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In the days when Tzipi Livni's name was still being bruited for minister of public security, her 12-year-old son was taunted by a classmate: "That's not a job for girls."

Livni's son, who knows his mother and has been brought up on the right codes, replied that his mother would prove that it is a job that does suit a girl. Livni did not get the opportunity to prove that her son was right and disappointingly, it was a post she openly wanted.

"It's true that when the portfolio was given to someone else, I thought first of all of myself, but I also thought that it could be a nice message for my son's friend," she said last week in her new bureau at the Absorption Ministry. "As far as I am concerned, the best thing about last week is mainly that it is behind me. Today I'm the absorption minister, and planning to do my very best at this ministry. I have no interest in being in the square of the oppressed in the Likud, and it's also important to me that the million people for whom I'm responsible now will not think that I'm here by default."

The Absorption Ministry is a strange ministry. While lip service is paid to the cardinal importance of immigration and its place in the Zionist ethos, politicians don't leap at the chance of having the portfolio, which has meager budgets and is considered lacking in prestige. Even Rabbi Benyamin Elon of the National Union, who demanded the portfolio for himself on orders of his movement, didn't really hanker after it. The problem was solved for him by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who vetoed letting the portfolio out of Likud hands as he sees it as an anchor for deepening his party's hold on the immigrant public. Sharon even refused to give a deputy minister of absorption to the National Union, which - following the break-up of Yisrael b'Aliyah - is marketing itself as the only immigrants party.

"I plan to harass you," said Sharon to Livni at the changing of the ministerial guard ceremony at his bureau, to the laughter of those present. "Not in that sense," he hastened to add, and explained the importance he attaches to the ministry.

Immediately upon her entry into her new ministry, a number of issues landed on Livni's desk. The terror attack, in which immigrants were hurt, demanded her involvement and, at the happier end of the spectrum, International Women's Day brought her to the studios of the Russian-language television channel to reveal her views on this day. But Livni chose to begin this interview with us in her bureau with an explanation of the collection of the writings of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, in an old edition, that moves with her from home to every office she enters.

"These books, like the Irgun home in which I grew up, are my key to understanding what it is to be in a place where your experience and the songs you sing are not part of the general experience," she related.

"Though I was born and raised in Tel Aviv, it was a reality in which the `in' thing was to sing Palmach songs. I sang other songs. The song `To the Barricades' was written about my mother. She is the `little Sarah' from that song. In 1996, one of the Irgun activists phoned to tell me that the song about my mother was being played on the radio. You can't imagine what that was, to suddenly have our songs played on state radio."

This personal experience, says Livni, is the key to her understanding of the world. "I can understand what it's like to live in a place in which the general experience is alien to your own, and sometimes rejected," she says.

In the immigrant community, however, her entry into the job is analyzed with a great deal of suspicion. Although Livni sees herself as far from the image of the "ultimate sabra," the Palmachnik, in the immigrant public they don't pay much attention to such nuances. Mainly, she is simply unfamiliar to them. In an article in the Russian-language newspaper Novosty Niedly (News of the Week) this weekend, Livni was represented as an able and intelligent woman; behind her back, they are saying that she belongs to an arrogant elite.

The article ended with the judgment that even if she does not succeed in improving absorption, at least she will teach everyone the lesson that "The Absorption Ministry shouldn't be put into alien hands." That is, even a non-ultimate sabra is "alien hands" - not Russian. This, even though to this day Yair Tsaban is considered to have been the most successful "alien" of all the absorption ministers.

"As I see it, the real combination is to be part of the joint creation of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, to be a part of determining the contents of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," is how Livni formulates her perception of the area for which she has been made responsible. "But our real problem is that we ourselves have not yet determined what this is."

Constitution on a different course

Livni compares this unresolved internal tension to two trains - the train of the democratic state that departs from Tel Aviv and the train of the Jewish state that departs from Jerusalem, which are about to collide. When we ourselves are still arguing about the balance between a Jewish state and a democratic state, there is not a chance that the immigrants will connect to this, she says. "Therefore, coming into this job, I don't feel that I'm dealing with a `sector.' What happens to the immigrants will determine the face of Israeli society for the coming generations. This concerns my children no less than the immigrants' children."

In the article in Novosty Niedly, they also took the trouble to note that in the past Livni wanted to restrict the Law of Return. In fact Livni submitted a proposal for a law aimed at giving the validity of a Basic Law to that part of the Law of Return that refers to the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel. "I can't believe that I'm quoting Ben-Gurion, but he had already said that this would be the first article of the constitution," she explains. In the eyes of the immigrants, who are very sensitive to this issue, this has been perceived as a desire to limit the immigration of non-Jews. "I think that everyone who wants to be a part of the Jewish people should be allowed to do so, with procedures that don't cause problems," says Livni. "The way to do this has already been agreed upon by all the religious streams and I hope that the rabbis will encourage this, precisely because it concerns a large group within Israeli society that wants to undertake this process of joining."

