her a terrorist, she would not let the moderator wave off the questioner. Instead, she answered him.

"Israel has shown restraint for years, for eight years. Eight years in which our citizens, children, were under threat and attacks," she said. "We tried to avoid this operation. We showed restraint. We entered this truce, but nothing happened. But there is a huge difference and I would like the international community to make this distinction: According to any international law and the values of the international community, there’s a difference between somebody who kills deliberately, a murderer, and between somebody who kills by mistake."

Livni is not always so politic, and she does not forgive easily. Her relationship with Rice soured in the last days of the Bush administration after Rice abstained from a U.N. Security Council vote calling for a cease-fire that Israel believed was premature. Israel had expected her to use the U.S. prerogative to veto the call.

Livni reportedly tore into Rice, accusing her of "betraying" Israel. At a meeting in Washington several days later, Livni thanked Rice for her "leadership, support and friendship," but could not bring herself to look Rice in the eye.

Disarming in person, Livni candidly asks journalists how she performed in news conferences. She sometimes answers a question by arguing multiple points of view before settling on one.

Like the leader she hopes to replace, Olmert, Livni is the scion of a Greater Land of Israel family who in her middle years came to the conclusion that Israel has no choice but to relinquish land for peace. Her parents both were in the Irgun, the underground prestate militia; her biography lends heft to her dedication to compromise.

If she is not well known in the White House, she has cultivated friends among the Democratic leadership in Congress and is considered close to U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House of Representatives speaker.

Along with being blunt, Livni can also be eloquent. She brought mourners to tears in the halls of Congress a year ago when she delivered a eulogy at a memorial ceremony for U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the only Holocaust survivor who ever served in Congress and who had just succumbed to cancer.

Livni recalled Lantos’ last visit to Israel, where they toured military installations along the northern border and heard pleas from military commanders to keep Israel safe. Afterward they saw a film about the American failure to bomb Auschwitz.

"Those same skies that did not hear the roar of the fighters’ planes in time were hearing them now," she said. "And in my eyes, the Star of David that was just formed from a yellow Star of David on the torn clothing of a victim into a shining blue Star of David emblazoned on an American Air Force jet and flown by an Israeli fighter pilot, that shining star is Tom Lantos."

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