Thursday, October 09, 2008

Israel's most popular woman leader

The return of the 'Iron Lady'
Coffee Break / Kanchan Gupta
The writer with Ms Tzipi Livni at her office in Tel Aviv
Vijayalakshmi Pandit, impressed by the no-nonsense manner in which Mrs Indira Gandhi dealt with her Ministers and made them toe her line, had famously declared of her niece, "She is the only man in her Cabinet." That one-liner caught the popular imagination but it was not a terribly original idea. Years ago David Ben-Gurion had described Golda Meir as "the best man in the Government". But neither was Mrs Margaret Thatcher the first 'Iron Lady' to head a Government. This honour, too, was bestowed on Golda Meir after she turned adversity into victory during the Yom Kippur War of which she, and not Moshe Dayan, was the real hero. A framed photograph in one of the lobbies of the Knesset shows Golda Meir furiously puffing on an unfiltered cigarette, bearing testimony to both descriptions.More than three decades after Golda Meyer exited office, another 'Iron Lady' is on the verge of becoming Israel's Prime Minister. And, given Ms Tzipi Livni's track record as Cabinet Minister, especially her handling of the Foreign Office and the peace negotiations with Fatah led by Abu Mazen, she could well emerge as the 'best man' in her Cabinet. Fiercely ambitious and with amazing energy levels - she is believed to put in 18 hours a day and yet manages to look fresh as a daisy - last Wednesday she defeated her rival, Mr Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of general staff who has served as Defence Minister, to win the fiercely contested leadership of Kadima, albeit by a narrow margin. Mr Mofaz, after declaring that he is a "democrat at heart", has decided to take time off from politics. Apparently, he is sulking that the party should have elected a woman; his critics say he is a "murky political operator" and Israelis are looking for a break with the politics of the past, which in many ways is no different from politics in India. Such is the mood for 'change' a Haaretz columnist has compared Ms Livni with Mr Barack Obama. It's doubtful whether she would be pleased by this comparison, not least because her politics is shorn of the woolly-headed notions that endear Mr Obama to America's liberal fringe. Ms Livni has worked hard to acquire her formidable image of an incorruptible politician, a level-headed centrist who places Israel's long-term security interests above everything else, and a 'power woman' who deals with misogynist Arabs as an equal. Even her political foes within and outside Kadima would grudgingly concede that she deserves to be rated "Israel's most powerful woman". This image has been bolstered by delightful stories of her stint in the Army (in which she was a lieutenant), her job as a 'terrorist-hunter' in Mossad (she was employed to live in a Paris safe house to give it a 'domestic look'), and her dietary preferences (she is said to be a 'strict vegetarian' among avid flesh-eaters).After Wednesday's vote, she is one step away from taking over as Prime Minister after Mr Ehud Omert, buffeted by corruption charges, puts in his papers. Provided, of course, she is able to put together a parliamentary majority. She needs the support of Shas, but having shown little inclination towards pandering to the religious right all these years this may prove to be tricky. Ms Livni, however, is confident of putting together enough numbers to get a job she has been seeking ever since the financial scandals involving Mr Olmert came to light. Her detractors, meanwhile, are busy pointing out that while the departure of Mr Mofaz will rob Kadima of a prominent Sephardi, Ms Livni, an Ashkenazi, may not be able to maintain the broad support base of the centrist party. India, it would seem, does not have the monopoly on identity politics.But whatever the impact on Israel's internal politics, Ms Livni's emergence as the next Prime Minister cannot but impact West Asian politics in a profound manner, that is if she decides to live up to her image. She is an enthusiastic supporter of 'disengagement' from Palestinian territories and over the past year has come to be seen as a credible deal-maker, more so by Fatah and Abu Mazen. She worked overtime to make Annapolis more than just another photo opportunity and has made steady progress on all three contentious issues: The status of East Jerusalem, the final boundary and the right of return that so agitates Palestinian 'refugees'.As Prime Minister, Ms Livni could succeed in convincing the Palestinians, at least those in the West Bank, that wisdom lies in cutting a deal while a deal is still possible. Of course, much will depend on the outcome of next January's election in the Palestinian territories and whether Fatah is able to either trounce Hamas or enter into a compact of sorts that will provide for a power-sharing arrangement with Gaza and West Bank as two distinct entities of a Palestinian state. After all, a moth-eaten Palestine would be better than no Palestine. For the moment, the fact that the hudna still holds and the Hamas is not itching to return to its violent ways is good news. Palestinian 'plight' exercises Muslims abroad more than it does either Hamas or Fatah; the compulsions and exigencies of competitive politics, coupled with the changing concerns of Arab regimes, have forced a certain sense of pragmatism. The 'Wall' has also helped.No less important is the peace dialogue between Israel and Syria, brokered by Turkey. With the US and EU weighing in, the talks could lead to a peace agreement and thus lessen Israel's security concerns to a great extent. Damascus, considerably weakened in recent times, would not be averse to the idea of treading the path already taken by Cairo and Amman. A decisive Israeli Prime Minister could play a pivotal role in ending hostilities with Syria and thus end a chapter of both countries' history of shared turbulence. However, it's on Iran that Ms Livni will have to take a tough call. When I met her in Tel Aviv, she had no doubt about Iran's intentions to acquire nuclear weapons and was scathing in her criticism of countries promoting a soft line. Her views would have further hardened with subsequent revelations, including last week's IAEA assessment that Iran has been trying to refashion its missiles to equip them with nuclear warheads. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repulsive anti-Semitism and hatemongering has not helped Iran's case -- not with Israel, not with Sunni Arab regimes that are alarmed by Shia Iran's rise. Mr Olmert dithered on Iran as he lacked political support at home, although he did order the raid to destroy Syria's putative nuclear facility. His successor may not be given to procrastination. If, and that's a big if, Ms Livni were to decide to take pre-emptive action, she would live up to her description as the 'Lioness of Judea'.

The Pioneer [AGENDA ] Sunday, September 21, 2008

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