For the second time in our short modern history, a woman was asked to take upon herself the supreme burden of leadership under highly challenging circumstances—putting Israel in the rather small club of nations that have overcome ancient gender barriers. On Monday evening, September 22, the president of Israel, Shimon Peres—in a hurry to finalize matters before flying to New York to address the UN General Assembly—called upon the newly elected chairperson of the governing Kadima Party, Tzippi Livni, to try to form a new cabinet that could win approval by the Knesset. Only 36 members of Knesset (30 percent) directly suggested, in the semiceremonial round of consultations he conducted with all parties, that she was the best person for the job—giving her more support than anyone else, but nevertheless far too little to facilitate her task. A complex and highly difficult effort lies ahead. And yet as the hours go by, her prospects of success seem brighter.
The game is multidimensional and highly complex:
- Within Kadima, Livni originally seemed vulnerable, after her surprisingly narrow win (by 341 votes, barely more than 1 percent). Given the gracious manner in which Shaul Mofaz conceded and “took time off” to think over his next step, the public tables were turned on her: The same media that earlier had paid tribute to her style and substance now turned against her, with heavy hints that she had won by using the old bag of tricks provided by Ariel Sharon’s PR advisors. This made Livni an inviting target for manipulation, and perhaps may make it easier to defeat her in a general election. A great effort was made to draw Mofaz back, and rumors are now circulating that he may soon be back from his “vacation.” Livni may find it difficult to offer him an upgraded position in the cabinet, but would nevertheless welcome him as a partner in political action.
- The immediate reaction of the Shas leadership, when Livni’s position seemed fragile, was to raise fresh demands: on the Palestinian front, no talks about Jerusalem—an issue that Livni may concede, for the time being, simply because the negotiations are not yet at this point; and in social policy, a restoration of progressive child allowances for large families, a key issue in the reforms that transformed the Israeli economy in recent years, but greatly enlarged social gaps. The current political leader of Shas, Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Eli Yishai, may be interested in early elections, before his position is challenged from within. (Arie Deri, the party’s charismatic former leader, is back in the game, after serving a jail sentence for corruption, and now seeks a court ruling that would shorten the period of his removal from the public sphere and allow him to run for mayor in Jerusalem; another rising star is Ariel Attias, the minister of communications.) Yishai is closely identified with the nationalist right; Deri and Attias are more open to an alliance with the center-left. The ultimate decision, in any case, lies with the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef—and he is apparently keen to find a way to sustain the present position of Shas in the government, even if the economic solution to the crisis of poor families is found in some other form rather than child allowances. Given the relatively robust state of the Israeli economy, it is conceivable that the funds for such a solution can be found in the 2009 budget. Professional teams from Kadima and Shas are now looking at such creative solutions.
- Kadima’s main coalition partner—the Labor Party, led by Minister of Defense Ehud Barak—began by playing a peculiar hand: Instead of recommending Livni, they suggested a change in Israel’s basic laws to enable Barak (who is not currently a member of Knesset) to serve as prime minister. The openly implied message, beyond Barak’s own vaulting ambition, was that Livni, for all her merits, is simply not ready to be at the helm in such dangerous times. This is a job for Israel’s most decorated soldier, a former chief of staff, who can weigh the options we face. Within hours, however, the ploy backfired: Livni made the cogent case that it was Barak who had forced Olmert to step down as the chairman of Kadima and to hold the primaries, and it is now for the Labor Party to accept the consequences of its actions (even if Livni’s rising popularity is now seen by Barak as a political threat). By Tuesday evening, talks about re-establishing the coalition were back on course. Barak did induce Livni to call for a broad unity government, but once that was rejected by Likud, the path opened for him to support her from within.
- Binyamin Netanyahu’s response to the call for unity was dismissive: “Would you buy Lehman Brothers stock right now?” He focused on the alternative course of early elections (which he thinks, with some reason, he might win) and the creation of a broad emergency government afterward. But he did not dismiss the need; he merely disdained the partners. Ultimately, all three contenders—Livni, Barak, and Netanyahu—agree that Israel faces a crisis, and these are not normal political times. They disagree as to who is best qualified to respond to the challenge.
The worldwide financial crisis added greatly to the anxiety—because Israel is a fully integrated part of the global economy, and because a weakened American stance in the international arena is a frightening development from an Israeli point of view. But the sense of national emergency is rooted elsewhere. A terror attack to “avenge” Imad Mughniyah, the Hezbollah master terrorist killed in Damascus last February, can come at any moment. Gil’ad Shalit is still being held in Gaza. The Palestinian leadership is playing a dangerous game, threatening to collapse or depart unless they get what they want at the negotiating table. But towering above all of these (and closely connected with all) is the Iranian threat, real and urgent. The head of the Research and Analysis Division of the IDF Directorate of Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Yossi Baidatz, spoke before the Knesset Committee on Foreign and Security Affairs this week and warned that the Iranian regime is now “rushing” toward the bomb, utterly convinced that the international community is powerless to stop it. The implications—diplomatic, military, and, as it happens, political—of this finding need not be spelled out in detail. They require a resolute and stable leadership, able to take one of the most difficult decisions since 1948.
A personal impression may be pertinent here. On Sunday, I attended with my mother (my father’s bad back prevented him from being there) a gathering of Palmach fighters, men and women whose valor made Israel possible back then. There were laughter and tears, memories of battle and campfire songs; the active spirits, even if the youngest were in their late seventies, attested to the unique nature of our own “greatest generation.” They fought, during the War of Independence, with little at hand, against impossible odds, and won. What they had was incredible fortitude, backed by an equal degree of certitude as to what was at stake. Today’s generation of Israelis has been provided—by our own efforts and the help of our American ally—with tools that the Palmachniks of yore could not have conceived of. It now remains to be seen—and the point was made explicitly during the event—whether the leadership that will emerge from the present political morass will be equal to the challenge.