Tzipi Livni: Agent of change

Donald Macintyre on the former spy who looks likely to be Israel's next leader

On a warm evening in June this year, Tzipi Livni stood on steps leading to the garden of the British ambassador's house in Ramat Gan on the edge of Tel Aviv, and made a revealing little joke in her role as the Israeli guest of honour at the annual Queen's Birthday cocktail party. Her remarks about the importance of the Anglo-Israeli relationship were polite but routine. But what made the guests on ambassador Tom Phillips's lawn laugh was when she said she had a very personal bond with the United Kingdom, without which she might not be here today. For her parents, she explained, actually met while robbing a British train.

The speech was a reminder that while she is the least frivolous of Israeli politicians, she knows very well how to hold an audience. But it also drew attention to her family history at the more extreme end of the Jewish underground during the last years of the British mandate. Where the offices of other politicians are festooned with pictures of themselves shaking the hands of world statesmen, the most noticeable photograph on the wall of Livni's is that of a handsome, open-faced man smoking a cigarette. It is her father Eitan, who was a Likud member of the Knesset, but long before that a key commander in Irgun Tzvai Leumi, or Etzel, an organisation widely depicted by British officials and the press of the time as "terrorist" and dedicated to the idea of a Greater Israel stretching across the West Bank to the River Jordan.

But her family roots in right-wing Zionism were also for her the starting point of a long ideological journey. Today, of all the rivals for the premiership after Ehud Olmert's announcement on Wednesday night that he is vacating the office, she is the most committed to – and already embedded in – negotiations with the moderate Palestinian leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, negotiations which she knows could end successfully– if at all – only with the handover of most of the West Bank. She is also, according to the polls, the most popular choice to succeed Olmert as leader of the Kadima party which both defected from Likud to form with Ariel Sharon in 2005. One of these, the one in yesterday's Haaretz, suggests for the first time that a Kadima led by her would – if narrowly – beat Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud into second place in a general election. A year ago, she called on Ehud Olmert to resign in the wake of the devastating Winograd report on his handling of the Lebanon war but was then widely seen as having "blown it" by not resigning herself when he stayed put. As she flew back from the United States yesterday, a declared candidate to become the first woman prime minister of Israel since Golda Meir, she was entitled to savour a sense of anticipation that her moment may now have come.

Tzipora Malka Livni was born in 1958 in Tel Aviv to parents who were, in fact, both strong influences. Arrested three months before Etzel's deadliest attack, the 1946 explosion in the British headquarters at the King David Hotel, her father eventually escaped in the famous Acre prison riot in time to fight in the War of Independence. But her mother Sara Rosenberg, who died last year at the age of 85, and joined Etzel at the age of 16, also escaped from British detention. Like many other children of the old underground, Livni at school – where she was both academic and sporty (soccer and basketball) – had some sense that her family was a relative outsider in an Israel then dominated by the old Labour aristocracy. A teacher complained to her mother that she had been arguing in class because in a history lesson that they were only learning about Haganah and Palmach and ignoring the more extreme Etzel and the Stern Gang.

But in the eulogy she delivered last year at her funeral, she described her mother as a "warrior not only in the Etzel, but in general. After having fought to establish the state, Mother continued to fight for us, doing battle against anyone who hurt us, but also took care that we would not become arrogant". Significantly she added, at this gathering of the old Etzel forces, that her mother had backed her decision to leave Likud. "In the end, Mother also accepted the idea of dividing the land, after hearing about the steps I was promoting. She did this out of pure love of her daughter, and told me: 'Keep going.'"

The daughter's change of heart would come much later down the track. As a teenager in the early Seventies, she demonstrated against the Kissinger peace shuttle, and when she went into the army she was still a child of the right. She was twice named as most outstanding candidate in officer training – showing a drive that is still evident today. "She's tough, first on herself but on other people as well," says an official who has worked with her. She's also very focused on the job in hand. At the age of 22 she was recruited by a schoolfriend into Mossad. Beyond confirming she had a spell in Paris she has said nothing about her time in Mossad. This year there was a highly coloured newspaper report that she had been charged with hunting down exiled Palestinian militants. But while the idea of Livni as a deadly – and undoubtedly attractive – Mata Hari is hard to resist, the reality is almost certainly more prosaic. Indeed, it was while training – highly successfully – as a field operative that she decided four years later to leave and get married to Naftali Spitzer, who now owns an advertising agency. She has been notably successful in keeping her family – the couple have two sons, Omri and Yuval – out of the public eye.

