Ladies in Waiting

By Elliot Jager
Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The winter session of the Knesset began this week and, in what is surely a sign of the times, two of its most closely watched stories involve female political leaders.  One is a rising star; the other is struggling to stay alive.

As for the struggling politician, being Tzipi Livni, chair of the Kadima Party and leader of the opposition, can't be easy.  She knows that if elections were held now, instead of on their technically scheduled date in 2013, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party would once again emerge in a position to lead a right-of-center coalition with a comfortable majority.  This is quite a comedown for a woman whose party garnered one more seat than Netanyahu's in the 2009 elections and who fully anticipated that, with a little help from the Obama administration, the Netanyahu government would collapse by 2010. 

Kadima's founder, Ariel Sharon, intended it to be pragmatic.  But Livni has maneuvered it to the left—ineptly.  For example, she failed to capitalize on the summer's economic protest movement.  Visiting a Tel Aviv tent encampment, she told protesters (not incorrectly) that their real goal should be more rational budget priorities.  She claimed that she would allocate national spending more equitably than Netanyahu and be less beholden to special interests; but without electoral system reform, which would require collaboration among the major parties, no government has much chance of passing a budget not weighed down by pork-barrel politics.  Livni squandered an opportunity for such reform when she refused to partner with Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman.

Livni's foreign policy does not stop at the water's edge: On a recent visit to London, she told her audience that Netanyahu's government bore chief responsibility for Mahmoud Abbas's absence from the negotiating table.  She billed this visit as the first test of Britain's amended universal jurisdiction law—enacted to protect diplomats from the lawfare being waged by members of the pro-Arab lobby, in collaboration with anti-Zionist Jews, who threaten to arrest visiting Israeli officials on contrived "war crimes" charges.  But her effort fizzled when it was revealed that the "test" never took place, because the Foreign Office had simply granted her special diplomatic immunity.

The legendary Livni indecisiveness—as Foreign Minister, she repeatedly hesitated to call for Ehud Olmert's resignation, though he was paralyzed by scandal and discredited by his handling of the Second Lebanon War—was again on display two weeks ago.  With Gilad Shalit home and a fresh spike in Palestinian violence already evident, she revealed to Yediot Aharonot that she had opposed the deal.  So, why had she kept silent for two weeks after the Cabinet voted to move forward?  Because, she explained lamely, she didn't want to "turn this matter into a political issue."  Now she advises Netanyahu to release 550 Fatah terrorists to bolster Abbas's popularity on the Palestinian street.

Sharon's bulldozer personality could square Kadima's intrinsic ideological contradictions and squash vicious personality conflicts; Olmert held the party together with Machiavellian maneuvering.  Livni just does not have the right stuff.

Indeed, she'll be lucky if she can hold on to the Kadima leadership.  Her most immediate threat comes from Shaul Mofaz, Kadima's number two, who will try to oust her in party primaries that will take place by early 2012.  But Mofaz's lack of popularity and his penchant for doublespeak (the Shalit deal "sets a dangerous precedent" and he supports it) suggest that he will not be able to salvage Kadima's fortunes.

Meanwhile, polls show that Kadima has lost a third of its support to the Labor Party—and one reason is the woman whose fortunes are rising as Livni's are waning, newly elected Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich.  The ascendant Yachimovich began her career as an advocacy journalist, focusing on social welfare issues.  She formally entered the political area in 2005 at the behest of Amir Peretz, then her mentor, now her adversary.  In May, 2011, when the abrasive Ehud Barak quit Labor to establish the breakaway (now moribund) Atzmaut Party, she got her chance at the leadership and took it.  Polls show that Yachimovich could easily catapult "new" Labor from its current 13 seats to 26, supplanting Kadima as the official opposition party.

As a writer and politician, Yachimovich has campaigned against privatization and neoliberal economics, not on conventional Marxist grounds but by calling them a betrayal of "Zionist ideals" and a form of "post-Zionism."  Under her leadership, Labor will emphasize domestic issues and seek to harness the diffuse energies unleashed by the summer's massive economic protest.  She knows she'll need a long period in opposition to rehabilitate Labor and develop her own leadership capabilities.  

Yachimovich, who openly supported the Shalit deal and took Livni to task for sitting out the debate, is dovish on security issues.  But, unlike Livni, she has not obsessively berated the government for its handling of the Palestinian front.  If anything, Yachimovich takes flack from the hard-core Left for being uncomfortable with liberal universalism.  She scandalized the hard-liners by refusing to demonize the settlement enterprise.  "I certainly do not see the settlement project as a sin and a crime," she told Haaretz.  "In its time it was a completely consensual move.  And it was the Labor Party that founded the settlement enterprise in the territories.  That is a fact.  A historical fact."  Nor has Yachimovich engaged in gratuitous Haredi-bashing.  In fact, she is easily the Right's favorite woman on the Left.  

Livni, after moving Kadima to the left, has discovered that in any "left-left" contest, the more authentic Yachimovich comes out ahead—except for those left-wingers who value principle more highly than influence and who will likely be drawn to Zehava Gal-On, effectively the new leader of the Meretz Party.

Of course, Netanyahu could yet falter politically—if, for instance, the Shalit deal, still to be concluded, realizes its critics' worst nightmares.  Nevertheless, any real challenge to his leadership will probably come from security hawks like Lieberman or Likud's Moshe Ya'alon, not from any of the ladies—or gentlemen—on the Left.


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