In Israel, it’s not the political fight that makes a difference
TZIPI LIVNI’S dramatic rise and fall has been pored over by the commentariat. From being the golden girl of Israeli politics on the international stage — cool and gorgeous with a “mysterious” Mossad background — onetime Foreign Minister Livni managed effectively to throw away the leadership of Kadima, after being dealt a knock-out blow by Shaul Mofaz. Livni has held a clutch of ministerial posts: housing and construction, immigrant absorption, agriculture, justice. She was one of the Time 100 Most Influential People in the World. Forbes ranked her the 40th most powerful woman in the world in 2006. Now she is reported to be considering giving up politics altogether.
Most commentators believe that Livni’s downfall could be attributed to her serial dithering, her failure to put together a coalition in 2009 after she won the leadership of Kadima — narrowly beating Mofaz at the time — her inability to lay a glove on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or her all but inexplicable silence during last summer’s social protests.
She has not exactly been helped in her bid to retain control of Kadima, the party bequeathed to her by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, by the long-heralded appearance on the political stage of Yair Lapid, the journalist and high-profile television presenter. Even before he jumped feet-first into the swamp of Israeli politics, Lapid was working the squeezed middle — yes, it exists in Israel, too — by appealing to those who were unhappy about the absence of the strictly Orthodox in the jobs market, and most of all, in the military.
And it is there, in the drab olive and khaki uniforms of the IDF, that I believe lie the true seeds of Livni’s downfall. For Mofaz is not just another unlovely Israeli politician. He is a former chief of staff and, as such, follows a long tradition in Israeli politics: the army will provide.
From the 1950s to the 1990s, the army did provide. Generals and brigadiers, admirals and air force chiefs, all moved seamlessly sideways into the political arena. If not in actual political parties, the brass secured themselves nice little earners as heads of the Jewish Agency, the Port Authority, El Al, etc, etc.
The list is endless, from Yigal Allon to Yitzchak Rabin to Ehud Barak, from Moshe Dayan to Chaim Herzog to Ezer Weizman, and, of course, to the ubersoldier, Ariel Sharon. Those few politicians who did not have a glittering army career, such as Abba Eban, Menachem Begin or Shimon Peres, had to work that much harder to win the public’s trust and affection. Arguably Peres has taken until today, aged nearly 89, to get to that stage, gaining plaudits internationally as Israel’s ninth president. His very popularity today makes it hard to remember the attacks on him as a man who did not see army service, despite everything in his career that he did to further Israel’s aims and interests.
Instinctively and unfortunately, the army comes first for Israelis. The plain truth is that if you don’t have a military background, you are nowhere. And Livni, who reached the rank of lieutenant during her army service, does indeed have a military background. But crucially, and inevitably, she doesn’t have the sort of old boys’ network military background enjoyed by Mofaz and the many other army contemporaries who slide so easily into the governance of Israel, effectively making the IDF a kind of training springboard for running Israeli society.
Got a niche that needs filling in your company? Remember Moshe who went through basic training with you… or Chaim who spent time on the tanks with you…or Yossi who you knew from your time in the Golan/on the southern border/in Gaza/disengaging from Gaza/bombing Gaza…one way or another, the Moshes and the Chaims and the Yossis form an impregnable arch in Israel, through which the Livnis of this world can never enter.
For all her political and ministerial experience, for all her international profile, for all her identification as the poster girl of the universal jurisdiction campaign (it was an attempt to arrest Livni during a visit to London which galvanised the British government into changing the law), Livni had one vital missing USP — the military factor. Add to that her shadowy Mossad career and it’s really not that surprising that she lost to a far more mediocre candidate, Mofaz. Short of physically bringing home Gilad Shalit herself, Livni had nowhere to go but down.
Jenni Frazer is assistant editor of the JC