/ 20 September 2008

From Mossad agent to PM

It was only a decade ago that Tzipi Livni decided to become a politician.

She had served as a young agent in Israel’s foreign secret service, Mossad, and then gave up an agency career to become a commercial lawyer until one autumn holiday, not long after the signing of the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, she decided to step into politics.

Now she is just weeks away from becoming Israel’s next prime minister, after winning a striking victory in her Kadima party’s leadership election this week.

Livni, who is 50 and married with two sons, has been long tipped as a future leader and in recent months emerged as more dovish than many in her party. On the Palestinian front she advocates a two-state, negotiated settlement, though she adamantly resists any prospect of a return for Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel. On Iran and its nuclear ambitions she favours a tightening of sanctions, but seems less eager than other leading politicians for an outright military confrontation.

Yet her background is more firmly embedded in Israel’s right wing. She was born into a ”fighting family” and one that is much respected in Israel. Her father, Eitan Livni, was a senior figure in the Irgun, the underground militant Zionist movement that fought the British before the creation of the state. When she turned to politics she turned naturally to the Likud, the leading rightist party.

But three years ago she followed the then prime minister and Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, when he left the party, created his own movement, Kadima, or Forward. He argued that the dream of a Greater Israel from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan was unachievable and that the land should be shared with a Palestinian state. The creation of that Palestinian state is still a distant prospect, but many argue that Livni is committed to a two-state solution to the seemingly intractable Middle East conflict.

Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Livni was more dovish than her challengers for the party leadership. ”Ideologically everybody is now in the centre, people realise the risk and want to have peace and pay the price, but the difference is in the nuances,” he said. ”But she is emotionally involved, not just ideologically, she is very interested and she is a believer.”

Livni has been Israel’s lead negotiator in the current talks with the Palestinians, which began in Annapolis, in the United States, in November last year. With Livni as prime minister those talks could be expected to continue, perhaps even with a successful result. ”With her there is a chance of a conclusion, of having a piece of paper. What happens after that is difficult. But she is very highly motivated,” Diskin said.

However, the prospect of a peace agreement will depend just as heavily on the outcome of the US presidential elections. Even following a year of talks there are precious few signs of progress on the ground on the core issues and much evidence that the situation is slowly worsening.

Livni herself made it clear just last month that she would not be rushed into a deal. ”I think that any attempt to bridge gaps that maybe it’s premature to bridge, or to reach something that is not the comprehensive agreement that we want to reach can lead to doing it wrong just because of the pressure,” she said.

But before there can be negotiations, Livni must form a coalition government. She will meet with Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, this week and he will give her 42 days to bring onside enough allied parties to form a majority in the Knesset, or Parliament. Kadima has 29 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and will need Labour’s 19 seats as well as those of other, smaller parties, whose support will be more difficult to secure. There is likely to be a long period of back-room negotiating that will test Livni’s skill before a deal is done and which may demand compromises that later limit her ability to strike a deal with the Palestinians.

She will also be operating in an intensely male environment, where military experience is often as highly regarded as political acumen. She has already had to fight off suggestions she might be too weak for the job. ”The fact that I’m a woman doesn’t make me a weak leader,” she told the Jerusalem Post last week. ”It’s not that generals pull the trigger and women don’t. I have no problem pulling the trigger when necessary.”

One of her greatest challenges will be to restore some integrity to the tainted Israeli political system. She has a rare, corruption-free, ”Mrs Clean” reputation, but will have an uphill battle to restore the public’s faith in her colleagues. After all, her rise to the most powerful job in Israel only comes because of the fall of the current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who has faced five separate corruption investigations in the past two years. —