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Israel's Tzipi Livni in the fight of her political life

Tzipi Livni, Israel's enigmatic leader of the opposition, is in the battle of her political life. Her Kadima Party votes on Tuesday to confirm or reject her leadership and Ms. Livni, 54, spent much of the weekend campaigning in the Galilee, among Arab Israeli party members, hoping to eke out a victory.

Trailing in the polls behind her chief rival, former military chief of staff and ex-Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, Ms. Livni was thrown a lifeline last week when a survey of party members showed her ahead of Mr. Mofaz in voting preference – at 46 per cent to his 36 per cent – for the first time in weeks.

No sooner was that news made public, however, when forces again combined against her as the second challenger to her leadership, Avi Dichter, former head of the Shin Bet military intelligence unit, announced he was throwing his support behind Mr. Mofaz. If all those who intended to vote for Mr. Dichter now follow his lead, it would almost certainly give Mr. Mofaz enough support to win a majority in the one and only round of voting.

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"Shaul and I have much in common to unite us, while Tzipi Livni has already proven that she has failed," said Mr. Dichter announcing his decision to unite the two military heavyweights against Ms. Livni, a former Israeli foreign minister, and herself a one-time Mossad agent.

What many Kadima supporters fear is that if Ms. Livni loses, Mr. Mofaz may try to merge the party with Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, the bloc many think is Mr. Mofaz's preferred home.



Indeed, another recent survey showed the party faithful believe it would win more Knesset seats under Mr. Mofaz than they would under Ms. Livni, though still fewer than the 28 seats Kadima now holds.



For this state of affairs, people blame Ms. Livni. A survey of the Israeli public earlier this month showed that Ms. Livni ranked last out of 16 political leaders people were asked to grade.



Yet, this is the same Tzipi Livni whose party garnered more votes than that of Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2009 election and took one more seat in the Knesset. It is the same person whose reputation for integrity secured her widespread support even when others in the Ehud Olmert era were being forced to resign for alleged criminal behaviour or incompetence in waging war.



What happened? Nothing, and that was the problem.



Her problems began when she was unable to form a coalition government in 2009 even with the long suit her party was dealt. An activist for women's rights and gay rights, Ms. Livni was uncomfortable making a deal with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party that opposed such ideas. A long-time supporter of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she had trouble too dealing with the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman. She was actually willing to share power with Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud Party, provided each leader was guaranteed a turn as prime minister, a scheme the Likud leader rejected.

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In the end, Mr. Netanyahu put together a coalition of right wing and religious parties and got to form the government. Then, in opposition, Ms. Livni lost her way.



Member of Knesset Yohanan Plesner, a bright up-and-comer who had supported Ms. Livni's initial leadership bid, told her in January he was supporting Mr. Mofaz this time. He said he admired her, but was impressed by Mr. Mofaz's ability "to lead, to gather a group of quality people, to lead staff work and to make decisions" – all qualities Ms. Livni was seen as lacking.



Other critics said she dithered when it came to making decisions. Some said she was too cold a fish, others too hot and emotional. For her integrity, she was labeled Mrs. Clean and, in Israeli politics, that was intended as an insult.



Appearing recently on State of the Union, Israel television's satirical equivalent to CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Ms. Livni tackled the issue head on. As a woman in Israeli politics, she said, "people either see you as a cold and alienated bitch, or else you're soft, gentle and weak, and unable to take decisions on security issues."



When it comes to being both gentle and strong, she said, women can do it all. "We can be both," she insisted to great applause.



Ms. Livni scored well on the TV appearance, something her challengers could not have pulled off, but it was typical that one of her better moments was away from the normal political realm.

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In a disarmingly candid interview recently with Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest circulation daily, Ms. Livni admitted she just isn't comfortable in her political skin and yearns for the day when she can shed it. Politics, she said, is "repulsive," but she feels her mission is "being elected" and "achieving peace and security."



Family background has a lot to with driving her to these ends. Born to a pair of former fighters in the pre-state Irgun movement led by Menachem Begin, Ms. Livni cut her teeth in the world of Israel's political outcasts, shunned by the leftist Ashkenazi leaders who wielded most of the power and influence. She was a teenager when Mr. Begin formed the Likud alliance in 1973 and a young officer in the Israel Defence Forces when Likud won the 1977 election – the outcasts were suddenly in.



Ms. Livni entered law school but was soon hired by Mossad. She worked there for five years, serving in a unit called Operation Wrath of God, the mission of which was to avenge the killing by Palestinian terrorists of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.



After spending 10 years practising law, she was elected to the Knesset on the Likud list in 1999 – the election Ehud Barak's Labour Party won – then elected again when Ariel Sharon led Likud to victory in 2001.



