JERUSALEM – Former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Israel’s most-recognized female politician, threw her hat back in the political ring Tuesday, setting the stage for an election rematch against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Four years ago, Livni, as head of the centrist Kadima Party, beat Netanyahu’s Likud Party by one Knesset seat, but she was unable to form a majority coalition, giving Netanyahu an opportunity to take power.
Few expect her newly formed Movement Party will come close to threatening Netanyahu this time, but her return to the political scene — seven months after she announced she was taking a break — will further reshape Israel’s center-left as it struggles to find a way to confront the nation’s rising right-wing movement.
Livni's party joins several other center-left parties jockeying for position, including a resurgent Labor Party, her old Kadima Party and a newly formed party led by Yair Lapid, a charismatic former TV broadcaster who is making his first foray into politics.
Some had hoped the various center-left parties would form a super-bloc to challenge Likud. Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich and Lapid both reportedly offered her the No. 2 spot on their platform.
But Livni opted instead to launch a new own party, meaning the center-left movements will be competing against one another as well as Netanyahu.
“A woman’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,’’ she quipped, breaking into English for the only time during a Tel Aviv news conference.
Her decision also seemed to confirm speculation that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not run in the upcoming election. Livni, who served as Olmert’s foreign minister, had said she would not run against him.
Olmert , who was convicted of felony corruption earlier this year and faces bribery charges in a separate pending case, flirted with the idea of running but has not announced a final decision.
Preliminary polls suggest a Livni-led ticket could draw 10 Knesset seats, though it’s too soon to judge whether that support will last. She is expected to take votes away from other center-left parties rather than from the right. That means her entry may not have a significant impact on whether Israel’s right-wing parties win enough seats to form a coalition.
So far, most predict Netanyahu, who recently announced he would offer a combined candidate slate with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, will be reelected.
During her news conference, Livni criticized Netanyahu’s policies, including his government’s marginalization of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who disavows violence, and indirect cease-fire negotiations following last week’s conflict with Islamist group Hamas, which Israel labels a terrorist organization.
“It is clear that Hamas may have been weakened militarily but strengthened diplomatically,’’ she said. “The painful price of four years of the government’s misguided policies are coming to light. They have everything the wrong way around.”
As opposition leader, Livni hammered away at Netanyahu with a similar message. But while popular internationally, she has struggled to connect with Israeli voters, who did not respond to her repeated warnings about the urgent need to make progress on peace talks with Palestinians.
After polls showed Kadima’s popularity had plummeted, she was ousted earlier this year as leader of Kadima and replaced by former army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz.
On Tuesday, Livni said she would not abandon her commitment to ending the conflict.
"I have come to fight for peace,’’ she said. “I will not give my hand to those who try to turn the word peace into a dirty one."
To her advantage, polls suggest that Livni is one of the few Israeli politicians whom voters see as a credible candidate for prime minister. Though Yachimovich’s Labor Party is expected to receive the second-largest number of votes in the Jan. 22 election, her informal style and lack of military and foreign policy experience make it difficult for Israelis to envision her in the top job, polls have found.
Analysts say the center-left may receive a boost in popularity following the recent Likud Party primary vote, in which several of the party’s moderate voices — such as Dan Meridor and Benny Begin — fell to the bottom of the list, meaning they are unlikely to win seats.
“If these Likud voters decide Likud has become too extreme, they might decide to vote for another party,’’ said Hebrew University political scientist Tamir Sheafer.
But he doubted whether Livni’s comeback would draw enough votes from the right to make a difference.
He said, “Livni is making waves in the little puddle that is the center-left camp, but this isn’t rocking the political map.”
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News assistant Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.