It was after the Oslo accords that she decided to stand for parliament, finally entering the Knesset for Likud in 1999.It was here that she was spotted as someone who would go far by Ariel Sharon, her most important mentor since her father. And it was after this – as a strong supporter of Sharon's withdrawal of the settlements and military from Gaza – that she started to come to her present and essentially Zionist position – "it's not altruism", says a colleague – that the long-term future of Israel can be secured only by a two-state agreement and not by ruling over disenfranchised Palestinians who may eventually became the majority. And in was in the new Kadima government led by Sharon until his stroke in early 2006 that she became foreign minister.

Israeli diplomats largely welcomed her arrival, not least because she made it clear she wanted them and not, as under some of her predecessors, political cronies to get the plum jobs. This is a small symbol of a big potential appeal she has for an Israeli public whose disillusionment with politics has reached a new nadir. In a climate in which accusations of corruption are routine, she shows every sign of being clean. And while she shares with Olmert – not withstanding the marked lack of warmth between them – a long journey from the right to centre, she has little of his well-documented taste for the high life, or for schmoozing with the rich Israeli elite "She is no north Tel Aviv socialite," says one former colleague. "Her friends are long standing and separate from her political life." Trying to define her style in more personal terms she told The New York Times – quite convincingly – last year: "I prefer jeans to a suit, sneakers to high heels, markets to malls. [In Paris] I prefer the Quartier Latin to the Champs-Elysées. In general, I don't like formality at all. It is just part of what I do. You know, when I was young, I went to the Sinai and worked as a waitress."

While as foreign minister she has been deeply embroiled in security issues, she – like Olmert – does not have the background as a general that Israelis have traditionally liked in their political leaders. In Olmert's case this may have contributed to his launching of the Lebanon war in disastrous over-compensation. The effects on Livni were – healthily – different. She almost immediately and vainly pushed, during what she has since said was the disheartening "euphoria" at the outset of the war, for the diplomatic exit route she correctly saw was needed. In a later interview with Haaretz's Ari Shavit, Livni, who had certainly been more forthright than other ministers in challenging the military and by most accounts was frozen out in the process, acknowledged that "sometimes there are guy issues ... Not only in the war. In all kinds of discussions...".

None of this is to depict Livni as a Peace Now dove. Quite apart from her hawkish reflexes on Iran and Syria, even on negotiations with the Palestinians, her particular red line has been the refusal to accept even the token admission of Palestinian refugees to Israel envisaged in the Camp David talks of 2000. Nor is it certain, given an Israeli electoral system that gives the small intransigent parties disproportionate influence, that she, any more than Olmert, could deliver the kind of concessions to the Palestinians that are a minimum requirement for the kind of agreement that Abbas would need to sell to his own public. Assuming that she can form a coalition in the first place.

She does offer something new in Israeli politics, however. While the polls currently show her ahead of her main rival, Shaul Mofaz, within Kadima, he commands many of the old-style levers among activists – many imported from Likud – used to "selling" their political support for favours in their local bases. But what makes this contest particularly interesting is whether Livni's direct appeal to the wider electorate will win the day over machine politics. Israeli politicians are fond of Blairite parallels; Olmert is even said to have modelled his resignation on Blair's.But if Kadima is going to follow the example of the British Labour Party which, in 1994, elected a new leader primarily because he looked like an election winner, then it's hard to see how it can avoid choosing Livni.

A Life in Brief

Born 8 July 1958, in Tel Aviv, Israel

EARLY LIFE Her parents were leading members of Etzel, a radical Zionist organisation. Her views led her to join Mossad in her early 20s. Left the security organisation after two years to become a lawyer and start a family.

POLITICAL CAREER Elected to the Knesset in 1999 as a member of Likud, and was appointed to a series of ministerial posts. Her views softened into a more centrist position and she began to advocate a two-state solution. Followed Ariel Sharon into new Kadima party in 2005; Foreign Minister since 2006.

SHE SAYS "I am good at persuading people. In convincing the other, I try to start from their point of view, so it's easier for me to find a common denominator."

THEY SAY "I'll take her as my lawyer or friend, but to lead here you have to have something hard to describe, something from the innermost person that gives you hope, an answer to your pain. She needs to speak from her guts." – Yariv Reicher, political consultant

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