Livni and Clinton
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in March 2009. Photo by Archive
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The emphatic political defeat of Tzipi Livni in Tuesday’s Kadima primaries may have surprised some Israelis but it will come as no less than a severe shock to most of her admirers abroad. With the possible exception of Shimon Peres, Livni is undoubtedly the most widely admired Israeli figure on the world scene today, and her drubbing by the relatively unknown Shaul Mofaz will perplex international politicians and pundits alike.

Livni, after all, was the great white hope of peacemakers and Netanyahu-haters in Washington and European capitals, the born-again poster girl of Greater Land of Israel Revisionists who have come to see the light, the perennial prime minister in waiting who now, it seems, may have to wait forever. Consistently featured in just about everyone’s list of the 50 most powerful and the 100 most courageous and the 150 most influential women in the world, Livni, when push came to shove, couldn’t muster enough sway to convince even her disheartened Kadima colleagues to give her another chance.

Rising in international prominence throughout the previous decade as a leading proponent of Ariel Sharon’s Disengagement Plan and then as Ehud Olmert’s solution-seeking deputy and foreign minister, Livni reached her political pinnacle on September 21, 2008, when President Peres asked her to form a new government and to replace resigning prime minister Ehud Olmert, and once again on election day on February 10, 2009 when she emerged as the leader of the Knesset’s biggest party. From that peak onwards, however, while her stature outside the country not only remained intact but actually grew as she cast herself and was casted by others as the not-Netanyahu, the two-state-solution thinking man’s alternative to Israel’s perennially unpopular prime minister, inside the country her image was taking a nosedive. While Livni maintained her squeaky-clean image, she nonetheless shared with her oft-indicted former party leader Olmert an increasingly expanding disparity between her home and away reputations. Just as Olmert continues to be received abroad with all the honors and accolades of a former prime minister, as he was at the J-Street Conference this week, while his name at home became inextricably linked with corruption and sleaze - so it was for Livni, who only two weeks ago was fawningly lauded in the Daily Beast as Israel’s “Voice of Reason” while at home she was increasingly viewed as the country’s epitome of failure.


The glowing profiles of Livni regularly published in the world’s glossiest magazines, which lauded her diplomatic vision and statesmanlike skills paid scant attention to her habitual megaflops and serial miscalculations in Israel’s Byzantine political arena. After she ham-handedly failed to exploit God-given opportunities to become prime minister, Livni proceeded to sentence herself to political oblivion by staying out of Netanyahu’s coalition for reasons that became decreasingly clear while simultaneously gagging herself as leader of the Opposition as part of a strategy that no one ever understood. When she said in an interview with Yedioth Achronot late last year that she was yearning for a life after politics it was clear that she no longer had the fire of ambition in her belly, and perhaps, as one explanation for her inexplicable performance, she never really had it in the first place.

Her clear-cut defeat by Shaul Mofaz will be misinterpreted by many in the world as yet another sign of Israel’s rightward shift. Mofaz’s CV, which includes stints both as IDF Chief of Staff and minister of Defense may have made him a household name in Israel, but he is relatively unknown outside security cognoscenti around the world. He made his mark as commander of Operation Defensive Shield during the Second Intifada and as the architect of Israel’s controversial targeted assassinations policy, two achievements which probably won’t endear him to champions of Palestinian rights. He is only a Shaul-come-lately as far as the pursuit of peace is involved, though he did impress American officials and participants in the Saban Forum in Washington in November 2009 when he presented his original plan for an ad-hoc Palestinian state on 60% of the West Bank accompanied by an Israeli commitment to negotiate final status issues and to relinquish territories “almost equal” to those captured in 1967.

Mofaz has none of Livni’s glamor, he spent most of his live inside army camps, his English has improved but is still gratingly Israeli and he is much more at ease among IDF recruits than he will ever be in the palaces of Europe or the editorial offices of the New York Times.

His main advantage over Livni right now is that he is the beneficiary of rock-bottom expectations. He will no doubt devote himself to the down and dirty work of maintaining his disintegrating Kadima party while postponing his exposure abroad to better times when he has consolidated his political position, possibly by doing what Livni steadfastly refused to do: joining Netanyahu’s coalition. And while Livni will no doubt remain in high demand in star-studded conferences and prestigious speaking junkets abroad, the international community including many moderate Jews will no doubt feel the pain of losing one of the last Israeli politicians that seemed to speak the same language as they do, a lonely redeeming feature in a political culture that many regard as increasingly alien.

But in the interests of full disclosure, I must confess, on a personal note, that of all the politicians that I have met in my already protracted journalistic career, and despite the fact that I have disagreed with many if not most of his political positions, Mofaz is still one of my personal favorites. He is hardworking and down to earth and his climb from being a 9 year old new immigrant from Iran to the top echelons of the Israeli security establishment is the stuff that Zionist fairy tales used to be made of before everyone became so jaded.

It’s true that many Israelis regard him as unsophisticated and uncharismatic and he will have to disabuse them of that perception if he is to have any chance of success. But Mofaz, as far as I can tell, is not only decent and devoted but he has a quality that is increasingly rare among most of his contemporaries in Israeli politics: every once in a while he likes to listen to someone other than himself. Even skeptics abroad may one day find this trait rather refreshing.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev