Opinion

Tzipi Livni Only Had One Dish on the Menu

Livni's difficulty in taking on issues beyond the peace process and the two-state solution led to her political downfall

Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni announces retirement, Tel Aviv, February 18, 2019.
Motti Milrod

Shortly after the beginning of the social protests during the summer of 2011, I was invited to a meeting with the leader of the opposition in the Knesset at the time, Tzipi Livni. She was trying to understand what was happening on the streets. It was a rare moment when everyone was trying to figure out what was going on with the tent encampments on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. How did issues such as social justice, the cost of living and the welfare state suddenly come back into our lives and dominate the conversation after years during which topics such as the diplomatic process, a regional Middle East summit and the 1967 borders were at the top of the agenda?

Livni admitted at the time, and has said time and again since, that she was in politics to advance negotiations with the Palestinians. That’s her brand, that’s her sphere of interest and everything else is less important to her. She didn’t lie and she didn’t sugarcoat things. To borrow a culinary metaphor, Livni’s menu had just one dish. If it didn’t suit diners, they could go somewhere else.

>>Read more: A champion of alliances in Israeli politics, Tzipi Livni rejected at finish line | Analysis 

In her political career, she took her dish from Likud to Kadima, from Kadima to Hatnuah and then to the Zionist Union, until she was booted out on live television in early January. After that, she tried to find other buyers for her cooking, but no one jumped at it, not even the voters.

In busy tourist areas, there are restaurants that offer something for everyone: pasta, sushi, hamburgers, vegetarian and Asian, in a bid to rope in as many tourists as possible. They don’t specialize in any specific cuisine, but it’s adequate to suit a large number of people. Two political parties, Hosen L’Yisrael and Yesh Atid, are that kind of restaurant.

You’ll find left and right-wingers there, religious and secular, socialists and capitalists. The menu is varied and features a large number of choices. It might drive the cook crazy, but everything has to be done to attract clientele. The absence of a clear theme is the party’s ideology. For every statement on one side of an issue, you’ll find the opposite too. For everyone supporting a specific stance, you’ll find an opponent too.

It’s easy to mock parties like that, particularly if you have a fine palate when it comes to sushi, but it turns out parties like that can be quite captivating. The promise inherent in the ability of political rivals to get along together is nothing to dismiss out of hand. After a decade with Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, during which left-wing politics has become a dirty word, when statesmanship is trampled upon and when the gatekeepers are made into the enemy of the government, there is a great longing for something different: a politics that is calmer, more united and more inclusive. Even if it looks a bit artificial.

Why didn’t Livni find her place there? For two reasons. She is overly identified with the peace process and the two-state solution. Her positions cannot be papered over. During an election campaign, in centrist parties, ambiguity is an asset and clarity a liability. A second and no less important reason is that Livni’s career has been a contradictory display of diplomatic pragmatism and personal-political rigidity.

She came a long, admirable way in her understanding of foreign policy and developed into an interesting figure in that regard, but she brought almost nothing of her pragmatic thinking to the political arena. Not in her relations with Shaul Mofaz in Kadima; not when dealing with the ultra-Orthodox parties, which preferred Netanyahu over her when she led Kadima; and not in her relations with Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay, whose primacy in their joint slate, the Zionist Union, she did not recognize. That put off Hosen L’Yisrael’s Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, who decided not to bring her into their respective parties.

Livni’s decision to leave politics weakens the camp supporting the two-state solution, both because of her great experience and because she is not one of those politicians who presents an ambiguous and convoluted stance. The lesson to be drawn from her departure, however, should not be to ditch peace proposals and adopt ambiguity as a way of life.

Her mistakes stem from her difficulty in taking on additional issues that are important to Israelis and from a political inflexibility that caused her to lose the political power that was given to her, power that at its height yielded 28 Knesset seats for the party she led.