In September 2009, Tzipi Livni and Madonna met for dinner in the chic Tel Aviv restaurant Stefan Brown.
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Normally, this wouldn't be something to get excited about. Israeli politicians always make sure they meet international mega-celebrities when they visit Israel. It's just part of life in this provincial country. What was remarkable was the contrast between the two women's personalities.
Madonna is an artist of reinvention, the definition of trendsetter, a woman who has taken more risks in her career than an Israeli fighter pilot. On the other hand, Tzipi Livni, then head of the opposition and chairwoman of the Kadima party, is the eternal No. 2, the endless contemplator, the Israeli Al Gore.
Tzipi Livni is one of the biggest questions surrounding the upcoming Israeli elections. She is not the biggest, of course. In accordance with her political trajectory, she is the No. 2 question behind her old mentor, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who may or may not run for office again now that he's been cleared of almost all corruption charges against him – aside from one pesky count of breach of trust. As of this writing, Livni, who only six months ago announced her "retirement" from politics, is still contemplating whether or not to run and in what capacity. Should she run on her own with a new party, as her former political partner Haim Ramon suggested? Should she run as Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich's second in command, forming a unified female-headed list that might trounce the macho bravado of Netanyahu and Lieberman, appositely nicknamed Biberman by the Twittersphere? Or should she get behind Olmert, assuming he decides to run? Oh, decisions, decisions.
And what if none of these options work out? There's always the immortal, ageless President Shimon Peres. In one of the funniest, most bizarre turns in this election season, Livni is reportedly pushing Peres, 89 years young, to run against Netanyahu. In a way, this is a return to her roots. After all, the old guard has been good for Livni's career. She was the mentee of the other Methuselah of Israeli politics, Ariel Sharon, joining him in Kadima and finally rising to the post of Foreign Minister when he suffered a stroke that rendered him comatose. But the tragedy of this story is that Livni was not supposed to be a desperate No. 2. She was supposed to be the leader of the Israeli center-left bloc, the great white hope of the dwindling camp of secular Ashkenazis. She had everything she needed, everything going for her, except one thing: the courage to lead.
A leader's pedigree
You wouldn’t know how indecisive she is by looking at her curriculum vitae. She was born in Tel Aviv in 1958, the daughter of Eitan and Sara Livni, both prominent members of the pre-state Zionist fighting force, the Irgun. After her service in the Israel Defense Forces, she was recruited by the Mossad, where she worked for five years and even took part in Operation Wrath of God, the mission to avenge the killing of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, according to the Sunday Times. She resigned after five years to marry and finish her law studies.
After a decade of practicing law, she was finally ready to enter politics, running in the Likud primaries under the slogan "Tzipi Livni – an institution (Mossad in Hebrew) of a name". She reached 32nd place on the Likud list and did not enter the Knesset, but was appointed director of the first Netanyahu government's privatization program, a job she got thanks to Avigdor Lieberman, then Netanyahu's chief of staff. In 1999, after the election, she finally entered the Knesset.
She didn't initially seem like a political maverick. But she was a hard worker. Back in those years, she was a die-hard Likudnik, proposing laws to require an 80-MK majority to implement the Palestinian right of return and a 61-MK majority to give up pieces of Jerusalem.
After Ariel Sharon became prime minister in 2001, she was appointed minister of regional development, then minister of agriculture. In 2003, she became minister of immigrant absorption, a role for which she received the Quality of Governance award. In 2004 she was also appointed minister of housing and construction and later to her third ministerial role, minister of justice, replacing the late Yosef "Tommy" Lapid after his Shinui party left Sharon's governing coalition. Livni went on to make a name for herself as a dovish Likud member. She served as an important intermediary between Sharon, then-Finance Minister Netanyahu and other Likud ministers such as Silvan Shalom and Limor Livnat, all of who opposed Sharon's plan to universally disengage from Gaza. At the same time, she set up the legal framework for the controversial plan and led the battle to approve it in the Knesset. In interviews, she expressed support for a two-state solution.
In 2005, she followed Sharon to the new Kadima party and was appointed Foreign Minister, which eclipsed her role as justice minister. She was only the second woman in the history of Israel to hold the position of foreign minister and gradually became one of the strongest politicians in Israel, thanks to her relationship with Sharon and Olmert, who replaced him as prime minister and head of Kadima after Sharon suffered a massive stroke in January of 2006. In 2007, she was counted among Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People and ranked 39th in Forbes' Most Powerful Women in the World list.
Up until 2007, she was not a leader. She was a powerful politician, but ultimately a No. 2 for people like Sharon and Olmert. But then, in 2007, the Winograd Commission heavily criticized Olmert's handling of the Second Lebanon War, and Livni was quick to demand he resign from the post of Prime Minister, offering herself as a substitute. Olmert ignored her demand, and she stayed in his cabinet. Although he was criticized for continuing to serve a man she claimed unfit to lead Israel, she was still admired in Israel and around the world for her pragmatism and moderate view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Failure to launch
In 2008, it was finally her time to step up to the big seat. When Olmert was forced to resign from the Prime Minister's office to face criminal charges, Livni narrowly beat out former IDF chief Shaul Mofaz for leadership of Kadima. Peres asked her to form a new government after Olmert's resignation, but she was unable to do so. So she had no choice but to go to elections, where she campaigned against Benjamin Netanyahu and for the completion of Sharon and then Olmert's efforts to revive the peace process. With the Labor party in ruins, she became the darling of the center-left, even earning Haaretz's endorsement.
And what do you know? Livni won. Well, sort of. In an outcome somewhat reminiscent of Al Gore's failed presidential bid, Kadima won the most seats in the Knesset. But the identity of Israel's Prime Minister is not determined by who has the biggest party. Whoever can form a coalition gets the job, and after excruciating negotiations Livni was again unable to form one – the center-left block was just too small. So Netanyahu, with one less seat in the Knesset than Kadima, was asked to form a government and became prime minister. It was the first time in Israel's history that the party with most seats did not form a government, and it happened on Livni's watch.
As opposition leader, Livni never quite recovered from losing the elections. Gradually, but consistently, she petered out. She said all the right words, but lacked the charisma and guts to really lead a fighting opposition that would have given Netanyahu a hard time. After some time in a leadership position, it was clear Livni lacked that killer instinct that separates leaders from ordinary politicians. Her indecisiveness, which had earlier contributed to her prudent and moderate image, became her handicap. In December of 2009, she even lost some of her European clout after a London court issued a warrant for her arrest, accusing her of war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
In March 2012, her political career reached its end (well, sort of: political careers never really end in Israel), she lost to Mofaz in the Kadima primary by a wide margin. She resigned from the Knesset and announced her retirement from political life, but with typical indecisiveness, quickly noted she would remain in "public life".
She would go on mulling forever, but she faced an increasingly pressing deadline. With Olmert out of the picture, and Peres turning down her overtures with typically self-indulgent politeness, she decided to run for the Knesset as the leader of a makeshift party, aptly called Hatnuah (The Movement), which she founded a few days before the deadline for candidates in the 2013 election.
Winning just six seats, the results were even more disappointing than before. No. 2 never seemed a more attractive - and unattainable - position.