Intelligent, politically skilled lady rises in Israel

Canberra Times – 23/09/2008

As tipped by most of the polling, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won the Kadima party leadership primary last Wednesday, although very narrowly. She now succeeds Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as the head of the largest party in Israel’s parliament following Olmert’s resignation as Kadima leader at the weekend.

Livni now has six weeks to form a governing coalition a task that could prove difficult or even impossible. If she does succeed in forming a government, Livni will join former Prime Minister Golda Meir as Israel’s second female prime minister. If she does not, Israel will hold early elections, which Livni and Kadima might not win.

A lawyer by training, Livni represents a fresh and promising face in Israeli politics. Importantly, she is untainted by any hint of corruption and her integrity is viewed as an important asset. This should allow her the opportunity to turn the page on the political and personal scandals of the recent past and provide a new start for her government.

But don’t confuse ”fresh face” with inexperience. Originally elected as a member of the Likud party, Livni left Likud to become one of the founding members of the Kadima party in 2005 a party founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the principle of ”disengagement” from the Gaza Strip.

Livni first served as justice minister under Sharon, moving to her current portfolio as Foreign Minister during Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006 is viewed more positively than that of Olmert or the defence brass.

Importantly, as Foreign Minister Livni also has been intimately involved in the negotiations with the Palestinians that followed the Annapolis peace conference last November. Indeed, Livni has led the talks with the Palestinian Authority for a ”shelf agreement” between the two sides and all indications are that she plans to continue that process committed to a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

PA officials involved in the negotiations welcomed her victory, noting that ”working with [her] will be much easier” and that Livni ”knows her stuff”.

But even with Livni continuing the negotiations she has been leading as Foreign Minister, there remain significant obstacles to the two parties reaching even a shelf agreement by the end of the year the original goal set-out at the Annapolis conference. The biggest of these obstacles are continued Palestinian violence and the fact that the Palestinian side remains completely fractured and dysfunctional. Despite Israeli and international efforts to bolster PA President Abbas and Fatah at the expense of Hamas, it is obvious that he currently does not have the capacity to make the compromises necessary to reach an agreement.

With Hamas in complete control of the Gaza Strip as it has been since it evicted Abbas and Fatah from the Strip in a violent coup in June 2007 it is equally clear that Abbas would not be able to implement an agreement even if one is reached.

Even Abbas’ grip on the West Bank is shaky: Hamas could overrun Fatah there too if not for Israel’s security presence. Given Hamas’ response to previous Israeli territorial withdrawals specifically, more violence directed at Israeli civilians Israel is understandably wary about putting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv within range of rockets from Hamas or other terrorist groups, which would result from implementing further withdrawals from the West Bank.

Nor is the recent Israeli-Hamas cease-fire reassuring. It has been repeatedly violated by rocket attacks against Israel and Hamas’ refusal to negotiate in good faith for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Worse, Hamas made clear it views it only as a temporary measure to recuperate.

There also will be other issues competing for Livni’s attention. On the security front, these include the looming and potentially existential threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran and a Hezbollah which is fast becoming the dominant movement in Lebanon. Livni will also have to decide whether to continue the indirect negotiations with Syria, which seem to have stalled now that President Assad has somewhat shed his international pariah status.

On the domestic front, Livni will have to manage Israel’s economy in a time of global financial crisis. She must also instil a renewed sense of integrity and incorruptibility to Israel’s most serious political offices and will face calls for much needed yet difficult to enact reforms to the electoral system.

In her rapid rise to the top of Israeli politics, Livni has demonstrated a high degree of intelligence and political skills. As prime minister, she will need to call on both to successfully meet these and other challenges that Israel is sure to face.

Colin Rubenstein is the executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.