Come March 17, Tzipi Livni might just actually unseat Benjamin Netanyahu. For the recently-fired justice minister this should serve as long-waited, much-welcomed vengeance: Netanyahu, after all, not only sacked her last week but also took her chance to become prime minister in 2009, after she won the most seats in the Knesset but failed to form a coalition by herself.
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According to a poll conducted this week by Channel 10 news, the just-announced unified center-left bloc headed by Livni and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog would defeat Likud and Netanyahu, with 22 seats in the Knesset as opposed to Netanyahu’s (or former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, should he choose to run in the Likud primaries and win) 20.
What makes this poll – and a similar one published earlier this week by the Knesset television channel – strange is that previous polls indicated that if Livni’s Hatnuah ran alone, it would not even make it into the Knesset. A Herzog-led Labor would drop from 16 seats in the outgoing Knesset to 13-15 seats at best, not even near enough to challenge Netanyahu.
Apparently two wrongs can make a right. While by themselves neither Livni nor Herzog inspire much support, let alone enthusiasm, together it seems the alliance of the soon-to-be-irrelevant and the never-were-relevant-to-begin-with might just win big. Which reflects more about the current undesirability of Netanyahu than his opponents themselves.
But never mind the reasons for their current upswing: If the polls are correct (and, indeed, a lot can change before March), this means that Livni might just complete one of the most unexpected, undeserved political comebacks in recent memory. For a while she seemed totally gone, another once-serious prospect turned into joke-candidate, but now she’s back, proving that Israeli politics is a deck of cards that is constantly, arbitrarily shuffling.
Why Diaspora Jews love her
Livni is the sort of Israeli politician foreign media outlets and Diaspora Jews love: moderate, well-spoken and totally unproven. A BBC piece in 2007 described her as “Israel’s Mrs. Clean.” Both Time magazine and Newsweek have had her on their most influential lists. A Guardian headline in 2008 described her as “Guardian of Israel’s future.” A 2008 New York Times profile described her as “striking” and fawned over her “good faith, her energy, her honesty, her determination.”
You get the point: Livni has fans. A staunch advocate of a two-state solution, she is everything a liberal Zionist might want from an Israeli leader: patriotic but not fundamentalist, tough but not uncompromising.
The daughter of two prominent Irgun members and a former protege of Ariel Sharon, a sense of history permeates her. She can charm a conference room with talk about “brave” decisions and “historic” turning points like no other. Unlike some Israeli leaders, the word “peace” comes naturally to her. There is no doubt, she knows how to talk the talk better than anyone else.
But if the last two years have proven anything, it is a passive politician who has done nothing to earn the accolades she received.
During the last 18 months, Livni has been a senior member in one of the worst governments in the history of Israel. A government she herself described this month as “extremist, provocative and paranoid,” led by a coalition that has tried its best to turn Israel into something dangerously close to apartheid. While she spent her days trying to rekindle doomed, dead-in-the-water peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the government she was a member of has led Israel down a nationalistic, bigoted, separatist path, making Israel more internationally isolated than ever; a government that approved the Jewish nation-state bill, which removes the word “democratic” from the definition of Israel’s identity as a nation.
Yes, Livni bitterly contested the nation-state bill. Yes, she criticized it heavily. Yes, she drafted her own version of the bill, designed to make the Jewish and democratic aspects of Israel’s identity “equal.” But at no point did she take an actual stand, beyond words, by offering her resignation. She stayed on, even after her party member Amir Peretz resigned, proving he has more guts than her. Had Netanyahu not fired her and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, it is entirely conceivable she would still be the justice minister right now, a member of a government that did everything in its power to bury the two-state solution she speaks so fondly of.
A career filled with disappointments
Truth be told, despite her “brave” image abroad, Livni’s always been that way. Her career has been so far rife with indecisiveness and failure: both failure to achieve and failure to act. As if concocted by a team of J Street speechwriters, she is Israel’s falsest promise: the face of a liberal, well-meaning Israel that quite frankly doesn’t hold up to scrutiny in real life.
A former Mossad agent and lawyer by trade, Livni spent much of her political career as the eternal No. 2 – first to Sharon, her political mentor, then to Ehud Olmert. A major aide to Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza, she achieved popularity very quickly: She was moderate, squeaky-clean and hard-working. She seemed like a great promise.
But that promise was quickly derailed by repeated displays of ineptitude. She won the most seats in the Knesset in 2009, only to lose the premiership due to indecisiveness when it came to political dealings and her lack of political chops. She was head of the opposition, but to say she didn’t stand out would be a gross understatement, since one could be forgiven for assuming she ceased to exist.
When Israel was consumed by social protests against the soaring cost of living in 2011, she failed to capitalize on the public’s anger. Even with 500,000 people in the streets calling for Netanyahu’s resignation, the woman who told the world she can solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict failed to oust “King Bibi” from his throne.
Her indecisiveness appeared again before the 2013 election, when she briefly retired from politics after losing to Mofaz in the Kadima primaries, when she decided to come back as the head of an agreeable gang of political has-beens banded together under the moniker of Hatnuah, when she debated at length a possibility of joining hands with then-Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich and when an 89-years-old Shimon Peres refused her overtures to return to politics so she could be his No. 2. By then, Livni’s lustre had largely faded.
Israeli politics have undergone a huge change since the 2011 protests. With political discourse largely concentrated on socioeconomic issues, Livni was a relic of another time, when Israelis expected little more from their public servants than to tell them what they thought should be done about the Palestinians. She was the only politician to run on a platform that exclusively dealt with the peace process. As a result, she was awarded six seats for her efforts, while her successor as the great white hope of the Ashkenazi secular elite, Yair Lapid, won 19.
Having learned the hardships of opposition, she eventually joined the government of Netanyahu, a man she described in no uncertain terms shortly before. Back then, she said she is joining Netanyahu in order to “influence from within” and get Israel back on the path to a two-state solution. We all know how that turned out in the end.
Always someone else’s No. 2
Now, after having gone through four parties in seven years, Livni joins hands with Herzog, an unremarkable, permanent fixture of Israeli political life, and with her old nemesis, Mofaz, another refugee who found shelter from irrelevance in Labor’s arms. In accordance with a rotation agreement between the two, in two years time – should they win – she might become prime minister herself.
In this election, now that this summer’s Gaza war and the nation-state bill and recent terror attacks have brought the Palestinian conflict back into the front of Israel’s political discourse, Livni will attempt to renew some of the appeal she lost. She will also do her best to make people forget that in the past two years she was an accessory to all the trends she now rebukes and promises to fight.
Once again, she will talk of a two-state solution and the need to recover Israel’s democracy. She will talk of peace and brave decisions. She will promise to lead, counting on the selective memory of Israelis to make them forget that she lacks the capacity. If only she was allowed to lead, she will repeat the same old lie repeated by every Israeli politician with a bad record: that she could really do great things.
But at what point does the credit given to a politician run out? Livni has been in politics for 15 years. During that time, she has done nothing but prove herself to be a great ambassador to a country that is nowhere to be found on a map.
Can she and Herzog, together, win this election? They might. A lot can change until March.
But don’t expect her to do great things. There’s nothing in her history that suggests she will.