Tough Like Tzipi

One line of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's resume has always been an enigma. From 1980 to 1984, it says, Livni served in the Mossad. This week, some details of her work in the ultra-secretive espionage agency emerged in the Sunday Times of London. While based in Paris, an acquaintance told the paper, "Tzipi was not an office girl. … She blended in well in European capitals, working with male agents, most of them ex-commandos, taking out Arab terrorists." Her closest female partner was Mira Gal, who is now Livni's bureau chief at the Foreign Ministry, the Times said, hinting at a sisterhood of old spooks.

You don't need a conspiratorial mind-set to assume that Livni, or an ex-spook close to her, planned the placement and timing of that report. Because it was published abroad, there was no risk of the Israeli military censor blue-penciling it, but it was quickly picked up by the Hebrew media. It came just as Livni was preparing for a political battle to replace scandal-tainted Ehud Olmert as head of the Kadima party and as prime minister. The intended message was: She may never have been a general, but Tzipi Livni knows about national security from the inside, and she is a very tough -- even cold-blooded -- woman. It was therefore also a statement about the added, conflicting demands a woman candidate faces in defining herself as she seeks to be a nation's leader in time of war. As if another reminder were needed this year.

Let me stress: Livni is not a doppelgänger for Hillary Clinton. Livni seeks to become prime minister in multiparty parliamentary elections; the U.S. system is so different it looks extraterrestrial from Jerusalem. She belongs to a center-right party; she has rarely hinted at feminism. Her opponents within her party are colorless men, older than she is, who regard her as the newcomer cutting in line. Only dedicated political insiders can come up with her husband's name (Naftali Spitzer). Yet precisely because of the differences, her bid to succeed Olmert may shed some light on the gender dilemma faced by female politicians.

While Olmert visits the United States this week, his political position at home is crumbling. The latest corruption probe against him centers on allegations that for years, he received money from American businessman Morris Talansky. Last week, in an unusual pre-indictment court hearing, Talansky testified that over 15 years, he gave Olmert $150,000 in envelopes full of cash, for campaign purposes as well as personal luxuries. Talansky hasn't yet been cross-examined; the investigation is still in progress, and it's not clear if the prime minister will be indicted.

But the sleaze factor could prove fatal in itself. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, head of the Labor Party, declared that Olmert must suspend himself, or resign so someone else from Kadima can form a new government. If he refuses to move aside, Labor can quit the government, forcing new elections. Livni called last week for holding a primary in Kadima to choose a new leader. "The issue isn't only legal. … It is related to values and norms and their influence on the public's trust," she said, underlining her image as a completely clean politician.

Polls show that Livni, 49, is the most popular figure in her party. She's assumed to be the only Kadima politician with enough public appeal to save the party from collapse. Her rivals are fighting to put off the vote for leader but in the meantime are busy registering new party members to improve their chances.

Like Olmert, Livni is a child of the pre-state Irgun underground fighters who founded the Israeli right. She was raised on the unbending belief that the West Bank and Gaza, as part of the Whole Land of Israel, must never be given up. Her pedigree allowed her to enter politics as an aristocrat of the right-wing Likud. A corporate lawyer, Livni was appointed to head an agency overseeing and privatizing state-owned corporations in 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister. In 1999, she was elected to the Knesset. After Ariel Sharon took power, she held a series of Cabinet posts. Three years ago, she followed Sharon when he split the Likud and formed Kadima.

And like Olmert, she's best described as a recovering right-winger. She has recognized that Israel cannot permanently rule over the Palestinians, that a two-state solution is necessary. But "she hasn't internalized what that means" for reaching a peace agreement, says political scientist Naomi Chazan, a former Knesset member for the dovish Meretz party. Before the 2006 election, she indicated that the security fence that Israel is building through the West Bank would be a rough outline of the future border. No Palestinian would accept that proposal. In a speech last month, she said that a two-state solution would require Palestinians to "eliminate the word 'Nakba' from their vocabulary." Nakba, "catastrophe," is the Palestinian term for 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from homes in what became Israel. To eliminate the word would mean not only giving up claim to those homes but also to erase the memory. Livni’s comment, as Ha'aretz diplomatic correspondent Akiva Eldar says, reflects a lack of empathy, an inability to imagine the Palestinian perspective. This makes for bad negotiating -- and in fact, the talks that Livni is conducting with Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia are stalemated.

On the other hand, Livni did push within the Cabinet, unsuccessfully, for a rapid diplomatic exit to the war in Lebanon two years ago. In an interview several months after the war, she criticized Cabinet colleagues who expected "a military operation to provide results it couldn't give" -- and added that "boy issues" sometimes clouded the discussions. Translation: She was cool-headed; the men were distracted by hormones.

Livni is one of 17 women in the 120-member Knesset, a representation level roughly the same as for women in the U.S. Congress -- and "abominable" by world standards, says Chazan, a prominent feminist. At the top of the list of reasons, she says, is "the conflict," the never-ending state of near-war. The conflict pushes all other political issues to the side and amplifies the voice of ex-generals, all of them male. For people under threat, military solutions seem like the logical choice, which really means the emotionally appealing choice. A resumé including combat creates the false presumption of strategic expertise. (The sole woman to serve as prime minister of Israel, Golda Meir, was a hawk picked as a compromise so that two rival ex-generals would not split the Labor Party.)

Livni's main rival within Kadima to succeed Olmert is Shaul Mofaz, a hawkish, remarkably unimaginative ex-military chief of staff. Besides his military past, Mofaz's main advantage is that he has devoted more time to registering new party members. If Livni overcomes that hurdle, she'll probably face off in a national election against Barak -- another ex-chief of staff -- and Netanyahu, once more the head of the Likud, who served in the army's top commando unit. "Behind closed doors or … in anonymous briefings with journalists," veteran journalist Emmanuel Rosen recently wrote, her rivals say that "Livni is weak, can't withstand the pressures, [is] too sensitive and too soft," meaning that "someone who has no balls, or at least a combat history that includes some Arab skulls, won't be able to address the Iranian threat and certainly won't be able to combat Arab terrorists."

In a cold analysis, Livni's foreign-policy positions fall far short of what's needed to make peace. Politically, though, she is a very good fit for the broad center of the Israeli electorate. And here lies a bind, in which policies and gender mix. "A female contender has to do an amazing balancing act between asserting herself as a strong leader and not relinquishing her femininity," even if "the balance may vary from one country to another," Chazan says. Hillary Clinton "presented herself as a very strong woman and ran the risk of being accused of being too strong, an iron lady, a hawk, and that has backlashed." Livni, on the other hand, is being attacked as "ambiguous, not assertive enough, maybe too moderate" by opponents to her right.

Yet if she tries to compensate by sounding more hard-line, Livni runs a double risk: on the gender level, charges of not being both inauthentic and too assertive; and on the policy level, of losing the centrist stance that she'd need in a general election. Were she only Mr. Livni, or better yet, ex-general Livni, life would be easier.

Then again, she is ex-Mossad operative Livni. If the campaign heats up, expect more details from that part of her career to slip strategically into print.

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