Winning Combination

Barak Ravid
Na'ama Lanski
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Barak Ravid
Na'ama Lanski

On Yom Kippur in 1995, Tzipi Livni and her husband, Naftali Shpitzer, were sitting in the garden of their home in Tel Aviv's upscale Ramat Hahayal neighborhood. They were fasting, as every year, and immersed in a conversation about the recently signed Oslo B accords. Livni, sitting on a plastic chair, looked troubled. "As a lawyer, I would never allow a client of mine to hand over goods without getting a proper quid pro quo," she said to Shpitzer, who drank in his wife's words like an eager student.

That evening, after the end of the holiday, Livni's soul-searching led her to a decision that would change her life: It was time to get involved in politics.

At the time, Livni's offices consisted of two small rooms she rented in Metzudat Ze'ev, the Tel Aviv building that houses Likud headquarters. But she was a stranger to political activity. Her father, Eitan Livni, the operations officer of the pre-state Irgun underground led by Menachem Begin, had served as a Likud Knesset member, but she was not even a member of the party. Livni's father had told her: When you decide that you are interested in entering politics for the right reasons, you will do it on your own. On that Yom Kippur, Livni felt she had identified the right inner motivation. Shpitzer backed her decision and emphasized to her that the move would lead to her becoming prime minister, "because that is what he thinks of his wife," friends of the couple say, "a woman who will always go all the way to the end."

From that decision in the mid-1990s until the current Kadima primary race, Shpitzer has been working to realize his wife's political ambitions, serving as her operations officer and dedicated to the success of the political persona that developed by his side. In Friday evening conversations with friends, he likes to say that his role is not that of actor, but of stagehand. He accompanies her in all her undertakings, helping to choose advisers and aides, fund-raising, supervising the campaign's financial accounts, producing posters and bumper stickers, dealing with the direct-mailing lists, handing out sandwiches and drinks in parlor meetings and attending sessions of the key strategic staff - chief of staff Amir Goldstein, strategist Eyal Arad and adman Reuven Adler (the last two former members of Ariel Sharon's "ranch forum") - at the couple's home.

It was Shpitzer who recruited Goldstein, formerly vice president of Cellcom, the Israeli cellular phone company, to the foreign minister's team a year ago. The two had met when Goldstein was head of the Shikun Dan neighborhood committee. He and a friend set up an investment fund of former employees of Amdocs. After reading about the project in the press, Shpitzer called Goldstein and suggested they meet. Goldstein, who thought they would be talking business, was surprised to hear Shpitzer tell him that Livni was looking for a chief of staff and would like to meet with him in that regard. Since then, Goldstein has been occupied mainly with Livni's campaign in Kadima, raising funds and creating a telemarketing system to keep in touch with party members.

Shpitzer himself is an industrious fieldworker. One Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, Livni spoke to friends at a Tel Aviv cafe about the need to restore trust to Israeli politics, achieve a breakthrough with the Palestinians and regularize relations between the government and the Supreme Court. As his wife spoke, Shpitzer scurried about, distributing party membership forms, patting people on the shoulder and whispering to them, "Now is the time. Join. Have an impact. Vote in the primary. That is how you can help Tzipi."

A few days later, Livni and Shpitzer invited Housing and Construction Minister Ze'ev Boim and his wife, Edna, to their home for an intimate dinner. Over a zucchini quiche, a rich platter of cheeses and a large vegetable salad, they tried to persuade Boim - who is known as a tough nut to crack - to declare his support for Livni. The foreign minister explained why she thinks she is qualified for the job. Shpitzer served the food, cleared the table and generally tried to pamper the guests. Afterward he stayed in telephone contact with Edna Boim, to ensure that her husband would back the right person. It didn't help. Boim decided to back Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Shpitzer is "Livni's No. 1 soldier," says Yitzhak Regev, the chairman of Kadima's northern headquarters. "The man simply loves to serve and promote his wife. A few weeks ago, they held an event at their home for about 200 key activists, and he did everything: replaced a burnt-out light bulb, saw to the refreshments, provided explanations and argued with the guests. Livni arrived at the last minute, and until then he had a fine time managing the whole affair. When she arrived, he stepped aside and left the stage to her alone. My impression is that he is enjoying it all immensely, convinced with every fiber of his being that she is the right person for the job."