Ms. Livni held several cabinet portfolios, including that of justice minister, and was a strong supporter of withdrawing Israeli forces and settlements from the Gaza Strip. In the wake of that decision, when Mr. Sharon decided to leave Likud and form a new party, Kadima, his justice minister was among the first to join him.



When Mr. Olmert became acting prime minister after Mr. Sharon lapsed into a coma, Ms. Livni became foreign minister and part of the trio that included Mr. Barak, and ran the country's security, including its war on Hamas in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. Then, when Mr. Olmert was forced to resign to face charges of fraud and taking a bribe, Ms. Livni ran and won the race to succeed him, narrowly defeating the same Shaul Mofaz now mounting another serious challenge.





What many Kadima supporters fear is that if Ms. Livni loses, Mr. Mofaz may try to merge the party with Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, the bloc many think is Mr. Mofaz's preferred home.

Indeed, another recent survey showed the party faithful believe it would win more Knesset seats under Mr. Mofaz than they would under Ms. Livni , though still fewer than the 28 seats Kadima now holds.

For this state of affairs, people blame Ms. Livni. A survey of the Israeli public earlier this month showed that Ms. Livni ranked last out of 16 political leaders people were asked to grade.

Yet, this is the same Tzipi Livni whose party garnered more votes than that of Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2009 election and took one more seat in the Knesset. It is the same person whose reputation for integrity secured her widespread support even when others in the Ehud Olmert era were being forced to resign for alleged criminal behaviour or incompetence in waging war.

What happened? Nothing, and that was the problem.

Her problems began when she was unable to form a coalition government in 2009 even with the long suit her party was dealt. An activist for women's rights and gay rights, Ms. Livni was uncomfortable making a deal with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party that opposed such ideas. A long-time supporter of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she had trouble too dealing with the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party of Avigdor Lieberman. She was actually willing to share power with Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud Party, provided each leader was guaranteed a turn as prime minister, a scheme the Likud leader rejected.

In the end, Mr. Netanyahu put together a coalition of right wing and religious parties and got to form the government. Then, in opposition, Ms. Livni lost her way.

Member of Knesset Yohanan Plesner, a bright up-and-comer who had supported Ms. Livni's initial leadership bid, told her in January he was supporting Mr. Mofaz this time. He said he admired her, but was impressed by Mr. Mofaz's ability "to lead, to gather a group of quality people, to lead staff work and to make decisions" – all qualities Ms. Livni was seen as lacking.

Other critics said she dithered when it came to making decisions. Some said she was too cold a fish, others too hot and emotional. For her integrity, she was labeled Mrs. Clean and, in Israeli politics, that was intended as an insult.

Appearing recently on State of the Union, Israel television's satirical equivalent to CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Ms. Livni tackled the issue head on. As a woman in Israeli politics, she said, "people either see you as a cold and alienated bitch, or else you're soft, gentle and weak, and unable to take decisions on security issues."

When it comes to being both gentle and strong, she said, women can do it all. "We can be both," she insisted to great applause.

Ms. Livni scored well on the TV appearance, something her challengers could not have pulled off, but it was typical that one of her better moments was away from the normal political realm.

In a disarmingly candid interview recently with Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest circulation daily, Ms. Livni admitted she just isn't comfortable in her political skin and yearns for the day when she can shed it. Politics, she said, is "repulsive," but she feels her mission is "being elected" and "achieving peace and security."

Family background has a lot to with driving her to these ends. Born to a pair of former fighters in the pre-state Irgun movement led by Menachem Begin, Ms. Livni cut her teeth in the world of Israel's political outcasts, shunned by the leftist Ashkenazi leaders who wielded most of the power and influence. She was a teenager when Mr. Begin formed the Likud alliance in 1973 and a young officer in the Israel Defence Forces when Likud won the 1977 election – the outcasts were suddenly in.

Ms. Livni entered law school but was soon hired by Mossad. She worked there for five years, serving in a unit called Operation Wrath of God, the mission of which was to avenge the killing by Palestinian terrorists of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

After spending 10 years practising law, she was elected to the Knesset on the Likud list in 1999 – the election Ehud Barak's Labour Party won – then elected again when Ariel Sharon led Likud to victory in 2001.

Ms. Livni held several cabinet portfolios, including that of justice minister, and was a strong supporter of withdrawing Israeli forces and settlements from the Gaza Strip. In the wake of that decision, when Mr. Sharon decided to leave Likud and form a new party, Kadima, his justice minister was among the first to join him.

When Mr. Olmert became acting prime minister after Mr. Sharon lapsed into a coma, Ms. Livni became foreign minister and part of the trio that included Mr. Barak, and ran the country's security, including its war on Hamas in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. Then, when Mr. Olmert was forced to resign to face charges of fraud and taking a bribe, Ms. Livni ran and won the race to succeed him, narrowly defeating the same Shaul Mofaz now mounting another serious challenge.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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