Livni's bungee test
The first two years of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's first term were amazingly similar to his second term's first year - quiet on the security front, economic success and a stalemate on the peace process. Netanyahu scored quite a few points between the summer of 1996 and the summer of 1998 but failed to achieve a breakthrough on peace. In the '90s, like today, his alliance with the nationalists and ultra-Orthodox allowed him to advance the peace talks. Internal conflicts - ideological, political and personality-related - led him to a dead end.
The result was 30 months of running in place and dejection. The Americans raged, the media slammed and the public was torn to pieces. Only when his time ran out did Netanyahu finally take a chance. On October 15, 1998, Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat opened negotiations at the Wye River Plantation. On October 23 they signed an interim agreement at the White House in the presence of then-U.S. president Bill Clinton and Jordan's King Hussein. Very long overdue, Netanyahu overcame ideological inhibitions and political fears and did the right thing. He is the last Israeli leader to sign an agreement of value on the peace process with a Palestinian leader. Two months later his government collapsed.
The Wye trauma was the formative trauma of Netanyahu's political life. In the autumn of '98, on his return from Wye, he lost the right wing and remained at the left wing's mercy. Netanyahu expected the left to do what was best for peace and the country by supporting the right-wing leader who had swerved sharply to the left. But Ehud Barak and Haim Ramon's left did not live up to expectations and could not resist the temptation. With the dispassion of backstabbers, Barak and Ramon used Netanyahu's courageous act to knock him down. They preferred power to peace, put the kibosh on Wye and left an eternal scar on the personality of a man whose innate suspicions were fortified and set in place.
It is not clear whether in the next few weeks Netanyahu will make the major decision he must make - a move toward a peace agreement with Syria, or with the Palestinians, or a combined move. But he cannot be expected to make the big decision without a safety net below. No political leader would bungee jump without knowing he was firmly tied to a strong rope that would prevent him from plunging into the abyss.
In Netanyahu's case, the rope's name is known. It is Tzipi Livni. As long as Netanyahu fears that Livni and Ramon would do to him in 2010 what Barak and Ramon did to him in 1998, he won't jump. As long as Livni doesn't promise Netanyahu she won't stick a knife in his back as soon as he turns toward peace, Netanyahu won't turn toward peace. Livni is the one who will determine whether Netanyahu finally leaps or stays paralyzed on the bridge.
Here's the catch: Netanyahu was elected with the votes of a right-wing bloc including Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu. Any significant move toward peace will cause the bloc to crumble and lead to political chaos. Thus the only person capable of making Netanyahu come out of his bunker is Livni. The only way Israel can get out of its dead end is if Livni declares that she will join this government, providing it makes a resolute move toward peace by the end of the summer. Not rotation, not nuances of status - a decisive move toward peace by the end of the summer.
So far Livni has refused to rise to the challenge. Like Barak in 1998, she prefers her narrow personal interest to the state's interest. Her demands are not designed to allow for a dividing of the land but to cut Netanyahu off from his allies and make him a hostage. Instead of advancing Ariel Sharon's vision, Livni is succumbing to Ramon's intrigues. Instead of displaying national responsibility, she is deriving pleasure from personal sparring. With her own hands, Livni is perpetuating the political tangle that prevents any way toward a breakthrough on the peace process.
One thing cannot be taken away from Livni: She is a person of values. Her commitment to the Jewish-democratic state is genuine. So is her concern for the future. But this summer, abstract ideology is no longer enough. Livni must practice what she preaches about a different kind of politics. Paradoxically, Israel's future now largely depends on the opposition leader.