Pale by comparison

Shpitzer, 57, declined to be interviewed for this article or to allow us to accompany him in his campaign activity. Conversations with his acquaintances tend to repeat themselves: he is an ideal spouse, a great blessing to a career-minded woman and believes in Livni to the point of adoration. He is also said to be a warm person, a regular good guy, with a sense of humor, good spirits and sensitivity to his surroundings - traits that cannot always be attributed to Livni. He is not arrogant and is not dizzied by his wife's status; on the contrary, he tries to blur his family connections.

Says Ran Feingold, the political assistant to Deputy Foreign Minister Majali Wahabi, who is deeply involved in Livni's primary campaign: "Livni is without doubt the person best suited to lead the country, but she has a coldness and hardness about her, so it's fortunate that she has at her side this 'heating element' in the form of Naftali. I brought many Kadima activists to him first, to get a hug, and then to her, to finalize things. There are people who need a caress, a warm talk, personal empathy. He knows how to do that, how to soften people. She doesn't - she is a leader, and her role is not to be buddy-buddy. And the combination works, it can't fail." Amid the buzzing beehive of aides, strategists and advisers, Naftul, as his wife calls him, retains a place of honor.

"When I fall to pieces, Naftali will always be there to put me together again," Livni said of her husband in an interview three years ago. Indeed, those who have worked closely with her believe that Shpitzer's presence imbues her with confidence.

Says one person who knows the couple: "In stressful situations of the kind that are liable to make you lose control, his presence by her side, or the possibility she has of calling him, are of great help to her. Even if he does not contribute in a practical way, he assists her mentally. Naftali knows how to contain the problematic sides of her character; he stabilizes her."

That is why he is often present at her discreet meetings with ministers, MKs and staff members, and that is also why she consults with him frequently and listens to his opinions about political, policy and media developments. For example, following the Winograd Committee's interim report on the handling of the Second Lebanon War, Shpitzer was present at a critical meeting that Livni held at home with MK Avigdor Yitzhaki, one of the only two Kadima MKs who dared call for the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (the other was Marina Solodkin). Shpitzer was unshakably convinced that his wife must not resign in the wake of the report, and said so in the meeting with Yitzhaki. "Did she do anything bad?" he insisted. "The very opposite is the case."

Shpitzer, who stayed close to his wife in the period of the report's submission and almost abandoned his job in the advertising agency he co-owns, implored her not to listen to the advice of some of her aides - that she should start rolling the snowball that would make Olmert resign. Shpitzer publicly opposed the live press conference in which Livni called for Olmert to resign. In retrospect, Livni agreed with her husband that the press conference was a big mistake.

Even when Shpitzer is not physically present, Livni draws inspiration from him. In February 2006, just two weeks after being appointed foreign minister, she paid a working visit to Washington. She was tense and worked up about it. The Americans did their best to make her feel at home, and President George Bush did his usual act of entering "by surprise" while Livni was meeting with the national security adviser, Steve Hadley. Livni was most uptight over the joint press conference that was scheduled after her meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, because she would have to speak in English, in which she is no more than reasonably fluent. Her aides had prepared a document for her to read, but the Israeli ambassador to Washington at the time, Danny Ayalon, recommended that she speak spontaneously. After the press conference, which was broadcast live on television, she and Ayalon drove together to her hotel.

"She was overwrought, and before anything she called Naftali, in Israel," Ayalon recalls. "The first thing she asked him was 'How was I?' Then she burst into gales of laughter. After she finished talking, I asked her what Naftali had said, and she replied, 'He said I was superb, but that I was pale compared to Condoleezza.' I saw how close their relations are and how one comment by him was enough to dissolve all her tension."

Political shift

Shpitzer was born in Afula to parents who had survived the Holocaust. His father, from Transylvania, was a construction worker and afterward a contractor, and his mother was a housewife. She had been raised by an aunt, in Vienna. When she was 14 she was bitten by a dog and hospitalized. World War II was raging and the family fled, leaving her behind. She was transported to a death camp, but survived and immigrated to Israel, where she met her future husband, Shpitzer's father, who had also survived a death camp. Shpitzer's mother died at the age of 54 from severe asthma; his father still lives in Afula. Shpitzer has a sister (54) and a brother (39).

