The new face of Israel is a woman

Times Staff Writer

She grew up in Zionist royalty, the pedigreed daughter of a “fighting family.” She was a spy with the Mossad, her purportedly daring field exploits still classified. Today, she is the face of the Israeli government, in a country where politics remain largely the purview of macho men, and where being tough often outranks being smart.

And some people think Tzipi Livni could become the first female prime minister in more than a generation.

Israel routinely recycles its mostly male politicians, whatever scandal or other difficulty might befall them. How else to explain the long up-and-down career of Ariel Sharon, or the current comeback of Ehud Barak, or the omnipresence of Benjamin Netanyahu? In that world, Livni is a fresh phenomenon. In just a few years, she has emerged from relative obscurity to become one of Israel’s most important political figures.


Livni, the foreign minister and deputy prime minister, who turned 49 on Sunday, has defied many stereotypes.

The product of an archly Zionist family, Livni evolved into a proponent of coexistence with the Palestinians, relinquishing the idea of a Greater Israel and instead advocating side-by-side states. A onetime agent with Israel’s storied spy agency, she now sits down with Arab leaders and speaks to Arab newspapers.

This combination of old ideals and contemporary pragmatism has earned Livni a respect among many Israelis, from the right and left, who see her as a leader who is honest and principled, if not always suave.

“Supporting a two-state solution goes with the values I was raised with -- the need to keep Israel a Jewish state and a democratic one,” Livni said in an interview at the modern, limestone Foreign Ministry on the western edge of Jerusalem. “The need is to adapt the two-state solution in order to live in our homeland ... a Jewish homeland ... while giving the Palestinians a possibility to create their own homeland.”

Livni is not a natural schmoozer like, say, Netanyahu; her English is not flawless and her Israeli accent remains thick. She often seems aloof.

But she wins praise, here and abroad, for a willingness to seek compromise -- a skill not always valued in Israeli politics -- and to work not necessarily in the spotlight. Yet none of this should be mistaken for meekness, say those who know her.

“She shows strength without being aggressive, more of a European-style politician,” said one veteran Israeli analyst. “But she can also be behind the scenes with a knife in her teeth when she needs to be. She knows how to fight.”

That fighting instinct led Livni to what many consider to be her first major misstep.

A special inquiry of last year’s war between Israel and the Lebanese-based Islamic militant group Hezbollah blamed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government for a string of strategic and political errors. Livni came off looking ineffective. She then launched, but quickly abandoned, an attempted coup against the besieged Olmert.

The halfhearted mutiny cost her, and dearly. Suddenly, Livni’s leadership abilities and judgment were doubted.

And now the question is: Is she doomed by her blunders and the attacks of an unforgiving press that raked her over the coals? Or can she yet recover and attain the success and power that she clearly craves?

Zionist roots

Tzipora Livni was born a decade after Israel was, in 1958. Her parents were famous members of the Irgun, an underground group of armed Jews fighting to establish the state of Israel. Her father, Eitan, was its near-legendary director of operations. During his tenure, in 1946, the Irgun blew up Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, headquarters for the British military that was administering the region then known as Palestine. Ninety-one people were killed.

Decades later, Eitan Livni became a lawmaker with the right-wing Likud Party, which grouped fervent political Zionists and which his daughter also eventually joined. In her office today, where many a foreign minister has hung photographs of themselves with the U.S. president, Livni has on display a single picture. It’s her father, his craggy face in profile, cigarette in hand, smoke curling upward.

And on the bookshelves are the works of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Russian-born militant Zionist who in the early 1900s fathered the “Greater Israel” movement that advocated a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River, including where the nation of Jordan today exists.

Livni says she has not abandoned the ideals of her formative years but rather tempered the dream with reality. It has required a certain degree of heart-wrenching introspection.

“For me, the choice was whether to give up the ideal of Israel as a state that combines the values of a democracy and a Jewish state, or to give up some of the land of Israel,” she said. “And I believe this was the right choice.

“But it was not the easiest choice. Of course it is dramatic, it is painful, maybe in terms that outsiders cannot understand, that it is necessary to give up some of the land that Jews have [claimed] for thousands of years.”