From this worldview, Livni also supports the formulation of a constitution, a popular position among the immigrant public, who finds it difficult to understand how a modern Western state can exist without a constitution. For years Livni has been a member of the Israel Democracy Institute's public council for the legislation of a constitution. "I think that creating a constitution through legislating Basic Laws is not the right way," she says. "The whole problem is that there are two sides to the equation here - Judaism and democracy. Democracy is fairly clear to everyone; Judaism - remains unclear. All the Basic Laws deal only with the matter of democracy, and this creates an imbalance in the equation. The negative lesson that the public has learned from the legislation of the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom is that this law becomes a hanger on which the Supreme Court hangs its view of the world. I don't like the vacuum that exists. The constitution should not be created by the Supreme Court, but rather by the establishing authority, which is also the legislative authority."

In the past Livni has voted against the proposal for the establishment of a constitutional court, because the bench of this court as proposed seems wrong to her. Now she holds that the question of who will interpret the constitution is a legitimate question. "The Supreme Court puts itself in a position in which it [a constitutional court] will supposedly hurt it, and this is not necessarily so," says Livni. "The Supreme Court made life easy for itself when it decided that `democracy and Judaism' are one and the same, and there is no contradiction between them. This is simply incorrect. When we come to a constitution, we will have to say what a Jewish state is. In my opinion, the non-Jewish public that is with us will also find life easier if we know how to tell them what a Jewish state is. If a million Arabs know that in public life there are characteristics that are unique to the Jewish people in Israel, then even the Star of David will not be a threat to them."

On behalf of women

Livni finds herself in a government that is not the government of her dreams on this matter. The National Union is demanding the establishment of a constitutional court, while Shinui is vehemently against it. "This government depends on whether the Shinui people will succeed in overcoming their impulses," she says. "If [Justice Minister Yosef] Tommy Lapid had not refused to be in a government with Shas, diplomatic projects could have been advanced." However, she is critical of her party's refusal to deal with these basic issues. "It's no accident that they define the Likud as a party with a skullcap in its pocket," she says. "The Likud made a historic mistake when it left the definition of the character of the state to an argument between the National Religious Party and its rabbis and Tommy Lapid's Shinui. The question of how the Sabbath will look here bothers me," says the secular Tzipi Lvni, who does not observe the Sabbath in her home. "This is my national interest and the Likud, as a nationalist party, isn't going into this." According to her, this also has policy implications. "I'm against giving Shas more than is proportional to what it deserves, but if it were a part of the government, out of accepting the principle of equal budgets and the sharing of the burden, it could have been a government that would have made progress on peace possible."

Within the Likud, Livni is considered a representative of the moderate wing. "In my view, the fact that there is no partner [for negotiations] is a regrettable fact and not a convenient excuse," she said in a conversation on the day of the terror attack in Haifa. "Altogether, I'm very disturbed that people attribute to my camp indifference to the fact that Palestinian civilians are getting killed. It annoys me that it is perceived that the humane issue doesn't concern us. This brings me back to books from my childhood in which the Irgun and the Lehi were depicted as glorifying blood. I was educated on very humane and liberal values."

When asked why, as someone who grew up on humane values and as a woman she is not demanding at government meetings an answer to the question of how a pregnant woman and children get killed in Gaza - she feels discomfort. "I'm convinced - and if I weren't convinced, it would be a terrible crack in our moral existence - that an Israel Defense Forces soldier would never intentionally harm women and children. This creates the moral difference between us and the Palestinians, and this is also what I say at meetings with the Europeans. There is a difference between murder with malice aforethought and accidental killing. I am certain that if this happens to a soldier, it remains with him all his life."

Being a woman did not shape Tzipi Livni's political world but this fact has become an integral part of it. Her entry into politics was through a policy agenda, and women's issues were not a part of the agenda. She relates that in the past, when she had to bring her week-and-a-half-year-old son along to the successful law office where she was a partner, she saw this as part of the natural difficulties with which a woman has to contend. "I had an independent business, I was earning better than many men and I didn't experience the glass ceiling. It was when I was appointed director-general of the Government Companies Authority, and I saw the position of women in the companies and on the boards of directors, experienced up close the government ministers who come from the army bringing along into the system the people who waited in ambushes with them - that I learned that equality needs to be created by force. Only then did I realize for the first time that the fact that I'm a woman obligates me to be a part of this process. I was enlisted into the struggle by the fact of being a woman."

From the same approach, Livni says that if a new director-general is appointed for the Absorption Ministry (an expected step), she will search first for candidates who are women.