A Principled Bid in the Upcoming Israeli Election

“A woman’s got to do what a man’s got to do.” With those words, Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister, made her return to politics this week. She stands at the head of a new party—Hatnuah be’rashut Tzipi Livni, or the Movement headed by Tzipi Livni—promising to fight for “democratic Israel.” Livni has been looking on aghast at a world turned upside down and she wants to right it: “The government enters dialogue with those who support terror, and avoids the camp that has prevented terror, that fights for two states.”

Can there be a Prime Minister Livni in January? Probably not. The first poll taken after she got in the race shows the center-right bloc led by Netanyahu winning 69 seats to the center-left’s 51. And in Israel, when it comes to turning electoral performance into political power, “It’s the blocs stupid.”

So what is Livni’s bid about? “Ego,” says Yair Lapid, the TV anchor who created a political party and placed himself at its head. No, it’s not. At the risk of being accused of naïveté, I think it is all about principle.

In 2009 Livni’s Kadima won the most votes and the most seats but she refused to pay the price of cobbling together, or entering into, a ruling coalition—refused to abandon peace, the two-state solution, the secular Israel of the founders, and the conscription of the Haredim. And she would not join Netanyahu. Since that political moment, Livni has enjoyed a solitude of sorts. By founding Hatnuah be’rashut she has the chance to use that solitude to found something genuinely new in Israeli politics.

She is the only center-left candidate who has ruled out entering a coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu and his deputy, Avigdor Lieberman. By contrast, Yair Lapid and Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich seem to be positioning their parties as the balancing center-left force in a Netanyahu-Lieberman government. Not even the “political earthquake” of the Likud primaries, in which the moderates and liberals in the party, led by Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, were voted out and the hard-liners around Moshe Feiglin were voted in, has caused a rethink on the part of Labor or Lapid.  

Livni is the only center-left candidate with credibility in peace-making that is willing to put the peace process on the agenda in the coming election. “I have come to fight for peace, and I will not give my hand to those who try to turn the word peace into a dirty one,” she said, with passion. Livni understands the lurking danger in the near-universal Israeli weariness with, and skepticism about, “the process”—in time there will be very heavy price to pay if the land between the river and the sea is not divided. Right now, many Israelis do not want to hear that. That Livni makes sure they do—that is leadership. Actually it’s statesmanship: doing what a man’s gotta do indeed.

By contrast, Labour’s leader Yacomovitch makes warm noises toward the settlers and invites the electorate to vote their wallets. She offers no vision for Israel’s future relations with the Palestinians, noting mockingly that “Tzipi Livni intones ‘two states for two nations’ three times a day.” The TV man Lapid takes his stand on an undivided Jerusalem and assures us that the Palestinians will come round to accept the loss of their dream of a capital in East Jerusalem.

Livni stood alone at the press conference that launched her Movement, but she is not an isolated figure. She speaks for wide swathes of the Israeli people who remain committed to dividing the land and creating two states for two peoples. By talking of her “solitude” I mean that she finds herself between the exhaustion of the Rabin-Peres-Barak peace-making culture of the Oslo era and the failure-to-be-born of a coherent replacement. 

The task is not to hoist Livni to power on January 22nd but to begin the creation of a modern “prince” able to forge Israeli national unity in the same moment that the land is divided. Livni faces the herculean labor of forging not just an electoral bloc but what Antonio Gramsci would call a historic bloc of Israeli social groups—including Israel’s Palestinian citizens, in Livni’s vision—and leading it with a strategy for peace. This is the “man’s job” she has taken on. In this, solitude can be an advantage, making possible novelty and new beginnings. From solitude, movements can be born. And movements can change the world.


Photo Credit: Yoshiko Kusano

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