After completing his army service as a paramedic officer and deputy commander of a resuscitation unit, with the rank of major, Shpitzer enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He earned an MBA in marketing and personnel management. As a student, he worked for a time in the Government Companies Authority. Twenty years later, Livni would be appointed to head the authority, to execute the privatization plan of then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, after she had failed to obtain a realistic slot on the Likud list in the 1996 general elections.

Shpitzer's parents were supporters of Mapai - the forerunner of today's Labor Party - and he continued to espouse its views for many years after marrying Livni. His political leanings were not a cause of friction with her parents, who were staunch advocates of Herut, Mapai's arch-rival; indeed, at the time Eitan Livni was a Herut MK. At their first meeting, he asked his future son-in-law just two questions: what his name was and whether he kept kosher. He left politics aside.

Shpitzer's political orientation underwent a shift following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. He was outraged by the sweeping condemnation of the right wing for fomenting the public atmosphere that led to the assassination. For the first time in his life, he voted Likud - for Netanyahu, in 1996 - and also joined the party. Not surprisingly, this transformation occurred in perfect coordination with Livni's initial foray into politics.

Livni and Shpitzer believe that in the present political constellation, there is no substantive ideological difference between the big parties. In several parlor meetings, Shpitzer noted that the difference lies in the leadership, in the person who heads the party and aspires to lead the country. The public, he said, should decide which party to vote for on the basis of its leader. In meetings with Livni's strategic team, Shpitzer said it was essential to illuminate her qualities as a leader in the Kadima primary campaign. Speaking to close friends, he dismissed angrily and contemptuously the allegations about Livni's lack of military experience and whether she would be able to handle a 3 A.M. call on the hot line. The chauvinistic tone that emanated from Ehud Barak's calling his wife "Tzipora" (her full name, which means "bird") is ludicrous and revolting, he believes.

According to Shpitzer, Livni should declare openly that she has no military experience - that is, she has no bad military experience. She brings hope. Let "the boys" and "the generals" spout their brand of folklore. While they spent years running over hills and firing rifles, she was thinking strategically, seeing the comprehensive picture. There are more than enough honchos in the army; a leader has to offer a great deal more than that.

Shpitzer takes pride in the fact that by the age of 13, Livni was a successful playmaker on the Elitzur Tel Aviv team in the girls' basketball league. Already then she showed her singular ability to read the map and grasp quickly the possible scenarios lying ahead.

Mossad chief

Shpitzer has been deeply involved in his wife's political career from her first campaign, in 1996. At that time he distributed bumper stickers, prepared leaflets and posters, and was with her on the stump. In the 1999 campaign, he came up with her campaign slogan: "Tzipi Livni, the persuasive voice of the Likud."

Shpitzer's ideological integration in the Likud was rapid. Three years ago, when Livni decided to throw in her lot with Ariel Sharon and help create a new centrist party, Shpitzer argued vehemently that this would be political suicide for her. However, a week after his wife made her final decision to go with Sharon, Shpitzer was convinced that she had acted wisely, and continued to be her helpmeet in the internal Kadima campaign, in which she obtained the No. 3 slot, behind Sharon and Shimon Peres.

When she was appointed foreign minister, following the resignation of Silvan Shalom (Likud), Shpitzer tried to find ways to lighten the heavy burden she had to carry, because for the first few months she served simultaneously as justice minister and minister of immigrant absorption as well. One of his clients in the ad agency at the time was Dita Kohl Roman, then the chief editor and publisher of Metropolis magazine.

"I thought I would jump off the roof if I had to write about one more city," Kohl Roman recalls. "I needed a change, and Naftali, who was responsible for our product labeling and marketing strategy, was looking for someone to help Tzipi set up her bureau in the Foreign Ministry. I was very friendly with Naftali, and within 24 hours I was catapulted into the job. I have a type of Foreign Ministry myself, I am familiar with the territory, and Naftali thought that my experience and skills could be helpful.

