HAIFA: Famously irreverent, Israelis tend to call their leaders by their first name or childhood nickname. But don’t be fooled: Tzipi (Tzipora) Livni is nobody’s close friend. Her dry style, personal remoteness, and forced smiles make her an atypical Israeli. Perhaps the country needs exactly this just now: an atypical Israeli at the steering wheel.
Newly elected as leader of the Kadima party, Livni only barely defeated her rival, Shaul Mofaz. Her predecessor, Ehud Olmert, inundated by corruption charges and set to resign, is hardly her best asset. But, beyond narrow party confines, opinion polls were exceptionally kind: a vast cross-section of the Israeli public wants Livni to lead. It has been a while since any national figure won such high esteem. If she manages to rebuild Olmert’s coalition and become Israel’s next prime minister, Livni’s initial credit at home and abroad will be outstanding.
The reason is that Livni is the quintessential envoy of “Middle Israel. She comes from the heartland of a successful and moderate civil society flanked by extremism and rage.
Despite her brief spell in Mossad, Israel’s spy service, Livni is deeply civilian when set against Israel’s militarized landscape. Given reasonable security conditions, she may be able to navigate Israel from war to peace.
She represents the civic values that have been common to many “middle Israelis ever since Theodore Herzl first put them in writing: the Jewish state must be modern and democratic to the core. It should respectfully leave the rabbis and the army officers in their confined quarters. It belongs in the world of nations, and seriously strives for peace with its Arab neighbors and equality for all its citizens.
The vast center of the Israeli political spectrum nowadays is essentially Herzlian. Uninterested in nationalist daydreams or religious mystique, we simply want to live safely, and, if at all possible, next door to a stable and peaceful Palestine.
But, for now, Middle Israel is conducting its creative and affluent life alongside an assortment of Muslim and Jewish fanatics, many of whom are sponsored by the moderate middle’s tax money. Livni herself, like other ex-Likudniks – including her mentor, Ariel Sharon – cool-headedly read the map. She gave up the dream of Greater Israel in favor of a two-state solution. If she becomes prime minister, her term may prove to be a window of opportunity, perhaps a last chance, to enact this least-of-evils settlement for the region’s future.
Moreover, Livni is as clean as politicians come. Her legal background and previous experience as minister of justice accentuate her self-declared mission: stabilizing Israeli government and cleaning up all traces of corruption, including those associated with Olmert and Sharon. Israel’s excellent judiciary can rely on her full support. Livni is also an unpretentious person, not quite as ascetic as Menachem Begin and David Ben Gurion, but far humbler than Israel’s last four prime ministers, all men of sturdy egos and large expense accounts.
Livni is a selective and unsentimental peacemaker. As minister for foreign affairs, she appeared to distrust Syria’s peace signals but kept an open link of negotiation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. She is not “nice, her rhetoric tends to be flat and uninspiring, and her English is not great. Nor, for that matter, is her Hebrew. But linguistic skills, like gender, are refreshingly irrelevant at this moment.
Far removed from left-wing apologetics, Livni is a self-righteous believer in Israel’s basic right to exist. Yet she is ready to do business with pragmatic Palestinians and offer them full sovereignty in exchange for full peace. She will not allow the repatriation of Palestinians to Israel proper (the controversially named “right of return ), but territory is not holy to her. And she is offering Jews and Arabs some hope, an open horizon, and low-key rationality.
Here is an Israel that you may not recognize, especially if the electronic media is your window on the world. In Israel’s lively market of ideological debates, the fact that Livni is a woman is almost beside the point. After all, Israel is not the United States, and gender can never work as anyone’s sole adjective.
Nevertheless, if Livni becomes Israel’s prime minister in a few weeks, then Israel will become the world’s first country where all three branches of governments are led by women. She would join the head of the legislature, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, and the head of the judiciary, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinish – not bad for a warring nation with generals-turned-politicians and a macho public image.
Middle Israel has produced the Livni mindset, but there are many other forces at work. Livni may fail in several ways. If she does not put a coalition together, Israel will go to the ballot box and a religious-right coalition would be likely to emerge. Even if she persists, she may break her teeth on the same bones of contention that kept her predecessors from achieving security and peace.
But, given Livni’s record, she richly deserves the chance to try.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is Professor and Chair of Modern Israel Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and Director of the Posen Research Forum for Political Thought at the Faculty of Law, Univeristy of Haifa, Israel. Her books include Translating the Enlightenment and Israelis in Berlin. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).