Why They Don't Like Tzipi Livni

AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, left, shakes hand with then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

Why do you hate us?” a West Bank settler leader shouted at Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition in Israel's parliament.

The outburst came during a meeting between settler leaders and the Israeli parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The committee, chaired by a member of the ruling Likud Party, convened at the settlement of Ofrah, following a terror attack there last week in which seven people, including a pregnant woman, were wounded. (Her child, prematurely delivered after the shooting, died.) Before the outburst, Livni had objected to the settler representatives' demand to expand settlements, supposedly as a way to provide greater security.

“I don't hate [you], but I'm angry,” Livni answered. Her voice did not sound angry. She sounded definite, calm, and completely unperturbed as she told people what they don't like to hear. In the same meeting she told them, 

We're all here together, hurting. The pain of terror attacks tears all of us up. ... But in fairness it must be said: Building more settlements isn't a security response to terror, it's pushing a political agenda. ... We have a deep dispute. I want to separate from the Palestinians and you want to annex.

It was a perfect articulation of a center-left political stance in Israel: Terror hurts all of us; we need to be secure; Israel needs a two-state agreement; we must not allow the right to exploit pain for its damaging political purposes. Livni is by far the best orator on the center-left. In parliament, she rips into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the rest of the right with chainsaw sarcasm. This, along with her political resume, should make her the most popular candidate to oppose Netanyahu in an election that must come by next autumn.

Livni has been in parliament nearly 20 years. She has been foreign minister, justice minister, and housing minister. Earlier in her life, before going to law school, she was an army officer and then worked for the Mossad, which should check off the unfortunately necessary box for a security background. 

And yet, pollsters don't even put Livni's name in their long list of potential candidates when they ask people who they'd like to see as prime minister. The question needs to be asked: Why?

First, let me clarify: Livni is not the candidate I'd design, were I able to. That candidate would be further left economically. That candidate wouldn't voice the middle-of-the-road Israel desire to “separate from the Palestinians” and would say more about what the occupation does to Palestinians. 

In any case, my candidate would never get elected. What bothers me at the moment is that people think Livni can't be a candidate, especially when I look at who they do want. 

A quick clue: She's qualified. He's male. 

Though she's head of the opposition in parliament, Livni is actually No. 2 in the Zionist Union, the alliance of her small party and the Labor Party. No. 1 is Avi Gabbai, businessman and political newbie who was elected head of Labor last year—unusually, without being a member of parliament. Laborites fell for the idea, embraced in certain other countries as well, that the people best qualified to be political leaders are ones devoid of political experience. 

Since then each poll shows the Zionist Union with less support than the one before. To solve the problem, one of Gabbai's ideas is to recruit ex-general Benny Gantz and put him in the No. 2 spot, thereby reducing Livni's profile. 

Gabbai has company. There have been rumors of the Likud trying to recruit Gantz, and of a couple other parties courting him—or he might create his own party. 

The obvious part of Gantz's appeal is that he was the military chief of staff until 2015. But Gantz has never held an elected office, and no one actually knows what his positions are. Maybe he knows. One political commentator described him this week as being “to the right of the Joint List and to the left of Jewish Home”—roughly equivalent to saying in America that someone is the right of the Green Party and to the left of the Freedom Caucus. Gantz is a blank screen on which people project their own ideas, their desire for a general to make them feel secure, and their hunger for someone better than Netanyahu. 

So Livni has never been the military chief of staff. (No woman has.) Another argument against her is that she has moved from one political party to another, that she's a “flip-flopper.” Lots of Israeli politicians have switched parties, though. Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres were regular party-hoppers. This didn't seem to count against them. 

As for Livni, she hasn't flip-flopped. She flipped, once. Livni grew up in the aristocracy of the Israeli right. Her father was a Likud member of parliament. She started her career in the Likud, came to the realization that the occupation is untenable, and gradually concluded that a two-state outcome is the necessary solution. The complaint against her hides either a right-wing anger at someone who crossed the lines - or a desire to believe she is flighty, which is to say unserious by dint of being female. 

Last month a journalist known for his criticism of Netanyahu wrote a column about Livni that ended by saying that if given a choice of Livni or Netanyahu, he's not sure who'd he vote for. He started by quoting a 2009 article by the since-discredited columnist Ari Shavit that described Livni as “impatient,” as lacking warmth, as lacking the depth of Netanyahu or of ex-prime minister Ehud Barak, as “hollow,” as “opinionated and shallow.” The analytic failures of Netanyahu and Barak are subjects for much longer discussion. For Shavit to call someone "opinionated and shallow" was unintentional irony. 

I can't prove it, but I suspect that the nature of the problem is that were she softer, they'd say she was too soft because she's a woman, and by being as tough as the ex-generals, she's too tough for a woman.

It could be that the pundits are right that she wouldn't bring votes. If so, it didn't take an email server. And if so, the price is paid not only by her but by a country swooning over a hollow general. 

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