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.

Baz Ratner, Pool
The negotiator: Tzipi Livni, seen with Prime Minister Olmert (r) at a June 1 cabinet meeting, oversees Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

One of the strongest barometers of Ehud Olmert's expected exit as Israeli prime minister is the extent to which much of the national media's attention has shifted from him to his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni.

Ms. Livni, who is only the second woman to serve as minister of foreign affairs in Israel's history and is not yet 50, has been gaining in stature in the decade since she entered politics, but most notably since the founding of the Kadima Party in late 2004. And as Mr. Olmert's star has fallen amid recent testimony alleging that he took thousands of dollars in cash-stuffed envelopes from a US supporter, Livni's has risen precisely because she is seen as the "Mrs. Clean" of Israeli politics.

"Any day that passes with Kadima not acting to remove Olmert is a day of extreme national and even international irresponsibility," Ari Shavit, Israeli opinionmaker and columnist, told foreign reporters. "Olmert is Israel's Nixon, with one exception. Nixon was a great statesman." Olmert, recently returned from a week-long trip to the US, has provided no indication thus far that he will heed calls to step aside. But Kadima could force him to do so, by holding primaries to choose a new party leader. So could Knesset members as a whole, by calling for a no-confidence vote that would bring about national elections, more than a year ahead of the scheduled ballot in March 2010.

Either way, Israeli pundits are shuffling through the day-after scenarios, and often finding that the strongest suit seems to put the queen – Livni – at the top of the deck. Hers is the name that comes up as the one most likely to lead in a party primary – and the one who might even be able to succeed in a general election against the expected candidate of the hard-line right: ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The circumstances under which Olmert will leave office have to do with personal integrity, and that is her forte," says a political ally of Livni's who asked not to be named. "If Olmert had left office after the mistakes of the Lebanon War in 2006, they'd be looking for a general, and that would be either Shaul Mofaz or Ehud Barak."

Mr. Mofaz, a former army chief of staff, is transportation minister, and Mr. Barak, the head of the Labor Party, is now defense minister.

Mr. Shavit says the combination of Livni and Barak together looks to moderates to be "the only combination that can work, and the only combination that can stop Netanyahu from being elected."

For those keen for her to step into the ring, Livni already has a lot in her corner. She has a pedigree that makes her something of a blueblood daughter of Israel's founding fathers. Her parents were leaders in the rightist Irgun movement in the British mandatory period; it was viewed as a militia of pioneers by some, and by others as a terrorist group.

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.

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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