Ladies in Waiting
Being Tzipi Livni can't be easy. The Kadima Party chair and leader of the opposition knows that were elections held now – instead of 2013 when technically scheduled – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party would once again be positioned to lead a right-of-center coalition with 66 out of 120 Knesset seats. What she might be loath to acknowledge is that as her political fortunes wane the woman to watch is Labor's newly elected leader Shelly Yachimovich.
Livni will be lucky if she holds on to the Kadima leadership. That's quite a come down for someone who garnered one more seat in the 2009 elections for her party than Netanyahu did for his and who fully anticipated the government's collapse – with a little help from the Obama administration – by 2010.
The ascendant Yachimovich, age 51, began her career as an advocacy journalist focusing on the social welfare beat. She formally entered the political area in 2005 at the behest of her mentor-turned-adversary Amir Peretz. Her leadership chance came when the abrasive Ehud Barak quit Labor to establish the breakaway (and moribund) Atzmaut Party in May 2011. Polls show Yachimovich could catapult "new" Labor from its current 13 mandates to 26 easily supplanting Kadima as the official opposition party.
As a writer and politician she has campaigned against privatization and neoliberal economics though not in conventional Marxist terms but as a betrayal of "Zionist ideals" and as 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 movement. She knows she'll need a long period in opposition to rehabilitate Labor and develop her own leadership capabilities. Even as she's dovish on security issues, unlike Livni she has not obsessively berated the government's handling of the Palestinian front.
If anything, Yachimovich takes flack from the hardcore left for being uncomfortable with liberal universalism. She scandalized hardliners by her refusal to demonize the settlement enterprise. "I certainly do not see the settlement project as a sin and a crime. 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," she told Haaretz.
Nor does she tend to engage in gratuitous haredi-bashing. In fact, Yachimovich is easily the right's favorite woman on the left. Confirmed left-wingers for whom principle is more important than influence will likely be drawn to Zehava Gal-On, effectively the new Meretz leader.
All the while, Kadima has fretted away one third of its Knesset seats to Labor, polls show. Ariel Sharon intended Kadima to be pragmatic, but Livni has ineptly maneuvered it further to the left only to discover that in any "left-left" contest the more authentic Yachimovich comes out ahead. For instance, Livni 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 to establish more rational budgetary priorities. Livni claimed she'd parse national spending more equitably than Netanyahu and be less beholden to special interests. Yet without reforming the electoral system – a structural reform that would necessitate collaboration between Likud, Labor, Yisrael Beitenu and Kadima – no government has much of a chance of passing a budget not weighed down by pork barrel politics. If truth be told, Livni squandered an opportunity at electoral reform when she refused to partner with Netanyahu and Lieberman.
For Livni, foreign policy does not stop at the water's edge. She recently told a British audience that the Netanyahu government was chiefly responsible for failing to inveigle Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table. Her visit to London had been intended to be the first test of Britain's amended universal jurisdiction law which has seen anti-Zionist Jews collaborating with the pro-Arab lobby in waging lawfare -- threatening the arrest of visiting Israeli officials on contrived "war crimes" charges. But Livni's efforts fizzled when it was revealed that the Foreign Office had simply granted her special diplomatic immunity.
Her now legendary indecisiveness – as foreign minister she repeatedly hesitated to call for Olmert's resignation though he was paralyzed by scandal and discredited for his handling of the Second Lebanon War – was again on display this week. With Gilad Schalit home and a fresh spike in Palestinian violence already being felt, Livni revealed to Yediot Aharonot that she had been opposed the deal. Why had she kept silent for two weeks after the Cabinet voted to move forward? Because she didn't want to "turn this matter into a political issue," was her lame explanation. Yachimovich – who openly supported the deal – took Livni to task for sitting out the debate.
Now, Livni's best advice to Netanyahu's "extreme right wing government" is to add fuel to the fire: release 550 Fatah terrorists to bolster Abbas's popularity on the Palestinian street. She further grumbles that Netanyahu has been too tough on Turkey but too soft on Egypt.
Prospects are fair that she will not lead Kadima in the next elections. Party founder Ariel Sharon could square Kadima's intrinsic ideological contradictions and squash vicious personality conflicts by force of his bulldozer personality. Olmert held the party together with Machiavellian maneuvering. Livni just does not have the right stuff.
Her most immediate threat comes from Saul Mofaz, Kadima's number two, who will try to oust her in party primaries to take place by early 2012. His penchant for double-speak – "the Schalit deal sets a dangerous precedent" and I support it – and lack of popularity foretells that he will not be the one to salvage Kadima's fortunes.
Of course, politically Netanyahu could yet falter if, for instance, the Schalit deal – still to be concluded – realizes its critics' worst nightmares. Still, any real challenge to his leadership will probably come from security hawks such as the Likud's Moshe Ya'alon or Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu not from any of the ladies or gentlemen on the left.