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A Champion of Alliances in Israeli Politics, Tzipi Livni Rejected at Finish Line

After 20 years in politics, Livni found that the public had turned its back on her ideological hallmark – a two-state solution as a guarantee of Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish democracy

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni announces retirement, Tel Aviv, February 18, 2019.
Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni announces retirement, Tel Aviv, February 18, 2019. Credit: AFP
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Tzipi Livni has been in national politics for 20 years. For the first decade, she was on the rise, sometimes meteorically. She served in highly senior positions and came within arm’s length of the summit – the Prime Minister’s Office.

For the second decade, she was on the decline. She made a failed run for prime minister, took a time-out from politics, returned, served a pointless term in Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, was fired, formed the Zionist Union joint ticket with Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog and then was humiliatingly ousted by his successor, Avi Gabbay.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 16Credit: Haaretz

Over the last four years, the public has turned its back on Livni’s ideological hallmark – diplomatic negotiations, seeking peace, a two-state solution as a guarantee of Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish and democratic state. In other words, what is commonly termed the left. She discovered that there were no buyers for these wares.

>> Analysis: Tzipi Livni, one of the best prime ministers Israel never had

Based on the in-depth polling she conducted in recent weeks, she realized that the fault line between the right and the center-left is no longer over the Palestinian issue, but over democracy – the assault on the rule of law, the attempts to undermine the High Court of Justice, the racist legislation.

So she changed her strategy. “The yechida for democracy,” was her new campaign slogan, using a Hebrew word that means both a military unit and “the only one.” But that didn’t work either. The people flocking to Benny Gantz and his vague messages left her below the electoral threshold.

Her decision to leave politics even before party tickets are submitted to the Central Elections Committee, to avoid wasting the “bloc’s” precious votes, was logical, necessary and dignified. A day after she was beheaded on live television at a meeting of the Zionist Union’s Knesset members, she promised that this is what she would do if there were no other choice, and she kept her word.

The irony is that the high priestess of the merger trend, the first person to identify it, was left alone just short of the finish line, unwanted by any of the key players in the center-left camp. Gabbay threw her out, Yair Lapid and Gantz refused to take her in, and all the others whose names were mentioned – like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Meretz party – weren’t really relevant options.

In the political world, Livni was considered a tough customer. She was unsympathetic, not a pal, not nice. The only person who forged a deep personal connection and even a friendship with her was Herzog (just two weeks ago, they and their spouses had dinner together at her home). But Herzog could get along with Dracula.

The other players in the arena had trouble swallowing her. It wasn’t just her leftist image, but her character, that drove them away.

Lapid may have made a mistake by not bringing her into his Yesh Atid party. True, Livni alone wouldn’t have crossed the electoral threshold, but by joining forces with someone who has a clear message on the issues Yesh Atid presumes to represent, Lapid’s party might have gained momentum.

Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party was winning barely 1.5 Knesset seats in the polls. But when he joined Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael party, it created momentum greater than Telem’s size alone could account for. That’s also presumably what will happen with Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher party, which also seems set to join Gantz.

And that’s without even mentioning the ultimate merger between Livni’s Hatnuah party and Herzog’s Labor on the eve of the 2015 election. The whole they created was much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Lapid had nothing to lose by bringing in Livni. His years of heroic efforts to woo rightist voters had in any case failed utterly. Livni could only have helped him, primarily at the expense of Labor and Meretz.

Lapid has once again proven that he’s unsuited for teamwork. His ego occupies the entirety of the web of considerations that’s supposed to guide a politician competing to lead his bloc rather than to be prime minister.

On the very day that Livni left politics, taking with her the values she represented, Netanyahu invited the leaders of the Habayit Hayehudi and National Union parties, Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, to his office. Like a matchmaker run amok, he will request and urge and exercise all his “charm” to convince them to run on a joint ticket together with Kahanists, racists and xenophobes, with fomenters of division and persecutors of homosexuals, from Eli Yishai to Michael Ben Ari to Itamar Ben-Gvir.

It’s for the sake of the bloc, of course. But also so that they’ll be by his side in the Knesset during the coming term, when he seeks to pass demagogic legislation that will save him from the terror of the law. He’s certain he can count on them.

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