Photo: Dudi Vaaknin
Photo: Chai, Tzach
A few days after the fighting in Lebanon started, on the day an Israeli missile boat was hit off the Lebanese shores, the political-security forum convened to authorize the shelling of the Hizbullah headquarters in southern Beirut with five tons of bombs. The session was very tense.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was against going up a step like this, claiming that the timing was not right and that perhaps the escalation should be stopped. This remark made some who were present feel very bad. They felt that once again Livni is preparing her legal arguments for a commission of inquiry.
A person who worked with her in the past claimed that almost everything Livni says or does is examined through the prism of how these things will hold in a commission of inquiry. That paranoia is the key to understanding her. It is the construct that protects her, but also makes her stuck at the same time.
This caution, however, is working against her today. For a few weeks now, Livni did not make a single remark that carried public weight and rarely appeared on the media. Olmert, Peretz, and Halutz established themselves as the leading trio while she was pushed aside.
As a result, the foreign minister is not dominant in this war. It does not feel like she is really directing Israel's foreign policies. Livni could have been expected to shuttle between European capitals, speak on leading TV networks, have pictures of her taken landing and taking off, and angrily wave her fist at cameras and microphones. It did not really happen.
"The problem is," Foreign Ministry staffers said, "that her English is not that flawless. We already miss Silvan Shalom's English. Livni still does not feel this is her home court. She is frozen. She is not there yet, so she demonstrates lack of self-confidence."
On the other hand, her bureau staffers say that she held dozens of phone conversations with foreign ambassadors and foreign ministers over the past few weeks, only she did that off camera. She believes that the British foreign minister does not have to watch her on the BBC to support the Israeli policy.
The question remains whether Israel is properly explained. During Operation Defensive Shield, a communication center for the foreign press was built. This time, no such center was created and TV screens abroad were not flooded with images of wounded Israelis, demolished houses, or a father and daughter buried side by side.
The feeling is, I told Livni, that you are not promoting an aggressive foreign policy in reaction to the accusations leveled at us.
"I understand our frustration because we are not understood and the world is against us even though we suffer too and are more moral," she said. "After Haifa was shelled, I called the Foreign Ministry secretary general and said: 'We should give these images to the foreign media because they show the problem we have, the fact that Israel is under attack, that it is not strong Israel.'
"Still, running a PR campaign like that is problematic because the army wants to present achievements. There is a clash here between the desire to create an image of victorious Israel and presenting our misery. This is a complicated issue, but my role is not to serve as spokesperson, but to do political things."
Foreign minister says in special Knesset discussion, in which families of kidnapped soldiers participate, that Israel is paying for weakness of Lebanese government. Knesset speaker, MK Itzik, attacks war critics and decisions of political and military apparatuses: 'We cannot conduct this war in atmosphere of inquiry committee'
Livni's conduct is disappointing because expectations of her were high. Until recently, many considered her a fine prime-minister potential. Presently, it turns out that though Livni cannot be underestimated - she has values, she is clever and hard working - but the gap between her leadership potential and the prime minister's chair looks bigger than ever.
She did not feature in public opinion polls in recent weeks. She became less relevant all of a sudden. Her presence was only felt when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Israel. Livni worked hard to create a strong connection with Rice and reaped the fruits when Rice let her become deeply involved in the wording of the US-French document of understandings.
If implemented, the document would score points for Livni, but she will have to share the credit with many others. So far, the relevant parties are not fighting over credits, both because the achievement is not in their hands yet, and because Livni would never do anything that might make her look disloyal to Olmert.
On his part, the prime minister has no reason to harm her: she is loyal, she is popular, and she is a woman. Olmert's associates said last week that the relationship between the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry have not been that good for years.
To her credit, it must be said that Livni has been a sane voice ever since the fighting started, but that voice merely whispered. Opposing the increased bombing of Beirut neighborhoods, she told her associates that it was a pinpointed discussion.
"I had to make cost and benefit considerations concerning a specific operation at a given time. I was no vegetarian. I just wanted to know that the military activities would allow me to go on with the political process. If I believed that these bombings could have attained political goals with military means, I would have had no problem with that."
She claims that she started thinking about the day after as soon as the campaign started. "Once the operation was underway, it was clear to me that it could attain only limited achievements, that the army cannot give me the real achievement. In my heart, I would definitely love to see Nasrallah eliminated, but the thing I aim at is far more ambitious."
Some believe that the army should be allowed to do its job before an agreement is signed.
"I do not believe in that. I believe that the suitable foundation on which decisions are made does not necessarily improve over time. We must change direction in terms of the relations between military and political moves. In the past, they believed that the role of the political echelon is to let the army buy us time. This is not true. I believe that my role is to make the international community rally for the implementation of processes we deem important.
