Can Livni clean up Israeli politics?

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won the Kadima Party primary to replace Ehud Olmert who has been beset by corruption charges.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Narrow Victory: Tzipi Livni, who gained worldwide attention for leading Palestinian peace talks, won Wednesday’s Kadima primary by a margin of 1.1 percent over Shaul Mofaz.
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Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni set her sights Thursday on taking the office of prime minister and got started working on building a new coalition government.

But an official count released after Wednesday's Kadima Party primary showed her besting her closest competitor, Shaul Mofaz, by just one percentage point, leaving her with less decisive mandate to lead Israel's ruling party. Nonetheless, Ms. Livni strode into the political limelight as if that made no difference.

Livni said her party's choice showed that today "there is a different kind of politics. For a very long time I was told there was no such thing, and today Kadima proved that there is."

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The language of political change – which has drawn comparisons to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign – has permeated Livni's lingo as she has moves from behind-the-scenes power broker to front-page policymaker. And unlike most of Israel's politicos across the ideological spectrum, she is one of the few with a squeaky-clean reputation.

Livni has forged strong working relationships with her Palestinian counterparts in the renewed peace process, which began in Annapolis, Md., last year. On the domestic front, she has created much excitement because she could be only the second woman in Israel's history to become prime minister.

But as for donning the mantle of the politics of change, many here warn against expectations of sweeping progress on any of the main issues in the immediate future.

Besides the complications existent in both the Israeli and Palestinian political scenes – as well as the tendency of both sides to want to wait and see who will be the next US president before moving ahead on any agreement – Livni is not the equivalent of someone coming from "outside the Beltway" to change the face of politics.

"Livni is not exactly our Obama," says Aluf Benn, a columnist and diplomatic editor of Haaretz, Israel's leading intellectual daily. "She's been [Ehud] Olmert's No. 2 for two years, and she spent five years in [Ariel] Sharon's government. She's not exactly coming from nowhere. She's been in the system; she was born into it," he says, referring to Livni's lineage.

Her parents were members of the Irgun, a hard-line Zionist militia, which in Israel is something akin to having come over with the Mayflower or having fought in the American Revolution.

"She campaigned on change – from Olmert," Mr. Benn says. "But to say, 'she's our Obama,' that she represents real change, is overblown." When it comes to the feasibility of peacemaking, he notes, the same internal divisions among the two peoples remain largely unchanged.

"We have the same limitations on our side," Benn adds. "The fundamental problems on the Palestinian side are also the same, with Hamas in charge of Gaza and Fatah barely holding onto security in the West Bank."

In many corners of the Middle East, Livni has a reputation as a moderate, levelheaded foreign minister. In contrast, Mr. Mofaz is deeply disliked by many Palestinians due to the fact that he served as army chief-of-staff during the Al Aqsa Intifada and he is seen as a leader of the camp in Israel that backs a military strike on Iran's developing nuclear program.

Not since the election of Golda Meir in 1969 has Israel put a woman in its top office. But like Meir, who was loved abroad but had many foes at home, Livni may face a shaky start due to the slenderness of her win over Mofaz, a much more hawkish candidate who presents the archetypal picture of the kind of person Israelis usually choose when they are worried about the prospect of another war. Israeli voters have shown a strong tendency toward electing former military brass of many stripes.

Livni, however, earned an image as someone who understands Israel's complex security challenges in the region because she was an officer for the Mossad, Israel's spy agency.

"The national mission … is to create stability quickly," Livni told reporters outside her Tel Aviv home at dawn. "On the level of government in Israel, we have to deal with difficult threats."

Livni's first order of business is forming a coalition government, always a complicated puzzle in Israel. Once Mr. Olmert officially resigns, the coalition's government dissolves. But Olmert is expected to remain as a caretaker leader until a new coalition is approved. Livni will have 42 days to assemble a new one, and if she does she will likely be the next prime minister. If she can't, new elections will be held early next year.

Challenges are already confronting her. Shas, one of the coalition partners in the government for many years, says it won't join a government that will agree to divide Jerusalem. The disputed city is governed by Israel but claimed by Palestinians as their capital as well; Israel occupied East Jerusalem in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967.

"The situation is very complex right now," says Tel Aviv University professor Reuven Pedhatzur. "Every party will come along with their demands: Shas on Jerusalem and demanding more funds for their children. Labor will want something, maybe Likud will want something else."

Livni is less known for wheeling and dealing and more for integrity, and that may make it hard for her to survive. "I'm not sure that she's willing to make these kinds of promises to Shas, or to any party," says Mr. Pedhatzur. "For this, and for many reasons, I cannot see any real progress until the next elections, and there will be elections next year."

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