By Amotz Asa-El
It’s that time of the year. In Tel Aviv, the Mediterranean’s waves are growing taller; in the Galilee winds are blowing harder; in the Negev Desert dust is gathering thicker; and in Jerusalem worshippers are rushing at early dawn to prayers that herald the Days of Awe which begin with the Jewish New Year and culminate in the Day of Atonement.
By sheer coincidence, Foreign Minister Tzipi Lvini’s election as the new leader of the ruling Kadima party came at autumn’s height, a time when Jews traditionally look back with introspection and forward with hope. As things have unfolded, Livni has plenty of reason for both celebration and trepidation, but time for neither.
First, there was the unexpectedly sour victory itself.
What was initially predicted, and then also reported, as a landslide, soon emerged as a hair-thin margin of 1.1%. Formally, the 50-year-old former corporate lawyer defeated her main rival, Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz. However, politically, the former Israel Defence Forces chief-of-staff and defence minister emerged as a thorn in her side, and she as an uncharismatic campaigner and lacklustre manager who almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
To further complicate matters, Mofaz surprised yet again the day after the election with a dramatic announcement that he was “taking a pause” from political life. Just what that pause constitutes remains to be seen, but as of this writing it seems he is neither leaving the scene nor backing Livni in her efforts to lead to better pastures the perplexed Kadima party that Ehud Olmert is bequeathing her.
This means that even before proceeding to deal with the rest of the political system’s many sharks, not to mention the intricate diplomacy and turbulent global economy that await her beyond it, Livni’s status in her own house is informally questioned by some key tenants. Though both leadership contenders are very calculated and reserved, and therefore careful to avoid attacking each other, they nevertheless emerge from their bout with some bad blood. Mofaz’s people attribute their failure to what they say was a media bias in favour of Livni, while Livni’s camp says Mofaz deployed labour unions and village clans in return for shady promises.
Until Mofaz’s announcement, some predicted and others recommended that Livni grant him the Foreign Ministry, the one portfolio she can hand out without difficulty, as it is the one she is holding herself. The hawkish general who had publicly called on Israel to attack his native Iran may have been a diplomatically odd choice, but politically his appointment could have created for Livni the kind of room to manoeuvre she lacked the morning after her unconvincing victory. Now this no longer seems in the offing, and Livni will have to demonstrate that she is indeed in charge of the party she nominally leads.
While she works to court her party colleagues, a much more daunting task awaits Livni as she sets out to assemble a coalition, now that she has been formally asked to do so by President Shimon Peres. To assemble a majority within the 120-member Knesset, a task which she is required to accomplish by Nov. 4, Livni will have to rally the support of Labor and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. While Labor has few options, considering polls indicating that its following is at a historic low, Shas has plenty of room to manoeuvre. It is confident an early election will not even dent its following, which currently adds up to a tenth of the Knesset. And Shas has both an agenda and demands.
The agenda is to pander to the working class, and the demand is to restore much of the social spending that Binyamin Netanyahu, now leader of the Likud and then-finance minister, cut five years ago as part of an ambitious, conservative reform of the Israeli economy. Specifically, Shas insists that Livni restore the program whereby parents received some US$250 per month for every child they have beyond four children. Livni was part of the government that replaced this mechanism with a formula whereby parents received some US$50 per child per month, regardless of the family’s size. Moreover, Livni espouses Netanyahu’s economics, and in fact was his privatisation tsar when he was prime minister in 1996.
Now Shas is challenging Livni not only to turn her back on her economic convictions, but to do so at a time when global financial markets are ablaze. Even if she had identified with Shas’ cause, Livni and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On – who is her close ally – would risk provoking the already unnerved markets with this kind of fiscal generosity. It could cause the Bank of Israel to raise interest rates just when the business sector is hardly in a position to shoulder such a burden.
Beyond this particular bone of contention lurks a general curiosity concerning Livni’s mettle. If Shas learns that she is prepared to fight for her convictions even at the risk of losing power, it might balk, but then again in challenging the prime minister-designate to this duel, Shas is evidently assuming Livni will prove weak, and surrender.
For Labor, Livni poses a different challenge, as her popularity seems particularly high among that party’s traditional power base in the middle class in general, and among women and young adults in particular. Her dovish views concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict are practically identical with Labor’s, and her unassuming, business minded rhetoric appeals to the educated, urban and more worldly electorate. In joining her coalition, and thus potentially consolidating her stature as a national leader, many in Labor say they will effectively be digging their own political grave. Labor, therefore, might also prove to be a fickle partner.
The last component of Livni’s prospective coalition, the Pensioners’ Party, is easy to get, but is now also split and therefore has become even more marginal than it was to begin with. Other potential members are currently in the opposition, including the Leftist Meretz and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, but the former’s participation would cancel out Shas, and the latter would make Shas’ fiscal demands even more difficult to reject.
Livni would have liked to bring aboard the Likud, where she was ideologically raised and debuted politically, but Netanyahu has flatly rejected that prospect. He said that for him to join a Kadima-led government now would be the equivalent of joining the board of Lehman Brothers’ (the defunct Wall Street investment bank) the morning after its bankruptcy.
Should Livni successfully form a coalition, she will be expected by the international community to resume the negotiations in which she took part with the Palestinian Authority, and also the talks with Syria, from which she was barred.
Relatively speaking, this is the easy part of what lies ahead for her.
As long as the Palestinians continue insisting on the insertion of what they describe as refugees into Israel proper, there is no Israeli leader who would be able to deliver a deal. As for the Syrians, there are indications that they are not interested in an immediate and sweeping deal, but rather in a dynamic that would improve their position in the West and allow them to slowly open their economy according to the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism. This Livini can be expected to indirectly encourage, while demanding, as her predecessors have done and with the same limited success, that Syria sever ties with Hezbollah and Iran in turn for future concessions in the Golan Heights. In any event, pressure on Livni for diplomatic delivery are unlikely to be high at a time when Washington awaits a new administration, and New York is shoulder deep in economic mayhem.
Naturally, at some point the economic storm will wane and the new White House will make its Middle Eastern expectations plain. At that moment, the new president will find in Livni a flexible and reliable interlocutor; assuming, of course, that by the time he gets to address this region’s travails, Livni will indeed have consolidated herself as the leader of the Jewish state.