On Israel's political battlefield, a female contender rises

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has emerged as an unlikely rival to embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

So far, Tzipi Livni is one of the few politicians who have escaped unscathed from Israel's ongoing self-critique following the war in Lebanon.

And, with a public fed up with politicians mired in scandal, Ms. Livni, the foreign minister, has emerged as a contender to become Israel's second female prime minister.

The former intelligence agent surged forward thanks to her image as the antipolitician: clean in a morass of corruption, a technocrat amid apparatchiks, and circumspect in a political culture dominated by bluntness.

But while she has called for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to quit after the scathing Winograd Commission report on the war, her hesitation to lead a rebellion inside Mr. Olmert's Kadima Party is causing some to question her political prowess: Does Livni have the political chops to get the top spot and win over the confidence of Israelis.

"In Israel, politics is a contact sport," says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Her weakness is her sense of caution. She didn't have the influence to change the course of the cabinet debate, even though she wasn't happy" during the Lebanon war.

Mr. Olmert is thought to have survived the initial shock of the Winograd report, which criticized him for not having a clear enough plan for last summer's war against Hizbullah, even though his coalition is still considered fragile. On Sunday, Livni and Olmert issued a statement that they would continue to work together.

Just after Hizbullah captured two soldiers and killed three others inside Israel's border with Lebanon, sparking the war, Livni was one of the few talking about the diplomatic endgame in a cabinet meeting amid the clamor for fierce retaliation.

"It was clear to me that there would be no clear military victory," she recalled, according to the interim report of the Winograd Commission's inquiry. "It was clear to me that it would be impossible to get the soldiers back through a military operation."

During her 12-month tenure as Israel's top diplomat, the Lebanon war was not the only instance in which Livni has broken with conventional wisdom.

She has supported moving up talks on a final peace treaty with the Palestinians despite Israel's more conservative position ruling out negotiations as long as Palestinian militants can act at will.

Along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Livni promoted talks about the so-called "political horizon," an effort to tackle, early on, deal-breaker issues like a right of return for Palestinian refugees. The two are known for their close rapport and have even been said to share the same talking points.

"Up until now, Palestinians have talked about their independence, and Israel has talked about its security," said an Israeli official who has worked with Livni at the foreign ministry. "Tzipi has said, 'No, we accept the principle of a Palestinian state; let's talk about what that means.' That's taking the dialogue a step further."

Her relatively dovish position on peace talks reflects the gradual recognition among some on the Israeli right that significant territorial concessions to the Palestinians would be a necessity for peace.

The daughter of a Likud parliamentarian and former right-wing underground member, Livni was appointed to be Israel's privatization czar in 1996 and then was elected to the legislature on the Likud slate in 1999. Loyal to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, she backed his withdrawal from Gaza and followed his lead in bolting Likud to form the centrist Kadima Party.

When Mr. Sharon fell into a coma last year, she backed Olmert as prime minister and was named deputy prime minister after Kadima emerged victorious. But considerable speculation emerged about the tension between the two after the war.

In the wake of the Winograd report, Livni found herself the focus of swirling rumors that she planned to lead a movement inside of Kadima against Olmert. If successful, she would become the first woman to lead Israel since Golda Meir was prime minister in the early 1970s.

But at a press conference at the foreign ministry Wednesday, after tripping on the way to the podium, she then faltered politically.

For the first time, the politician known for her straight talking sounded muddled, explaining that she would remain as Olmert's deputy even though she believed he should resign. And overnight, she turned from the golden girl of Israel politics to an object of media ridicule.

While one commentator joked that she was more suited to be the leader of the Israel Women's Network, columnist Sima Kadmon of Yediot Ahronot newspaper likened her to a rabbit caught in the headlights. "She suddenly stopped and froze in place. Hesitated. Panicked. Unsure," wrote Ms. Kadmon. Livni "proved that she is far from being ready to be prime minister. An honest politician is definitely good news, but it is not enough to run a country."

Though observers say Livni missed an opportunity to topple Olmert, the Winograd's final report on the war, expected by the end of the summer, could provide her with another chance. "This isn't the end of it," says Akiva Eldar, a veteran political columnist for Haaretz newspaper. "She can be a killer. Don't forget she was four years in the Mossad. Don't let her face and her smiles fool you. She just made a mistake."

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Tzipi Livni

• Born in Tel Aviv; currently married with two children

• Daughter of hawkish politician, Eitan Livni

• Served as a lieutenant in the Israeli army

• Agent for Mossad, Israel's intelligence services, from 1980-84

• Entered Knesset as Likud member in 1999

• Later joined Ariel Sharon's centrist Kadima Party

• Assumed foreign ministry post after Mr. Sharon's stroke

• Now seen as centrist who advocates negotiating a final peace treaty with the Palestinians

Sources: The Knesset, Associated Press

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