Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tzipi Livni & Bibi Netanyahu ...the saga continues

The loyal opposition


For the first three decades of the state, Menachem Begin was Israel's sole leader of the Knesset opposition. Since 2000, however, Israel has had nine opposition heads. Today's politics may be more volatile, but it's less ideologically coherent. Political campaigns increasingly center on the leader's personality and character.

It is amid this ambiance that the four-year-old Kadima Party has been either governing, under Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, or leading the opposition, under Tzipi Livni.

Just months into this role, Livni has formed a "shadow team," not quite akin to the British concept of the "shadow cabinet" - yet complete with shadow ministers and area experts to basically parallel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's cabinet.

Since Kadima is a relatively new party, the idea is intended to help it develop positions on a range of issues. With any luck, novice "shadows" will become sufficiently proficient in their areas of responsibility to produce informed critiques. From a morale point of view, the idea is to diminish opposition MKs' feeling that they are wasting away in the political wilderness.

The scheme, for example, calls for Shaul Mofaz to shadow Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Ronnie Bar-On shadows Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. Meir Sheetrit shadows Interior Minister Eli Yishai. Avi Dichter shadows Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch… and so on down the line.

Area experts include Otniel Schneller on how to bridge Judaism and democracy. Yohanan Plessner will examine the Tal Law and national service. The party has also designated liaisons for Gush Katif evacuees, Diaspora affairs, Negev and Galilee development and Beduin concerns.

It's an altogether splendid idea that could generate a level of reasoned criticism and hone policy expertise. So we'd like to believe it's more than a gimmick developed by Livni's political consultants. The credibility of the plan, a revolutionary rethinking of how opposition politics should work, would have been enhanced had it not been disseminated via a Monday night press release issued by the party's spokesman. Nevertheless, we credit Livni with the approach and encourage her to actualize it.

IN HER new role, Livni is to be commended for generally recognizing that politics stops at the water's edge - meaning criticism of government policies should be tempered while abroad, or addressing foreign audiences. She acquitted herself well in telling a recent AIPAC audience that in regard to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, there are no policy differences between the government and the opposition. She also appears to be in synch with Netanyahu on how to handle Hamas in Gaza.

On the Palestinian track, however, in a recent Newsweek interview, Livni labeled the Netanyahu government "very right-wing." Asked how an international audience should understand the categorization, she replied that "just saying no" doesn't take into account a new camp of Arab moderates.

Speaking on Army Radio Monday she was understandably more explicit: "This government doesn't want to talk. It is dragging its feet in an attempt to refrain from renewing contacts with the Palestinians," and concluded that Netanyahu's policies are already leading toward a "diplomatic collapse."

We don't begrudge Livni the need to differentiate Kadima from Likud. But she'd be both more credible, and more effective in the international arena, if she noted that she herself engaged these same Arab moderates with not much to show for it, and that at the end of the day, her policy differences with Netanyahu are not all that substantive.

Like Netanyahu, she would wait until after an agreement on final borders before dismantling any settlements. Livni, no less than Netanyahu, opposes unfettered Palestinian sovereignty - and if we've got that wrong, Ms. Livni, do enlighten us.

While saying he does not want to rule over the Palestinians, Netanyahu won't commit to the "two-state solution" until he knows what that entails for Israel's ability to defend itself.

Here Livni's public diplomacy style is wiser. By forthrightly espousing the two-state solution, she places the onus for opposing an end to the conflict where it belongs - on the Palestinians. After all, it's their intransigence - on borders, refugees and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state - that's prevented a deal.

She can enhance her stature as leader of the loyal opposition by making that clear, at every opportunity.

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