Analysis

The Political Failures of Tzipi Livni, One of the Best Prime Ministers Israel Never Had

She was popular during her Likud days and even a political asset in several governments, but to get to the top in Israeli politics, you must be able to maintain partnerships and build coalitions

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Zionist Union at a party press conference, December 10, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Tzipi Livni is a political asset. At least that’s the received wisdom in Israeli politics – ever since Benjamin Netanyahu appointed her to the senior role of head of the Government Companies Authority in 1996, and boosted her political career, helping her get into the Knesset in 1999. Ariel Sharon thought she was an asset, appointing her foreign minister and taking her along with him when he broke away from Likud and founded Kadima. Isaac Herzog also thought she was when he proposed that she join forces with Labor in forming Zionist Union and even offered to share his prime-ministerial term with her, should the party win the 2015 election.

And Livni seemed to bear out those valuations in elections. As leader of Kadima in 2009, she actually won one more seat than Netanyahu’s Likud. The party she founded in 2013, Hatnuah, won six seats, out of nothing. And together with Labor, Zionist Union under her joint leadership with Herzog did much better than expected with 24 seats.

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>> Dramatic split in Israeli left as Labor Party breaks away from Livni

But at the same time, Livni has been political kryptonite. She is the only Israeli politician to have twice led the largest party in the Knesset and failed to form a coalition. In Kadima’s short history, she was the only leader to have been dumped by the party membership. On the last day of the 2015 election campaign, Herzog announced that should he win, Livni wouldn’t be half-term prime minister after all – and now, on Tuesday, Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay unceremoniously cut ties with her, announcing without warning that he was breaking up the Zionist Union partnership.

Livni was a popular figure back in her Likud days, and once she left that party, built up her own constituency of predominantly female, centrist and left-of-center voters. But to get to the top in Israeli politics, you have to be able to maintain partnerships and build coalitions, and that is where she failed.

Gabbay announcing Labor split from Livni's Hatnuah.

Was Livni an asset to Gabbay? If the polls are anything to go by, she no longer attracts that many voters, with Zionist Union diving in the surveys to under 10 seats. In private, she blamed Gabbay’s lackluster and muddled leadership for the poor polling. He blamed her for bad-mouthing him and never seriously getting behind his leadership, even though he gave her the titular role as leader of the opposition in the Knesset. There’s no question that as leader of the entire party, Zionist Union’s bad showing is his responsibility. But Livni certainly didn’t go out of her way to promote the idea of Gabbay as prime minister.

Instead, for the last year Livni has been promoting in nearly every interview the idea of “the bloc” of centrist parties, and of holding an open primary for its leadership. Hardly an expression of confidence in Gabbay. But none of the leaders of the center-left have any confidence in each other, which is why now – assuming Livni’s party will run again on its own – there are at least six parties occupying the center-ground.

Livni will be remembered ultimately as one of the best prime ministers Israel never had. But she obviously never had what it takes.