Israel: The spy who would be PM

Foreign Minister favourite to be first female leader since Golda Meir

It was just before the rowdy climax of her meeting with party activists packed into a stifling eighth-floor office on a hot and humid night here that Tzipi Livni displayed her political steel. Having infiltrated the meeting, the national students' leader, Netanel Izak, had grabbed the microphone to ask why she had not responded to his letter seeking her support against higher student fees.

Ms Livni first gave the student a brisk dressing down. "I absolve you from supporting me," she said to a laugh from her loyalists. "But if you try to push me into a corner, you won't get an answer. If you're polite, you will." Israel's Foreign Minister then explained that a solution for higher education funding was the subject of government consultations, but that yes, she did support a rise in tuition fees.

Her intervention was not enough to stop a shouting match between the students and her supporters which ended in the arrival of the police. But it was a pointed indication to the party activists that she is not prepared to make random concessions to every interest group that demands them in order to achieve her goal of being the first woman prime minister of Israel since Golda Meir.

As such it symbolised the break with the old wheeler-dealing tradition of Israeli politics that her campaign purports to mark. That could affect the kind of governing coalition she seeks to build if she wins the leadership of the governing party, Kadima, after 70,000 registered members choose a successor to Ehud Olmert on Wednesday. And that in turn could determine Israel's stances over the coming year on major issues of peace or war: Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians.

Like Hillary Clinton, Ms Livni is seeking to break through the glass ceiling of male-dominated politics. A decade younger than Mrs Clinton, she also favours "pants suits" – though certainly not of the orange variety; in Haifa she wore a demure black one.

And while she remains well ahead in the polls, her activists cannot discount the possibility of a victory for the well-oiled political machine of her only serious opponent, the former chief of staff, Defence Minister, and scourge of the Palestinian intifada, Shaul Mofaz. According to some reports, Mr Mofaz has a much bigger network than Ms Livni of "vote brokers" who have freshly – and dubiously – recruited hundreds of new members for the contest. But unlike Mrs Clinton she keeps her family – a husband in advertising and two sons – wholly out of the public eye. She is projecting herself as the fresh face of a new national politics. Speaker after speaker at the Haifa meeting, stressing her "Mrs Clean" image, untainted by the kind of corruption allegations that have brought Mr Olmert to the brink of an indictment, echoed her own assertion that the wider electorate are "willing to vote for me to restore their trust in politics".

Certainly the polls suggest she is easily Kadima's best hope of confronting a powerful electoral challenge from Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud. "It's Netanyahu or Livni," the local Kadima chairman Itzik Regev told the meeting. "There are no other options."

As a populist security hawk – not least on Iran, on which he has gone further than other Israeli politicians in threatening a military attack – Mr Mofaz has indicated that while he would talk to the Palestinians it would no longer be about the "final status" of a two-state solution. And he has been heavily critical of any plan to divide Jerusalem – a minimum requirement for such an agreement.

Ms Livni is no leftist. A former Mossad agent with family roots in right-wing Zionism, she has her own "red lines" – against even a token admission of Palestinian refugees to Israel, for example. She has been openly critical of Mr Olmert's decision to open talks with Syria without Damascus first "ending its support for terror".

But she says that Israel should be ready to give back territory while adding it must be "by consensus and it must bring an end to the conflict". And she is heavily committed to – and personally embroiled in – the problem-strewn talks with President Abbas's team on the outlines of a future two-state solution.

Ms Livni has said she would not pay "any price" to build the coalition that whoever wins the leadership will need to prevent early elections. That might just rule out the ultra-orthodox Shas, which continually seeks higher child allowances for the large families that make up its support base, and which is strongly opposed to a serious offer to the Palestinians. Mr Mofaz has hinted he will woo not only Shas but the hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Lieberman.

For Mr Mofaz's supporters in Haifa – the biggest Israeli city, with a mixed population of Jews and Arabs – his military record means a welcome return to Israel's tradition of being run by generals after the debacle of a Lebanon war led by the civilian Mr Olmert saw Katyusha rockets raining down here in 2006. "We are living in the Middle East, not Switzerland," says a Jewish Kadima activist, Mira Peleg, 42, who has a son in the army. "We cannot afford another experiment. We should cut the bullshit and think of Israel." Even Mr Mofaz's less bellicose supporters argue his military record is an advantage. "He has seen his friends dying in battle, he knows what war is and so he will want peace," insists another supporter, an Arab lawyer Anan Zubran, 45. Even a man who reportedly called early in the second intifada for a death toll of 70 Palestinians a day? "[Yitzhak] Rabin was a general too, and in the first intifada he talked about breaking the bones of Palestinians. But he did more for peace than any other leader of Israel."

For Arab opponents of Mr Mofaz the comparison with Rabin is frankly incredible. "Ms Livni has clean hands and she can make peace with the Palestinians and the Arab states," says Ashoul Munir, a businessman. "She is a woman and that means a change." As a Jew who has made the same ideological journey from the hard right to the centre as Ms Livni, Itzik Regev points out that she was a favoured protégé of Ariel Sharon.

But he adds: "It is a very good chance for the nation of Israel to take a woman, a young woman, as its leader who is not a general and who may be the one who will avoid the war, rather than the one who will win the war."

The rise of Tzipi Livni

*Born: Tzipora Malka Livni on 8 July 1958 in Tel Aviv

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

*Family: Married to Naftali Spitzer, two sons, Omri and Yuval

*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.

*In her own words:

"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."

"I prefer jeans to a suit, sneakers to high heels, markets to malls. [In Paris] I prefer the Quartier Latin to the Champs-Elysees. 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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Johnny Handle, Northumberland, Ted Relph, President of Lakeland Dialect Society, and Sid Calderbank, Lancashire, founder of the National Dialect Day
newsMeet the enthusiasts determined to stop them dying out
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross. Argyll, has remained derelict for more than 25 years
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game