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Israel's Tzipi Livni turns to women and the left for votes

The head of the centrist Kadima party, narrowly trailing in the polls, is honing an image of strength, optimism and girl power to expand her political base.

February 08, 2009|Ashraf Khalil

JERUSALEM — First there was the "healing through laughter" seminar. Then "Orit the Carpenter," sort of a lesbian Martha Stewart, took the microphone and yelled, "We have seen our share of candidates over the years . . . all oozing testosterone and ego. But I have news for them: We, the woman, can do this!"

Later, transsexual pop star Dana International performed a bouncy disco song and announced, "I now formally invite you to the diva sisterhood."

Cue the candidate: Tzipi Livni entered the room to a rapturous reception, working the crowd and accepting hugs and air kisses from the nearly 1,000 supporters (90% female) attending a "campaign happening for women" in Jerusalem.

As techno music boomed and Livni danced awkwardly onstage, her husband, Naftali Shpitzer, unassumingly strolled among the crowd, bouncing to the music and carrying his wife's purse over his shoulder.

The atmosphere Friday afternoon was somewhere between political rally and Lilith Fair. Splashes of pink and fuchsia leaped from posters, balloons and T-shirts. Female artisans at dozens of tables offered handmade jewelry and baby clothes, plus tarot card readings and life coaching sessions.

As Livni, 50, heads toward Tuesday's national election for prime minister, she is reshaping the centrist Kadima party in her image, reaching out to female and far-left voters who have never supported the party founded by gruff former Gen. Ariel Sharon.

Livni, Israel's foreign minister, is working to retain Kadima's base while leapfrogging over the traditionally leftist Labor Party and attracting voters further left on the political spectrum.

With the latest polls showing her narrowly trailing hawkish Likud Party leader Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, Livni is honing an image that combines the strength and decisiveness that Israelis seek in their leaders with a distinctly girl-power vibe -- along with a dose of Obama-styled hope-and-change rhetoric.

"She's growing into the role and adapting the party to her personality," said Edna Mazya, a playwright and prominent member of the leftist political establishment.

Mazya described herself as a longtime supporter of the far-left Meretz party. But this time she's voting for Livni, hoping to stave off a right-wing tilt under Netanyahu and rising hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman.

At stake could be the future of the regional peace process, which has been named a top priority of the new Obama administration. Livni has portrayed herself as the only candidate that can deliver a negotiated peace with the Palestinians: Netanyahu says the time is not right for so-called final status negotiations, while Lieberman openly opposes an independent Palestinian state.

Facing such stark contrasts, Livni's supporters are hoping for a last-minute rush of leftist voters to her cause.

"You're not voting for someone; you're voting against those who you don't want in power," said Henriette Dahan-Kalev, director of gender studies at Ben-Gurion University, who described Livni as a potential "default vote" for large segments of the left.

Despite years on the national political scene, Livni has never had to define herself on a stage this large.

She rose to public prominence as a protege of the larger-than-life Sharon and followed him from Likud when he formed Kadima. When a series of strokes incapacitated Sharon, she emerged as a lieutenant and sometime rival to his successor as party chief and prime minister, Ehud Olmert. The recent Israeli offensive in Gaza was conducted by Livni, Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, head of the Labor Party, which is lagging in polls.

"We never got to see her in action as an individual leader," Dahan-Kalev said. "She was always part of a team."

Now, as the dominant figure in Kadima, Livni is honing her public persona.

As a female civilian competing with Netanyahu and Barak, both former generals, Livni consistently talks tough on security.

She generally downplays the significance of her gender, portraying herself as a capable wartime leader.

"There's a twisted logic which says that defense issues belong to men," she said in a recent speech. "No man, including any general, has an advantage over me in this process."

But at Friday's women-targeted event, Livni displayed a different side. Her speech mentioned security issues only in passing and focused on the need for hope, optimism and a better country for Israel's children.

"I will not allow people here to live in desperation, and without any hope for peace," she said. "I tell you all: Snap out of the despair, because I am not prepared to give up on the word 'peace' and miss out on the opportunity."

To the left of the stage stood a huge poster board with Livni's silhouetted image, dubbed the "wall of hope," where well-wishers wrote sentiments like, "yes She can!" and "Give her a chance, we have nothing to lose." And Livni's own message, written in a looping, slightly girlish hand: "Do not vote out of fear, do not vote out of despair. Vote with faith."

Livni's recent push hasn't gone unnoticed by her rivals. A recent Likud TV ad appealed to female voters and pointed out her checkered record on women's issues, including parliament votes against expanding alimony payments, extending maternity leave and providing child-care compensation for working mothers.

"Livni always voted against you," the ad concluded. "Why should you vote for her?"

Dahan-Kalev, a longtime follower of Livni's political career, said she doubted that Livni could effectively tap the female vote at this late stage.

Livni was "never really interested in gender issues," she said. "She's too late. She missed the train."

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman and Gabby Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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latimes.com/israelelections

Israeli elections

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