- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2008

TEL AVIV | If she can win confirmation from Israel’s parliament as the country’s first female prime minister since Golda Meir, Tzipi Livni will inherit a full plate of unfinished negotiations left over by outgoing leader Ehud Olmert.

With Mr. Olmert’s resignation on Sunday, Mrs. Livni has 42 days to form a government. After that, she would face talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the control of Jerusalem, borders with a Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

The Syrians hope their channel of indirect talks with Israel will get the Golan Heights returned. There are also Egypt-mediated talks with Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, a soldier held captive two years in the Gaza Strip.

But beyond her conversion from the old right-wing ideology of “Greater Israel” to advocating a partition with the Palestinians, analysts say little has been revealed about Mrs. Livni’s strategic vision before winning last week’s vote to become leader of the ruling Kadima Party.

“During her campaign, Livni did not provide much detail about her foreign policy program. She will have to clarify her position on central issues,” said Dore Gold, who served as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We need to know the specifics.”

Domestically, her popularity is based on her image as the anti-politician. Her sometimes awkward public persona is a switch from previous prime ministers such as Mr. Olmert, Ehud Barak and Mr. Netanyahu.

She is liked because of her reputation as a straight talker who isn’t tainted by the scandal that has infected Israel’s political elite.

Internationally, Mrs. Livni has gained prominence at the side of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on various rounds of shuttle diplomacy to keep peace talks alive with the Palestinians.

And even though she has been a proponent of seeking agreement on the most difficult disputes such as Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and borders, relatively little is known on what kind of solutions she would propose.

“After the excitement from the fact that she is a woman, who is clean of scandal, and elegantly dressed … one is only left to guess what will be her positions,” wrote Zvi Barel in the left-wing Ha’aretz newspaper. “Until now, Livni has done a good job at evading any statements of commitment or from a clear foreign policy doctrine.”

What’s more, the next few months are likely to mark a new strategic crossroads for the Middle East, analysts say. A new U.S. president will succeed President Bush.

In the Palestinian territories, the administration of Mr. Abbas seems headed either for new elections at the beginning of next year as required in the Palestinian Constitution or a crisis with Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas has said it won’t recognize Mr. Abbas if the elections are delayed.

The internal crisis could spark a new round of Hamas-Fatah fighting in the West Bank. At the same time, a 3-month-old cease-fire along the Gaza Strip border with Israel could devolve into a new wave of cross-border attacks.

Beyond the Palestinians, Mrs. Livni will have to decide how to continue talks with the Syrians, negotiations which she hasn’t been involved with up until now. Most critically, she’ll have to formulate a joint policy with the U.S. on grappling with the Iranian nuclear program.

“There are … changing circumstances that are out of control,” said Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian online opinion forum Bitterlemons.org.

“Given she wants a quick success before [new] elections, it’s impossible to predict where she is going to come down.”

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