"I jumped straight into the water. I was by her side on all her trips and meetings, and I did everything - conducted talks with the workers' committees, held contacts with Condoleezza Rice's staff and briefed the international media. I had no job description, but I did everything necessary to set up the personnel unit with which she continued to work. Naftali's idea was excellent. He complements her. Tzipi is fulfilling her vocation, serving the public and engaging in policy-making, and he is there to make it possible for her. He assumed responsibility for the house and the children, particularly for the lengthy periods when she is out of the country. In a relationship you have to share and support, and he does that absolutely."

Shpitzer likes to surprise his listeners with political commentaries about his wife. In his perception, he told one of the political activists, Livni espouses opinions that are to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu. His wife, he says, has red lines that she will never cross, such as her consistent objection to the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. The difference, Shpitzer says, is that Livni is ready to listen, will outflank you from the left but will not give in; whereas Netanyahu, he maintains, despite his assertive words, will forsake his views easily.

He is also convinced that his wife is far less rigid and "correct" than her public perception would suggest. If photographs were published showing her letting her hair down at weddings and parties, dancing on tables in a nightclub to Mediterranean music or drumming on her percussion set, her image would get a serious infusion of color.

A year ago, Shpitzer provided the proof to a handful of close friends. At the bar-mitzvah party of the son of his business partner, Ilan Shir, held in the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv, the singer Alon Olearchik took the stage with a guitar and started to play "with Livni beating away on the drums behind him," a party guest relates. "At that moment Naftali was proud as punch."

They were brought together by a friend who knew one of Livni's girlfriends. She was 26 at the time, back after a year of working for the Mossad espionage agency in Paris, and had recently begun law studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. Shpitzer was 32. Within three weeks he declared his intention to marry her, and three months later they broke the news to their parents.

Livni was still a Mossad employee, but she would have to spend a number of years abroad to move up in the organization. Shpitzer was dead-set against this, and she decided to respect his wish and embark on a different professional track. The decision scarred Livni mentally, and it was only a few years ago, it is said, that she forgave Shpitzer from preventing her from pursuing a career in the secret service. He, for his part, likes to tell this story to close friends and conclude it by saying that Israel lost a superb Mossad chief.

At the outset of his professional life, Shpitzer contemplated going into medicine, but finally decided on advertising and joined the well-known Ariely agency. He was sent to learn the intricacies of the trade in the London branch of the American agency Young & Rubicam, and for a time shuttled between Tel Aviv and London.

About 10 years ago, he and Ilan Shir established a firm that is located in Ramat Hahayal and deals mainly with branding Web sites and institutions. Among their clients are the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot and the Holon Municipality. Shir is the creative director, Shpitzer the economic strategist.

Shpitzer and Livni have lived in Ramat Hahayal since 1984. He often took pride in declaring that his wife is one of the few politicians in Israel who established a community here. As a lawyer, she specialized in labor relations and commercial transactions, particularly real estate. In the 1980s, she was the legal adviser to the Lev Hasharon Regional Council, and at her initiative, farmland in the area was rezoned to enable the establishment of the community of Zoran. She accompanied the process from its inception, conducted a lottery for people who wanted to buy land in the new community, chose the contractors and oversaw all the economic aspects of the project.

When the couple was offered a chance to acquire one of the remaining building lots in Zoran, Shpitzer was enthralled by the idea, but Livni refused, fearing the move would appear to be improper. So Shpitzer found himself in an old, peeling single-family home in suburban Tel Aviv. The couple has two sons: Omri, who is about to conclude his service as a paramedic in a navy patrol unit; and Yuval, who will soon be drafted into the Paratroops. Both sons want nothing to do with the media, especially Omri, who was scathed by a press report that he had been confined to quarters after drinking Coke and whiskey at a performance the singer Rita gave for soldiers.

Shpitzer likes to keep a low media profile, but he is no Sonia Peres, the Israeli president's reclusive spouse. Indeed, he reminds Yitzhak Regev of another spouse, the one who accompanied the man who started Livni on the race for leadership of Kadima and the Prime Minister's Office.

"Not since Lily Sharon have I seen this level of support by a spouse for a candidate," Regev says. "Lily, too, knew exactly the amount of intervention that would be convenient and fitting for Sharon."W