Tzipi Livni has taken on her new role as head of the opposition with characteristic enthusiasm, but it would be best for her to slow down and focus on what's important: building Kadima into a centrist party that is the only alternative to a Likud government.
In a speech before the Knesset last week, shortly ahead of the swearing-in ceremony for the new government, Livni struck out at her political rivals, primarily Labor chairman Ehud Barak. She described him as a man "who made his political fortune by fundraising for nonprofit organizations and his private fortune through his political contacts."
But Livni needs to avoid mudslinging of this sort so as not to undermine her credibility. After all, it was only last summer that she offered Barak a position as a "senior minister" in the government she tried to form. And if she finds herself on the cusp of power again, any coalition she forms will have to include at least some of the parties she sniped at from the podium.
The head of the opposition doesn't have to express her views on every issue that bothers her or every problematic aspect related to the conduct of the government or its leader. That's why there are back benches, where MKs thirsty for exposure and media attention are sitting. Livni should let them fight in the trenches, while she comments only on important national matters.
Livni's decision to stay outside the government was the right step to take in order to present herself as an alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu. Now she must spend time in the opposition, without tarnishing her image as a politician who is fresh, reliable and not corrupt. She would do well to learn from Netanyahu, who in the previous Knesset relinquished immediate gains in favor of leading the government at a later stage. Netanyahu was statesmanlike; he avoided attacking Ehud Olmert, backed him up during the wars in the north and the south, and came to be seen as someone who could calm the security and economic anxieties of the public. Livni acted similarly when she said that opting for the opposition following her failure to form a government was a way of sticking to her principles. She must continue along this line.
If Livni wants to replace Netanyahu as prime minister in the next election, she must relegate the Labor Party to the history books, and she needs to draw the more moderate of Likud's supporters to Kadima. And if Avigdor Lieberman is indicted and leaves the Foreign Ministry, she should take advantage of the opportunity and snap up voters from Yisrael Beiteinu. Achieving these goals depends not only on Livni, but also on the circumstances, and mostly on how the government acts. But Livni's conduct will determine whether it is Kadima or another party that will reap the political benefits.
Livni must leverage Netanyahu's weak points: the peace process and his dependence on the ultra-Orthodox. Just as Netanyahu gained from Olmert's failures in his confrontations with Hezbollah and Hamas, Livni will gain from Netanyahu and Lieberman's expected difficulties with U.S. President Barack Obama and the international community. The more the government tries to argue that it is less hated around the world than one would think based on press reports, the more Netanyahu will lose altitude, leaving Livni to look like the statesman who offers hope and is accepted by other countries.
On the home front, Kadima needs to lead the call for changing the method of government, which would position it as a party seeking reforms on an issue that matters to its secular voters. This would enable Kadima to break up the partnership of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties and to depict Netanyahu as someone who avoids taking steps that are important for the country, preferring instead to protect a failed and hated method of government because he is totally dependent on Shas.
In dealing with Labor, Livni must adopt the strategy she followed during the election campaign: ignore it. Labor's ability to self-destruct is much more powerful than anything Kadima can do to it. Livni needs to let Yuli Tamir and Shelly Yachimovich attack Barak and depict him and his colleagues in government as spineless self-aggrandizers. If Labor splits, as it is expected to do, some of its parts will head toward Kadima at no cost.
Livni needs to preserve her image as the security hard-liner of Kadima. Therefore, she must back the military decisions of Netanyahu and Barak, especially if they attack Iran, rather than looking like she opposes the use of force. And if Netanyahu surprises with daring peace moves, the parliamentary majority provided by Kadima will enable him to pass any related legislation.
Kadima can live and prosper without being in government. The party has experienced opposition figures on board who have seen many ups and downs, like Haim Ramon and Tzachi Hanegbi. They will be in a position to remind Livni of the lesson of Ariel Sharon: Politics is a wheel, and those who wait their turn and don't make too many mistakes will, in the end, find their way back to the top.
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