Netanyahu Gets Stronger the More Livni Presses for Peace

The more Israel’s former foreign minister and chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, talks about making peace with the Palestinians, the more polls show her dwindling into obscurity before next week’s election.

After drawing the most votes in 2009 -- a Pyrrhic victory when Benjamin Netanyahu managed to form a coalition government and send her to the opposition -- Livni is struggling to make a dent before Israelis cast their ballots on Jan. 22. Her Hatenuah party is projected to win only eight of the Knesset’s 120 seats in two surveys published today by the Haaretz and Yediot Aharonot newspapers, compared with 32 for Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu alliance. Earlier polls gave her six seats.

“Israelis aren’t against peace, but they want to be negotiating from a position of strength,” said Tamar Herman, a senior associate at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group. “They don’t want to vote for someone they see as defeatist.”

Livni’s peace platform has been overwhelmed by Netanyahu’s trumpeting his commitment to Israel’s security and the growing comfort among voters with Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Even her efforts to build an alliance with other centrist parties were rebuffed by leaders of the Labor and Yesh Atid parties, who find more electoral traction in attacking Netanyahu on the high cost of food and housing.

The Jewish Home party, which favors increased building of West Bank settlements and opposes Palestinian statehood, would win 12 Knesset seats, according to the Yediot poll. Livni’s former party, Kadima, may get two Knesset seats, the survey shows, down from 28 last election. Labor gets 17 seats and Yesh Atid 13 in the poll.

Golda Meir

Four years ago, Livni captivated Israelis as a blond former operative for the Mossad in Paris who backed the government’s evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip, which Netanyahu opposed, and drew comparisons with the country’s first female prime minister, Golda Meir.

The late Yitzhak Rabin used the peace card in the 1992 election to oust Yitzhak Shamir, whom the Israeli public had come to see as a hardliner whose intransigence strained relations with the U.S. A similar fate befell Netanyahu in his first term when Ehud Barak unseated him in the 1999 election by promising to negotiate a peace accord with the Palestinians. The strategy backfired a year later after Barak failed to reach an agreement with Yasser Arafat at Camp David and lost a re-election bid to Ariel Sharon.

Iranian Threats

Livni, 54, has put peace with the Palestinians front and center in her campaign, painting Netanyahu as a regional menace for threatening to attack Iran and provoking international condemnation with more settlement building. While critical of last year’s United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood, she says the move may ultimately revive peace efforts.

“It’s wrong and I’m completely against unilateral steps, but since it’s there, we can look at this as a new opportunity to relaunch negotiations and to start negotiating with them,” she said in an interview.

Livni, a vegetarian and Tel Aviv resident with a law degree from Israel’s Bar Ilan University, is married to Israeli advertising executive Naftali Spitzer and they have two grown sons. She was the government’s privatization czar and justice minister before taking over the Foreign Ministry in 2005. Two years later, she was named to Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Three years into her post as opposition leader, Livni quit the Knesset after she was replaced last March as head of Kadima by former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. She returned to politics six months later with the new Hatenuah party and she has had difficulty building alliances.

‘More Isolated’

Dressed for a Dec. 28 campaign appearance in a powder blue turtleneck and jacket, Livni spoke afterward about her quest to lead Israel and ease friction with the surrounding Arab world.

“Without any peace process, Israel is more isolated,” she said above the clatter at Majdi’s, a restaurant in Kfar Saba, a Tel Aviv suburb. “As someone who believes that I need to leave something for my children, something more than a bank account, not just money, but also values which represent Zionism, the dream of my parents, this is what I dream for my children, and peace is part of it.”

Livni said she distinguishes between most West Bank settlements adjacent to sovereign Israel that she expects will ultimately be annexed and more isolated “political settlements,” for which she says “there’s no use in the future.”

Social Justice

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War. Netanyahu, who advocates a two-state solution with conditions, has sought to woo settlers with frequent campaign appearances in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

The U.S. considers all Israeli settlements on occupied territory to be illegal.

On Israel’s economy, Livni said she is committed to narrowing the gap between rich and poor, having courted former Defense Minister Amir Peretz to leave the Labor Party he once led to steer Hatenuah’s “social justice” agenda. She absorbed Israel’s Green Movement into her party, giving a prominent spot on the ballot to its chairman, Alon Tal, and adopting its goals to cut air pollution, promote public transportation and create new nature preserves.

While Livni declared her hope to lead the next government when she kicked off her campaign in November, Hatenuah’s placement in the polls has somewhat trimmed her ambitions. Livni won’t rule out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition even though he has said she would not be allowed anywhere near the peace table.

“I’m going to make my own decision the day after the election,” she said.

Palestinian Concern

Palestinian officials, who express pessimism about prospects for a post-election peace accord, declined to comment about specific candidates on concern they would be seen as trying to influence the results.

“We see the opinion polls and it’s not like before, when the settlers were a marginal part of the population,” said Xavier Abu Eid, an adviser to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “Now they’re like 10 percent of the voters and it’s worrying when you have a state of Israel that is the occupying power over 4 million Palestinians and we don’t even seem to be an issue anymore in their campaign.”

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