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As Israel's Olmert falters, a new star rises

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is increasingly seen as the likely successor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

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Blondish, athletic, and standing at 5-feet, 10-inches, she has a confidant carriage and sometimes steely exterior that has only been bolstered by recent reports in the British media about the depth of her experience working for Mossad, Israel's spy agency. Although Livni did work for Mossad at one point, various officials in Livni's office say that most of the recent stories about the exact nature of her work were erroneous, but that it's a security breach to say much more.

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That secrecy could be one of Livni's strongest suits. Unlike many other Israeli politicians, she doesn't relish talking to the press. Since the Annapolis Process began last November, she's been overseeing negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian track, but has done so with the caveat that it take place out of the limelight. Two to three times a week, she meets with Palestinian counterparts, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Foreign Minister Ahmed Qorei, and the Palestinian negotiations chief, Saeb Erekat.

"She's a lady who can talk to us through her eyebrows sometimes," Dr. Erekat jokes. "She's a tough negotiator, but there's a big difference between a tough negotiator and a nonnegotiator."

While emphasizing that the Palestinian leadership refrains from endorsing or supporting any Israeli political figure, he described her as a "lady of distinction and leadership," and pointed to an example of how Livni's approach has been different from that of many who came before her.

When seven seminary students were killed in Jerusalem in March in a Palestinian shooting attack, Erekat recalls, he expected the Israeli team to call off the next round of meetings with their Palestinian counterparts. Often, in the past, any act of terrorism was likely to freeze the political process.

"She surprised me, saying no, the meeting is on," Erekat recalls. "The meeting was held the next day and this was unprecedented. And in my opinion, this reflected leadership and strength."

It doesn't sound out of character with the way others describe her. A long-time associate of Livni's says that she's famously analytical. "She's an intensely serious person. She's not in politics because she needs to be loved," he says. "She's in politics because she wants to resolve the conflicts Israel faces."

Of course, there are other heirs to the Kadima throne, Mr. Mofaz is one of the strongest. But Mofaz's controversial comments over the weekend, in which he called an Israeli attack on Iran "unavoidable" due to the lack of progress in halting its nuclear program, stands in sharp contrast to the caution for which Livni is becoming known.

In the time she's been in office, her allies say, she's improved relations with many Arab nations, visiting Qatar this spring – an Israeli first.

"The best thing for the Israeli media is to be someone from the right who became a convert – a born-again dove," Shavit, the columnist who writes for Haaretz adds, putting several Israelis into this category, Livni foremost among them. "As you are a nationalist who turned dove, you're a hero."

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