Like almost every Israeli, Livni served in the military in her youth. When she was 22, she joined the Mossad. The year was 1980. The Mossad in those days was hunting down and killing Palestinian militants who had slain Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and laying the groundwork for a 1981 strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor.

Neither Livni nor her associates are allowed to talk in detail about her four-year stint with the Mossad.

Former Mossad director Efraim Halevy said she belonged to an elite unit and suggested she was a field agent with hair-raising duties.

Her service in the Mossad “necessitated precision, courage, bravery and responsibility,” he said.

“It required cool judgment and the ability to work in a team.... That is not the work of an analyst” seated at a desk, he said.

After leaving the Mossad, Livni earned a law degree and practiced corporate law until finally entering politics in the late 1990s. By then she had married Naftali Shpitzer and had two sons.

From her first days in Likud, Livni was a protege of Sharon, the former warrior who had engineered his own comeback and was elected prime minister in early 2001.

Initially, he gave Livni the unimportant post of minister of regional cooperation, and, by many accounts, she was crushed. Eventually, however, she would head seven ministries in five years and prove herself valuable to Sharon by negotiating wide support for his decision to pull Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, and by gaining even more favorable treatment from Washington.

When Sharon abandoned Likud in late 2005 and formed a new party, Kadima, Livni followed without hesitation. And, six weeks later, when Sharon was felled by a massive stroke, Livni went before the stunned nation to promise stability and rally behind Olmert, Sharon’s heir apparent, despite her rivalry with him.

Her desertion of Likud was, again, another transformation remarkable for the daughter of Eitan Livni, but logical in her calculations. In the interview, she said she wanted to create a viable centrist alternative.

“I couldn’t live anymore with a party whose ideology or platform starts with the words no, no, no. No Palestinian state, no this, no that,” she said.

“The center,” she added, “should not be a vacuum between left and right; the center is an ideology.”

Political stumble

Livni’s most serious fumble, in the eyes of many, came in the aftermath of the war with Hezbollah. An investigative panel issued a scathing report in May that blamed Olmert for miscalculating the threat and his country’s preparedness, among other failings. In a private meeting, Livni told Olmert he should resign -- and then, remarkably, she went before television cameras and said the same thing.

Olmert quickly rallied his allies within the government and stifled the fledgling mutiny. He secured pledges of loyalty from his Cabinet, including from Livni, who was forced to back down.

Many who had expected her to lead the charge to oust Olmert were bitterly disappointed. To attack Olmert, they said, and then, in the end, remain in his government seemed hypocritical. In the news conference, she looked indecisive and nervous; she tripped, literally, as she approached the microphone and nearly fell into the waiting journalists.

Israel’s high-spirited press, until that point fairly friendly to Livni, was savage.

One columnist, Ben Caspit, said the only thing she was fit to lead was Naamat, a women’s organization. Some attacks took on a decidedly sexist tone: A second columnist, Sima Kadmon, declared: “The deputy prime minister doesn’t have the balls.”

Livni’s critics concluded that she was not ready for the bruising nerves-of-steel combat of Israeli politics. But her supporters saw something else: someone who spoke out frankly, however inelegantly, and who then chose to remain in the government to change from within.

Asked whether she was surprised at the criticism or regrets how she handled the events, Livni said, “I decided to do what was right the way I thought, and not the way they expected me to.”

Her chances for becoming prime minister are tangled in numerous complexities beyond the war with Hezbollah. For one, ultra-Orthodox and other religious parties these days exercise considerable power, and they do not approve of women in public politics. The last -- and only -- female prime minister of Israel, Golda Meir, who served from 1969 to 1974, did not have to contend with that, though discontent over the handling of a war also led to her downfall.

“Israel is a highly militaristic society; we regard ourselves as constantly under siege,” said Hannah Naveh, a dean at Tel Aviv University and co-founder of its women’s studies program. “This makes society very chauvinistic and places women on the back burner. In politics, a woman is seen as being out of place.”

Livni rejects suggestions that the cards are stacked against her because of her sex. Israel, she insists with particular and rare animation, is definitely ready for another female prime minister.

Her time may yet come. Olmert eventually may not be able to resist demands he resign. And then, it will be Livni’s moment to move.