Why Tzipi Livni Failed to Win Israelis Over

Above all, Livni failed to play to any of the classic Israeli or Jewish paranoia. Her failure to sell her Israeli story to the wide public, and the dismal end of a meteoritic political career, prove as much.

A couple of months ago, I was riding in a sherut taxi down Herzl Street, the main thoroughfare of Ramle, when the driver exclaimed, “look, there’s the mayor!” As passengers strained to catch a glimpse of Yoel Lavi, I noticed he was escorting a middle-aged lady in black pants and sweater trying to make eye-contact with passersby, who looked rather familiar. It took me a few seconds to realize it was Tzipi Livni.

The former foreign minister, deputy PM and then still leader of the largest party in the Knesset seemed so out of her element in the center of one of Israel’s poorer cities as to be barely recognizable. Over the last two days, Israeli commentators have produced a long list of reasons why Livni, who for so long held the title of “Israel’s next prime minister,” ultimately failed to reach the top of the greasy pole − and almost all of them are true.

Tzipi Livni

Her failings as a politician, particularly as leader of the opposition over the last three years, were manifestly evident. But her mammoth 25-point defeat at the hands of Shaul Mofaz in Tuesday’s Kadima leadership primary is not just the result of Livni’s failure to connect with Israeli voters or the Kadima rank-and-file, it is also a clear signal of the prevailing mood within Israeli society.

Another indicator is the fact that there was one large city that defied the nationwide trend − Livni, in her home town of Tel Aviv, a 12-minute drive from Ramle, won 72 percent of the vote against Mofaz’s 28. Once again, the state of Tel Aviv lost the elections.

Livni is not only a political figure who over the past decade made the ideological journey from her Revisionist roots as a daughter of Irgun fighters to the foreign minister negotiating territorial compromise with the Palestinians; she also became the embodiment of secular Israeli, quasi-liberal, middle-class aspirations. Her success in personifying “moderate” Israel in all its aspects − moderate politics, moderate lifestyle, moderate ideology, moderate nationalism, moderate affluence − made her a temporary figurehead for all those moderate Israelis yearning for an illusion of normalcy.

Her moderate image was the reason she surprised all the pollsters three years ago, gaining nearly all the moderate votes and leading Kadima to a slightly higher result than Likud in the Knesset election. It was also the main cause that after twice being handed the chance to form a coalition and become prime minister, she failed to gain the trust of the other parties’ leaders. They didn’t feel comfortable with a moderate head of government, and knew neither would their constituencies. This wasn’t simply a matter of right-wing ideology − after all, they had previously joined the coalition of Ehud Olmert, who had made a nearly identical leftward journey to Livni’s. They were unsettled by her moderation, her level-headedness, by the fact that she epitomized Tel Aviv.

Above all, Livni failed to play to any of the classic Israeli or Jewish paranoia. Paranoia plays a part in most election campaigns around the world, but when you take into account the accumulated experience of 2,000 years of Jewish history, the central role it plays in every Israeli election is understandable. Professional politicians know the watch-words and dog-whistles, have an instinctive feel for the tone and inflection that enable them to channel all the terror of survival, persecution, and the fear of assimilation and loss of identity.

Even though the level of paranoia tends to rise as you go rightward on the political and religious spectra ‏(further away from secular left-wing Tel Aviv which would like to believe it is a paranoia-free zone‏), it isn’t exclusive to the right. Paranoia was integral to the election of the most left-wing Israeli government in the last 35 years.

Yitzhak Rabin owed his victory in 1992 by a large degree to the spate of stabbing terror attacks which allowed him to portray himself as “Mr. Security,” compared to the perceived cluelessness of incumbent Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Rabin’s tough image and military biography assuaged the paranoia, allowing the voters to put their trust in a left-of-center leader. He may have lived in Tel Aviv all his life, but he was from Tzahala, the neighborhood originally built for senior IDF officers.
Livni is the other kind of Tel Aviv. Her four years as a junior operative in the Mossad can never change the image of the vegetarian lawyer with a devoted husband in PR. Attractive to a certain type of Israeli, but incapable of playing on the paranoia of the rest who have now given the dour ex-general Mofaz a go.

You don’t have to be a retired general to be a successful paranoia merchant. Ehud Olmert had no illustrious military career, but his instinctive cynicism and four decades of rough-and-tumble Likud and local Jerusalem politics equipped him perfectly.

Of course, the grandmaster of paranoia channeling is our current prime minister. There never was a politician so attuned to every undercurrent of Jewish fear than Benjamin Netanyahu. The historian’s son not only knows the details of past suffering, he can find the correct current analogy and use it to maximum effect. Past, present and future are merged into one urgent national imperative.

But we should not blame only Bibi for stoking paranoia − he is simply using what he has been handed, to extreme effect. I wonder whether when he whispered in revered kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri’s ear in 1997 “the left have forgotten what it is to be Jews,” he really believed what he was saying. He certainly knew that Kaduri and his followers believed that.

Netanyahu is a devastatingly effective politician and the most popular speaker in the Jewish world, not only due to his rhetorical skills, but to his ability to articulate Jewish fears so accurately. And in the age of Ahmadinejad and the Iranian nuclear program, these fears are easily played upon.

Netanyahu’s ideological opponents try and counter his influence with a different, Tel Aviv style of Zionism, which will continue to appeal only to a minority. Liberal, left-leaning Israelis and Diaspora Jews are convinced that they hold the correct narrative, but it will never catch on if they persist in disregarding the very re`al paranoia of those they would convince. Livni’s failure to sell her Israeli story to the wide public and the dismal end of a meteoritic political career prove as much.