- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009




Despite taunts that “she’s just a girl,” Tzipi Livni emerged from her scrap with the boys in the election sandbox Tuesday with a stunning personal victory, even if it does not win her the premiership.

With the country facing daunting challenges, including possible military confron- tation with Iran, the Israeli electorate gave more votes to Mrs. Livni, a 50-year-old woman with limited political experience, than it gave to her rivals, including two former prime ministers.

Leading analysts were foreseeing a possible rotational government in which Mrs. Livni and Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu take turns as prime minister and foreign minister. The majority held by a right-wing bloc of parties makes it likely Mr. Netanyahu could form the next government if he so chose even though Likud won fewer mandates than Mrs. Livni’s Kadima Party. But he has said in the past that his major mistake during his previous term as prime minister was to base his government on a narrow, right-wing coalition This consideration would be even more relevant now in dealing with a new American administration seeking to vigorously promote a peace process in the Middle East.

Precedent for a rotational government was set in the 1980s when Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir and Labor’s Shimon Peres took turns as prime minister and foreign minister. Although Likud spokesmen dismissed the idea Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu may in the end prove amenable, some observers believe.

Mrs. Livni’s showing in the elections was hailed by the newspaper Ha’aretz as “not merely a surprise but a phenomenon.” The paper noted that her Kadima Party, founded by Ariel Sharon, had been expected to disappear with his departure from the political scene.

According to Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s leading political writers, Mrs. Livni’s showing was “one of the most impressive Israeli politics has known.”

Her assertive performance as foreign minister, particularly during last month’s war in Gaza, together with her forceful election campaign gave those who voted for her the feeling she is capable of leading the nation, even in a crisis.

Mrs. Livni has been transformed by her proximity to power since former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then Likud’s leader, appointed her as a back-bench minister in 2001, just two years after she was elected to the Knesset, a virtual unknown. When Mr. Sharon broke from Likud and formed Kadima, he placed her in the No. 3 position on his Knesset list, just behind Ehud Olmert.

When Mr. Sharon fell into a coma, there was speculation Mrs. Livni might succeed him but she quickly threw her support to Mr. Olmert to avoid a squabble. He, in turn, appointed her foreign minister.

Following the failed war with Hezbollah in 2006, in which Mr. Olmert was a principle culprit, Mrs. Livni acted boldly when she publicly called on him to resign. But she did not resign herself, and continued to serve under him when he ignored her call.

This deference would fade in the coming years. Livni-watchers could see something new in her face over time - not so much steeliness as determination and self-assurance. “I am myself,” she told a reporter during the campaign.

“The closer I got to the decision-making center, the more it became clear to me that I could do it well in terms of judgment, long-term thinking and having the backbone to make a decision and go all the way.”

Mrs. Livni drew away from her right-wing origins once in office and publicly asserted that Likud’s dream of a Greater Israel had to give way to a two-state solution in which Israel exists alongside a Palestinian state. This is something her principal adversary, Benjamin Netanyahu, has never said.

During the Gaza war, she took an aggressive position, pushing for a ground operation and objecting to a cease-fire proposed early in the clash by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But she was also a principal advocate of peace talks with the moderate leadership of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

During the campaign, she proved an articulate candidate and never dodged tough questions. She did not go in for kissing babies, perhaps to avoid looking too “soft” but enthusiastically led her running mates in discotheque dancing.

There is a precedent in Israel for a female prime minister, Golda Meir, who served in the 1970s, but she reached that position after decades in the political trenches. Mrs. Livni was vulnerable to charges that she herself was still too inexperienced for the job.

During the campaign, Likud ran advertisements saying “Too big for her,” suggesting national leadership was beyond her capabilities. She seized on the slogan as crass chauvinism, a sentiment shared by many women voters.

“The job is not too big for me and not too small for me,” she said. “It’s my size.”

Abraham Rabinovich is a Jerusalem-based journalist and author of “The Yom Kippur War.”

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