- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

TEL AVIV - Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ascended the Israeli political ladder with a reputation for prudence and forthrightness, but yesterday she took the biggest risk of her public career by coming out against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert while saying she would continue to work with him and remain in the Cabinet.

A diplomat known for a close rapport with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and for her quiet criticism of Mr. Olmert during the Lebanon war, Mrs. Livni ended a day of suspense in Israel when she confirmed herself as a top candidate to replace Mr. Olmert as prime minister and leader of his Kadima party.

It was her first comment on the scathing government report on Mr. Olmert’s handling of the monthlong war against Hezbollah, and her first public admission of her rift with the prime minister.

“I expressed in my meeting with Olmert that, in my opinion, resigning is the right thing to do,” she told reporters after a talk with the prime minister.

The Israeli prime minister brushed aside calls to resign from Mrs. Livni and other leading figures yesterday, acknowledging he was in a difficult position but vowing to fix his mistakes.

Mr. Olmert won a critical show of support from lawmakers within the ruling Kadima party and forced the bloc’s parliamentary head to quit two days after an official report blamed Mr. Olmert for “serious failures” in handling a war last year in Lebanon. Kadima’s parliamentary leader, Avigdor Yitzhaki, resigned in protest when Mr. Olmert rejected his calls to step down.

“The prime minister enjoyed unprecedented support here,” Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said after three hours of intensive argument among the 29-strong parliamentary caucus.

Mrs. Livni, 48, who also serves as deputy prime minister, is the most senior Cabinet official not to be directly tainted by the Winograd report, putting her in a good position as a would-be successor.

She would be Israel’s second female prime minister, after Golda Meir, who served from 1969 to 1974.

The foreign minister was said to have differed with Mr. Olmert during the war for not seeking a diplomatic resolution at an earlier stage of the fighting. The Winograd report’s description of Mr. Olmert as a rash decision-maker who set unrealistic goals prompted her to go public with her criticism of the prime minister.

“She’s politically exposed herself, and things may not turn out the way she liked,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “These are troubled waters, and things might turn out the way she likes and it might not.”

Mrs. Livni’s close relationship with Miss Rice stems from their collaboration on a formula to push the Arab-Israeli peace process forward despite the rise of Hamas and the weakness of Mr. Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“These are two women who operate in a diplomatic world that has been traditionally dominated by men,” Mr. Makovsky said. “Both of these women are cerebral and have tried to position themselves as being pragmatic.”

Widespread public disgruntlement over Israel’s scandal-ridden politics also plays into Mrs. Livni’s strengths because of her record as a clean, careful and straight-talking politician.

Mrs. Livni, a former Mossad agent, allied herself with former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who rewarded her with a Cabinet position early on in her legislative career. When Mr. Sharon bolted from Likud to form his own party, Mrs. Livni and Mr. Olmert were two of the top party figures to follow him.

She has experience as a lawyer and government privatization czar, and her appointment as foreign minister was popular. Nearly a year after entering office, she remains one of only a few top government ministers free of corruption accusations.

In recent days, however, her pristine image has started to draw fire from Israeli political analysts.

Commentators yesterday ridiculed her decision to remain in the Cabinet despite calling for Mr. Olmert’s resignation as weak-kneed. Following a Kadima meeting, Mr. Olmert was reported to have survived an attempt at a party putsch.

But the prime minister faces a public demonstration tonight in Tel Aviv and fresh public opinion surveys that suggest his approval rating is near zero.

“If she wants to keep her image as Mrs. Clean, as being committed to the rule of law, she must quit” the Cabinet, said Israel Radio legal commentator Moshe Hanegbi. “If a minister does not have faith in the prime minister, he cannot remain in the government.”

Most critically, it’s far from clear whether Mrs. Livni has the political savvy or backing to maneuver her way into Mr. Olmert’s job while keeping his coalition intact. For all her popularity, it is not certain whether the Israeli public will be convinced she’s prime ministerial material.

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