Never Say Never

Whatever happened to Tzipi Livni, the fan favorite, the one commentators once wrote was driven only by self-respect?

Whatever happened to Tzipi Livni, the fan favorite, the one commentators once wrote was driven only by self-respect? Maariv reported this week that sources close to President Shimon Peres are fiercely critical of the Kadima leader. "She's acting like a political amateur," they say, "and we're struggling to understand what exactly she wants."

If we're wondering who exactly are these "sources close to Peres" (his secretary or the presidential cleaner?), perhaps we should consider that the comments came from the president himself, given the coldness with which his proposal to form a unity government was met?

Ten years after his defeat as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is posing as the leader who seeks to build the perfect unity government, promising Kadima real partnership and prominent portfolios. But in his political circle, everyone first and foremost looks out for himself. Shaul Mofaz can get the Defense Ministry and Dalia Itzik can return to her much-loved role as Knesset speaker. All of this, however, will evaporate if Livni hauls Kadima into the opposition.

The pressure on Livni, from both the public and the party, to partner up with Netanyahu does not really move her. Between cabinet meetings and her first meeting with Netanyahu, she said in closed conversations, "a wide coalition essentially means I would be joining a rightist government."

"We went to elections over the issue of a peace process based on the principle of two states for two peoples. A government is formed in order to advance things ... I don't see government as a form of 'Survivor,'" she said. Livni prefers, even after having met Netanyahu, to sit in the opposition rather than join a right-wing government. "Ministries in and of themselves don't interest us. It would be a government without direction," she concluded.

When asked, "Do clearly-drawn guidelines for the coalition agreement not justify full cooperation with Likud?" she replied simply, "Words are reversible."

The election results for the 18th Knesset are among the strangest Israel has seen. Kadima won one more seat than Likud, and seemingly should have been the party chosen to form a government. But in our distorted electoral system, the "bloc" that can bring in allies gets chosen nearly automatically.

The "loser," having won 27 seats, and with a supporting cast of Avigdor Lieberman, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and National Union, can now form a right-wing government with a 65-seat majority.

The settler camp and the extreme right will certainly rejoice, but the last thing Netanyahu wants is to be an extreme-right prime minister. He fears that such a government's odds of surviving are slim, and his own memories of falling from the premiership remain fresh.

The state faces major challenges. It has its sights set on relations with the new U.S. administration and moderate Islamic states, and most importantly, a peace process based on the concept of two states for two peoples. What will Netanyahu say in his first meetings with Barack Obama when asked if he supports this principle?

One diplomat, however, says Livni holds a high card: Netanyahu needs her in order not to be perceived as leader of a narrow right-wing government.

Netanyahu understands that sooner or later such an administration is likely to transform the principle of two states for two peoples into one state for two peoples, as in South Africa. Regardless of how much we bomb Gaza, enough Arabs will remain to form the majority we fear.

Netanyahu is hardly elated at the prospect of forming a right-wing government with Lieberman as a senior partner - he of the poisoned pearls of wisdom - and prefers a wider government with Kadima. Kadima faces twin dangers: If it moves to the opposition, it is likely to crumble. If it joins a Netanyahu-led government, Livni risks being seen as having misled her electorate.

This dead-end can be breached if the two build a rotation government (two years Netanyahu, two years Livni) on the basis of agreed guidelines that allow Kadima one hand on the whip and the other on the bridle. This arrangement would also make it easier for Netanyahu to break free of his dependence on the diktats of the rightist parties.

In the meantime, Livni isn't budging an inch from her stated position, and it's hard to believe the two party leaders will have a partnership by tomorrow morning. As John Kerry said when asked if he would run for president again, "Never say never."