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The new face of Israel is a woman

Tzipi Livni, an ex-spy who defies stereotypes, may one day lead

July 09, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — She grew up in Zionist royalty, the pedigreed daughter of a "fighting family." She was a spy with the Mossad, her purportedly daring field exploits still classified. Today, she is the face of the Israeli government, in a country where politics remain largely the purview of macho men, and where being tough often outranks being smart.

And some people think Tzipi Livni could become the first female prime minister in more than a generation.

Israel routinely recycles its mostly male politicians, whatever scandal or other difficulty might befall them. How else to explain the long up-and-down career of Ariel Sharon, or the current comeback of Ehud Barak, or the omnipresence of Benjamin Netanyahu? In that world, Livni is a fresh phenomenon. In just a few years, she has emerged from relative obscurity to become one of Israel's most important political figures.

Livni, the foreign minister and deputy prime minister, who turned 49 on Sunday, has defied many stereotypes.

The product of an archly Zionist family, Livni evolved into a proponent of coexistence with the Palestinians, relinquishing the idea of a Greater Israel and instead advocating side-by-side states. A onetime agent with Israel's storied spy agency, she now sits down with Arab leaders and speaks to Arab newspapers.

This combination of old ideals and contemporary pragmatism has earned Livni a respect among many Israelis, from the right and left, who see her as a leader who is honest and principled, if not always suave.

"Supporting a two-state solution goes with the values I was raised with -- the need to keep Israel a Jewish state and a democratic one," Livni said in an interview at the modern, limestone Foreign Ministry on the western edge of Jerusalem. "The need is to adapt the two-state solution in order to live in our homeland ... a Jewish homeland ... while giving the Palestinians a possibility to create their own homeland."

Livni is not a natural schmoozer like, say, Netanyahu; her English is not flawless and her Israeli accent remains thick. She often seems aloof.

But she wins praise, here and abroad, for a willingness to seek compromise -- a skill not always valued in Israeli politics -- and to work not necessarily in the spotlight. Yet none of this should be mistaken for meekness, say those who know her.

"She shows strength without being aggressive, more of a European-style politician," said one veteran Israeli analyst. "But she can also be behind the scenes with a knife in her teeth when she needs to be. She knows how to fight."

That fighting instinct led Livni to what many consider to be her first major misstep.

A special inquiry of last year's war between Israel and the Lebanese-based Islamic militant group Hezbollah blamed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government for a string of strategic and political errors. Livni came off looking ineffective. She then launched, but quickly abandoned, an attempted coup against the besieged Olmert.

The halfhearted mutiny cost her, and dearly. Suddenly, Livni's leadership abilities and judgment were doubted.

And now the question is: Is she doomed by her blunders and the attacks of an unforgiving press that raked her over the coals? Or can she yet recover and attain the success and power that she clearly craves?

Zionist roots

Tzipora Livni was born a decade after Israel was, in 1958. Her parents were famous members of the Irgun, an underground group of armed Jews fighting to establish the state of Israel. Her father, Eitan, was its near-legendary director of operations. During his tenure, in 1946, the Irgun blew up Jerusalem's King David Hotel, headquarters for the British military that was administering the region then known as Palestine. Ninety-one people were killed.

Decades later, Eitan Livni became a lawmaker with the right-wing Likud Party, which grouped fervent political Zionists and which his daughter also eventually joined. In her office today, where many a foreign minister has hung photographs of themselves with the U.S. president, Livni has on display a single picture. It's her father, his craggy face in profile, cigarette in hand, smoke curling upward.

And on the bookshelves are the works of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Russian-born militant Zionist who in the early 1900s fathered the "Greater Israel" movement that advocated a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River, including where the nation of Jordan today exists.

Livni says she has not abandoned the ideals of her formative years but rather tempered the dream with reality. It has required a certain degree of heart-wrenching introspection.

"For me, the choice was whether to give up the ideal of Israel as a state that combines the values of a democracy and a Jewish state, or to give up some of the land of Israel," she said. "And I believe this was the right choice.

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