Israel's next big hope

Livni's victory as head of the ruling party help cut the despair among Israelis.

With peace prospects in poor shape, Israelis might be ready for a new type of leader. Tzipi Livni, who was elected Wednesday to head Israel's ruling party, has led negotiations with the Palestinians. If anything, her optimism and an eagerness to clean up Israeli politics could cut the somber mood in the Middle East.

Like the stalemate itself between Israel and the Palestinians, Ms. Livni has a thin reed on which to build peace. She won the contest to head the Kadima party by a slim margin. Only about half of eligible voters cast ballots. In order to become prime minister, she must cobble together a coalition with other parties that hold very different ideas of Israel's future.

Not to pile on bad news, but there's also a cloud over her party. Is Kadima, which means forward in Hebrew, really committed to an independent Palestinian state?

Founded three years ago by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the party split off from the right-wing Likud party over a recognition that Israel could not hold onto the West Bank and Gaza Strip. To keep a grip on a Palestinian population that would eventually outnumber Israelis was to accept a demographic time bomb and face a strategic disaster if more Arab states don't accept Israel. It would be better, the party reasoned, to let the Palestinians fend for themselves in limbo, build a border wall, and cope with any suicide bombers who slip through.

The first step in Kadima's new approach was withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza. That backfired when the Islamic militant group Hamas took over, leaving the government on the West Bank, led by Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, as a weak negotiating partner.

Compounding the problem was the political fragility of the current prime minister, Ehud Olmert. He bungled the 2006 war with Lebanon and is dogged by corruption charges. Under United States pressure, he revived talks for a two-state solution, trying to build on the failed Oslo accords of 1993.

The imperative for a peace deal remains even if both sides are in despair. Iran looms as a threat if it acquires nuclear-bomb capability. And Iran's friends – Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria – are in front-line positions to hurt Israel. The US is also eager for a Palestinian state to eliminate one more excuse for Al Qaeda to recruit terrorists.

Any of Israel's enemies might be quick to test Livni. She is cut from a different cloth than many past leaders, including the first female prime minister, Golda Meir. She comes from a super-nationalist family, served in the Army and as an intelligence agent, and then worked as a lawyer before entering politics in 1999. She's most admired for espousing clean politics.

Her popularity is needed to reengage Israelis in a search for peace and to find a new balance in Israel's splintered politics. As foreign minister, she's also been a serious negotiator with the Palestinians for more than a year. Her first goal if she becomes prime minister should be to achieve a consensus over compromises needed to cement peace. The Oslo Accords fell apart because they lacked wide support among Israelis and Palestinians.

Regional threats to Israel remain and Palestinians still deserve a homeland. Despite slim support, Livni brings hope of progress.

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