Features

Eyeing Mrs. Clean

Israel | A lesser-known in the West, foreign minister Tzipi Livni is Israel's leader-in-waiting

Issue: "The audacity of real change," Aug. 23, 2008

Israeli prime ministers have a relatively short shelf life these days-one more realm of uncertainty for U.S. mediators in the latest round of peace talks-and an ample supply of conflict and mood swings between "hawks" and "doves" on the part of their electorate. But the candidate favored to become Israel's next prime minister offers a unique reputation for toughness and flexibility-one that could reverse the course of stagnation under tainted or inept politicians.

Tzipi Livni, Israel's current minister of foreign affairs, is the first female contender for prime minister since Golda Meir. She was born in Tel Aviv to parents who were leading members of Irgun, a militant Zionist group responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946. Her father was arrested three months prior to the bombing, escaped from prison two years later, and fought in Israel's war for independence. He later served as a Likud member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Influenced by her parents, Livni served as a lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces and worked for Mossad in the early 1980s. She is rumored to have been a terrorist hunter in Europe during her brief stint with the overseas intelligence agency but has refused to comment on her work-adding an air of mystery to the 50-year-old politician.

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After earning a law degree, Livni (often referred to in Israel by her first name, pronounced "Zippy") practiced in the field for 10 years before beginning a rapid climb up the political ladder. Elected to the Knesset in 1999 as part of the right-wing Likud, she eventually became a key moderate, following former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon into the newly formed Kadima party in 2005.

She began her career opposed to "land for peace" deals but altered those views after reevaluating Israel's demographic challenges. Eventually she convinced her Knesset colleagues to ratify the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. She has been an integral part of recent U.S.-driven efforts to jump-start stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians but has maintained a tough stance against Syria and Iran. And she has developed a cordial relationship with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; like Rice, she is the second woman to hold her nation's highest foreign policy position. Unlike the single Rice, Livni is a wife, a mother of two boys, and a vegetarian. Her striking appearance and warmth create a stark contrast to some of Israel's recent prime ministers-a plus for image-driven negotiations.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator under Republi-can and Democratic administrations, says Israel is in the midst of a transition from its generation of founders (Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Shimon Peres) to a "much younger generation of untested politicians." Of those from the newer generation, one already-Ehud Olmert-was forced to resign. "The other two [Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu] are viewed by Israelis-at least when they were prime minister-as extremely ineffective." Livni , he said, is closer to this generation: "She is their contemporary, and she is also untested."

What she has that the others lack, Miller added, "is this sort of 'Mrs. Clean' image, and it reflects the reality." He believes Israeli expectations of leaders are low, and Livni can impress if she is effective and competent.

Olmert, under a barrage of corruption allegations and criticism for mishandling the 2006 war in Lebanon, announced this month that he will step down after Kadima elects a new leader during a Sept. 17 primary. If his replacement is not able to form a coalition government, general elections must be held by March 2009. While Livni could head Kadima, polls show Likud leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the likely winner of a general election in the face of gridlock.

The winner of the September primary will inherit a host of problems: an increasingly complex Palestinian-Israeli conflict, intense negotiations with Syria, the smoldering ashes of the war with Lebanon, and escalating threats from Iran. But several leading politicians have already put their faith in Livni.

"In the past three years she has been at the heart of the Israeli decision-making process in political and security issues," Israeli Finance Minister Roni Bar-On said during an August press conference. "I consider her apt and worthy of the job."

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