"I introduced the system to a place it was not in before. In the past, they used to wait for a military operation to end and then they would conduct political moves. I decided to change that. I do not believe that the only consideration the cabinet should make is what the international community will say. I am not afraid of its criticism. I am afraid of the results of its policy."
High Tuition Fees
Foreign Ministry officials said that even before the war started, some wondered about her performance. They said she does not know how to activate informal channels, that she has no international ties and that in meetings she holds she focuses more on propaganda than on policymaking.
Also problematic is the fact that she does not have an experienced staff around her, except for Spokesman Ido Aharoni, who is a Foreign Ministry man.
A senior Foreign Ministry staffer remarked: "I believe that because she has no extensive diplomatic experience, she needed people around her who are versed in the material, who could give her advise and recommendations. She decided, instead, to build a new ministry, and we are already paying for this. We are paying high tuition fees here."
It turns out that she does not document her conversations either, something her people wonder about. In recent weeks, she held talks with several foreign ministers, but they were all held in private, with no one else present and no one to take notes, as is the diplomatic custom.
"It is all out of paranoia and total mistrust," a Foreign Ministry source said. Her associates deny the paranoia claim, maintaining that there were a few irregularities on the issue.
As the Guillotine Falls
Livni's civil service career was launched with a very senior position in 1966. Netanyahu and Lieberman made her director general of the cabinet-owned companies. When she became foreign minister, she vowed she will avoid making political appointments.
Foreign Ministry staffers claim that she is cold and distant, and shies away from personal connections. A person who worked with her in the past said she is a very cerebral and ambitious woman "who does not let her feelings show, dealing only with professional matters. If she is emotional, it is always about work matters, never about personal issues."
Another person who worked for her said, however, that "with all her faults, people admire her because she is brilliant. She can see dozens of miles ahead, she reads between the lines, and she lets no one fool her. She also has an amazing brain. You hand her a document and it takes her two minutes to find the main points in it. She thinks very fast. She hates manipulations and resents all capital-government connections. She is straight as an arrow, but will drop the guillotine on you if necessary."
And the guillotine falls, and how. Once Livni decides a certain person is irrelevant for her, she cuts him or her off at once.
"Maybe she is alienated because her head works so fast," a bureau staffer said. "She thinks so fast that she knows what you want to say after you completed two sentences. Sometimes it makes people feel she is not nice."
To this, Livni reacted saying, "I admit that I have a problem with picking up the phone and asking that someone do a favor for one of my employees. I may want to help, but I find it difficult. I also have a hard time letting people go. It is not true that the guillotine falls fast. I think a lot before I fire someone."
Her alienation has its advantages too. No one is scheming around her, and she is never gossiped about. It seems the public picked that. The fact that she came from a die-hard rightist Betar family and adopted left-wing views increased her popularity.
The Israeli hardcore left still remembers her moving speech at the rally held to commemorate Yitzhak Rabin, where she repeated the phrase "my prime minister" a number of times. Incidentally, she was the only right-wing representative who spoke at the rally.
They called her "pathetic"
She made her big political leap thanks to Ariel Sharon, who rewarded her loyalty by making her a cabinet member. Some of Sharon's associates, however, called her "pathetic" after an incident in 2003, before Sharon's new cabinet was formed. When portfolios were handed out, she burst into tears and insisted on the Health Ministry, but eventually was given the immigrant absorption portfolio.
Sharon took her under his wings after she eagerly supported his disengagement plan. After Sharon lost in the Likud voters' poll and a rift was created between him and the group of Netanyahu, Sharon, and Livnat, Livni served as mediator and played a central role in the ensuing political game. Sharon supported her openly and made her his justice minister.
She did not stand out as justice minister, but did not feature in state comptroller's reports either. Her term as justice minister will mainly be remembered thanks to the fierce struggle she waged against Justice Aharon Barak concerning the appointment of Justice Ruth Gabizon as Supreme Court judge.
Livni tried to present this as an attempt to fight against Barak's judicial activism, but it is not inevitable that she tried to throw a fat bone to the Likud members who did not like Barak, to say the least. Despite her clean public image, Livni goes where the wind is blowing and sees the things her public wants her to see.
During the stormy days after Sharon quit the Likud and formed Kadima, Livni was the only politician who visited his ranch and shared his deliberations. When he lost consciousness, some believed she could replace him.
What have you learned about this post since you assumed it?
I really do not like the ceremonies, but I found that a session, a meeting, a phone call could be meaningful. I started believing in personal contacts because state leaders and foreign ministers are humans too, looking at Israel through the prism of their personal worldview. Their reaction, positive or negative, is often intuitive, which is why interpersonal contacts are important here. This is new to me.
What do you believe is your main destiny?
I believe I must create legitimacy for Israel in this global village because a process of delegitimizing the State of Israel has started. I believe that if the UN were to vote today about the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel - the vote we enjoy recalling every Independence Day - it would have ended differently.