Livni: Clean, but is she wet behind ears?
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Livni: Clean, but is she wet behind ears?

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is among the top two candidates to win the Kadima party primary Sept. 17. (Brian Hendler)

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is among the top two candidates to win the Kadima party primary Sept. 17. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni smoothes her tailored black jacket, tosses back her head and takes in the King David Hotel hall packed cheek to jowl with foreign journalists.

Every chair is taken, photographers line the walls and the lights of dozens of TV cameras bathe the room in a yellow glow

The woman who would be prime minister can draw quite a crowd.

Polls show that Livni, 50, is the leading contender to win Kadima Party primaries Sept. 17 to succeed Ehud Olmert.

Like her main party rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Livni has been on Israel’s national stage for about a decade. Since her election to the Knesset on the Likud list in 1999, Livni, under the tutelage of mentor Ariel Sharon, enjoyed what often is referred to here as a "meteoric" rise.

With her reputation for straight talk, intelligence and political moderation, Livni has managed to capture something of the popular imagination in an Israel weary of corruption and grandstanding among its politicians.

But Mrs. Clean, as she is sometimes called, lacks the military credentials of her main rivals – among them Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, should Kadima’s new leader fail to assemble a coalition government and general elections soon follow.

Livni’s rivals have pointed to her relative dearth of leadership experience to cast her as insufficiently prepared for the job of prime minister. Barak even borrowed from a theme in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad, asking who Israelis would want to answer the phone at 3 a.m.

The foreign minister has been firing back.

"Security is not only a question of whether or not there is specific kind of military operation," Livni said last month at the King David Hotel news conference. "The prime minister needs to put on the table what is the goal of Israel as a state and means to achieve this goal, and whether the means are through military force or diplomatic options."

Livni, a former lawyer who started her professional career as a Mossad agent, also spoke of her experience in Israel’s three-person security Cabinet with Barak and Olmert.

Her tenure in that group has not been free of criticism, however. Early on during the 2006 Lebanon war, Livni lobbied for a diplomatic solution and openly criticized Olmert’s management of the crisis.

While her criticism reflected widespread public sentiment especially after the war, Livni was skewered in the media for staying in the government despite calling on the prime minister to resign in May 2007. The call followed a state inquiry investigating the war that found fault with Olmert’s management of the conflict.

Some commentators said she wasn’t "man" enough to resign.

One of them, Israeli commentator Ben Caspit, wrote in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv that Livni was better suited to be the leader of a women’s organization like Na’amat, the women’s arm of the Labor Party, than the country.

"Tzipi Livni removed the last doubts as to her compatibility for the post of Na’amat secretary general. Or at the most, president of the Women’s International Zionist Organization. She could have established herself yesterday. Instead, she sold out. Big time," Caspit wrote in May 2007.

But among those who have worked alongside Livni in the various political offices she has held – she has served as the minister of regional cooperation, of immigrant absorption, of justice and of housing and infrastructure – there is abiding respect for her capabilities and intellect.

"Being steady is about knowing how to make difficult decisions not just on impulse and emotion," said Mirla Gal, who grew up with Livni in Tel Aviv and worked alongside her at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption as director general.

“She is not all about politics and games," said Ari Shavit, a columnist for Ha’aretz.

Perhaps one of Livni’s best-known admirers is the U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, with whom Livni has forged a close relationship. Rice even wrote a tribute to Livni for Time magazine’s list of the world’s top 100 influential personalities.

But Livni is also criticized by some of those who have worked most closely with her as cold and aloof.

One former Livni staffer who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity described Livni as  a lonely figure who lacked a human touch in her relations with others. This made teamwork difficult with Livni, he said. Often, she prefers to confer more with her husband, an advertising executive, than with her own staff, he said.

Eran Cohen, who worked under Livni from 1999 until 2005, first as an assistant and eventually as a political adviser, said Livni is a demanding but fair manager. 

"She is very focused as a boss," he said. "She has expectations of her staff to have high standards."

Gal said Livni’s warmth, or lack thereof, is unimportant.

"As an Israeli citizen, when I consider who I want to be as my prime minister, there are more important things to me than who is going to be the one out there hugging everyone," she said. "I want someone who is focused and dedicated like her, who knows how to go into a room with a goal and make decisions."

Shai Ben-Mor, who worked as Livni’s communications director, said Livni often "fled from the headlines" where other politicians would seek coverage.

As an example, he cites the time that Livni visited Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip shortly before Israel evacuated from the territory in the summer of 2005. She wanted to meet the local residents and explain to them that she felt their pain but was standing behind the government policy to evacuate Gaza, Ben-Mor said.

"She had the courage to go there to a place where she is deeply unpopular, and to look at the eyes and not to hide in her bureau in Jerusalem," Ben-Mor said.

Her support for the Gaza withdrawal reflected how much Livni, who was raised by fiercely ideological parents, represented a shift from her political beginnings.

Her father, Eitan, was a commander of the prestate Irgun militia and later a Likud Knesset member. Her mother, Sara, also was a well-known Irgun fighter who inspired one of the militia’s fight songs, "Up to the Barricades."

Livni herself once opposed any notion of trading land for peace. But not unlike other prominent sons and daughters of the founding Likud elite, including Olmert, Livni changed her position to support the idea of territorial compromise.

As foreign minister, Livni has led Israel’s talks with the Palestinians, which have been conducted largely out of public view.

Whether or not those talks achieve diplomatic fruit will depend in large part on how Livni fares in Kadima’s primary, and whether the winner of that vote can assemble a coalition government and stave off new general elections.