The main reason for the disinterest in Kadima's party primary on Tuesday, it seems, is that neither of its candidates holds out the promise of being "the next big thing." The Israeli media always needs a "next big thing" - inexperienced newbies for entertainment. Shaul Mofaz has too rich a political past, and his challenge for the party leadership was too predictable, to fill the need for fresh meat. Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni already was "the next big thing," and you can't be that promise twice, especially if you're a woman.
But for Livni it is not only about not being the next big thing. Livni is seen as having made mistakes, missed opportunities and in general to have failed. People say she did not constitute an alternative, that she did not physically stop some of her party colleagues from running amok. Perhaps she could have behaved differently in certain situations, but generally speaking, since when can the head of the opposition in Israel do much more? Israel's political structure does not allow the opposition leader to stop or hinder the prime minister, especially not one with such a stable coalition. That is why the head of the opposition attracts so little interest; she could issue 10 press releases every day and it would not make any difference.
When was the last time such a big party was in the opposition, anyway? Our political culture and our news media are completely unaccustomed to having a significant opposition. In today's Israel there is no respect for people with no real power. That is why Livni's decision to go into the opposition, which made so important a contribution to Israeli democracy, not only failed to receive the recognition it deserved but also gave rise to the way she is treated today. Some of her own party members, and the journalists who mock them but are doing the same thing, tell her in effect, You didn't put a coalition together? Go home.
It must also be admitted that even when she ostensibly did have the opportunity to become prime minister, the Netanyahu-Barak-Yishai had no intention of letting her form a government. Shas party chairman Eli Yishai would not dream of becoming the first ultra-Orthodox man to crown a woman, and Ehud Barak would not relinquish the defense portfolio he was given about a minute after the parties recommended that Netanyahu be appointed to form the government.
To a large extent Livni is paying the price of the very high expectations of her that she did not really have the chance to meet. She is untypical of today's Israeli politicians: She speaks her mind, is willing to be in the opposition and does not boast about her Mossad past. But the political establishment finds Livni difficult to deal with also because she is a woman who did not experience the kind of oppression that most women do, and her campaign to be prime minister was the first time she bumped up against the glass ceiling.
It was only after that experience that she became a feminist, but her fundamental experience did not change as a result; that is the foundation of her free, efficient manner, of the way she looks men in the eye. Livni is a serious woman, perhaps even a little stodgy. She does not flirt and she does not giggle. Men find that difficult to deal with, and male politicians find it very difficult. Men in powerful positions cannot stand a woman who is not a "damsel in distress" when she is around them.
Our choice (again ) is between a - white - woman and a Mizrahi man. Mofaz's political work is impressive, but beyond the fear that he might join up with Netanyahu there is another factor that makes him the wrong choice: he is close to rabbis, he speaks their language. In principle there is nothing wrong with this, of course. But at this point it entails a great danger to Israeli society, which is increasingly given over to the hands of politicians who are allowing dark, ultra-nationalist religious values to gain control of the state's civil framework, and thus forcing not only women to the back of the bus and Arabs completely out of it, but also anyone who is secular, liberal and pro-equality. Livni was raised in the sort of Jewish home that even right-wingers cannot question, but deep down she is secular and committed to the principles of freedom and equality and to ending the conflict with the Palestinians - values that without which we shall not prevail.
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