People like to be afraid of Benjamin Netanyahu. People like to loathe Ehud Barak. In contrast, until this week, they liked to root for Tzipi Livni. The reason is not clear. Perhaps it's due to her transition from nationalist right to moderate center, or her ability to be fair in a cautious, calculated, balanced way. Perhaps it's because she combines basic Israeliness with North Tel Aviv sophistication.
One way or another, Israelis loved to love the Likud princess who became Kadima queen. Although inexperienced, she wasn't asked difficult questions, and despite her lack of achievements she was not exposed to harsh criticism. The new Reuven Adler star was carried on waves of media support and public sympathy to the coveted threshold of the prime minister's office.
Until this week. This week, with the designated prime minister already on the threshold, something tore in the defensive cape that brought her hither. Livni-Barak's "brothel-client" agreement may have embarrassed Barak, but it also exposed Livni. The half a billion shekels that Kadima's leader offered Shas proved what Ms. Clean meant when she spoke of politics of a different kind. It suddenly transpired that setting up the hope of government is a petty process conducted by small politicians. While the economic storm rages outside, the future prime minister has made no substantial move or statement. All she did was occupy herself in low, shameful, coalition wheeling-dealing. Instead of being the narcissus carried above the murky water, Livni dived into the bog. There, it transpired, were frogs who can swim better than her. There, Livni has no relative advantage.
The result was a forgone conclusion: a double bind. If Livni tries to form a narrow coalition, she will be seen as leftist, lose the center and split Kadima. On the other hand, if she gives in to Shas, she will be seen as an opportunist, lose her secular bourgeois voters and be at the mercy of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. One way or another, she will be worn down and weakened. If she manages to form a coalition, the government will be wretched and shaky. If she fails, she will reach the elections reeking of bog stench. In both scenarios the big winner is Netanyahu.
The public will conclude that all Livni can do is set up an Olmert government without Olmert - which is unnecessary. The public will say that if the left and center can't present a worthy alternative to Kadima's corruption, it's time to give the right a chance.
The 10 days Tzipi Livni has left are decisive. If she continues plodding in the mud, she will sink and ultimately drown. However, the foreign minister still has two alternatives that could pull her out of her predicament at the last moment.
One alternative is to set up an economic emergency government. Shas' extortion underscores the need to form a government that does not depend on that party. Cooperation between the three large Zionist parties is needed more than ever now to set up the embankments that would protect Israel's shores from the tidal waves of global recession. If Livni manages to forge this cooperation and build up Israel's economic defenses, she will achieve a tour de force.
The other alternative is a government that would make peace with Syria. A Kadima-Labor-Meretz government has no hope if it cannot score a swift coup. This would be possible only on the Syrian front. Nothing is assured. Nobody can read Bashar Assad's mind and heart. But senior intelligence officials believe that the chances are at least 50-50. Livni and Barak must make the most of this opportunity.
Many bad things could happen in the Middle East in the next two years. The only positive event that could balance them is a strategic turning point in Damascus. A government that would deal creatively with the economic challenge and responsibly advance the chance for peace would be doing the right thing. Only a Livni-Barak government that is committed to peace in the north would have a right to exist.
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