Tzipi Livni: Return or Irrelevance?

Today in Open Zion I argued that the only thing Tzipi Livni’s new party will accomplish is strengthening Netanyahu and the right:

As expected, Tzipi Livni has announced her return to Israeli politics with the formation of a new party, HaTnua (The Movement). Chemi Shalev argues that the results of the Likud primary, which turned the party further to the right, presents an opportunity for Livni because it might open up space for centrist parties to coalesce to challenge Benjamin Netanyahu.

What’s more likely is that she’s just created the vehicle for her own impotence. On every issue and in every practical way, Livni is boxed in by existing parties and their platforms. This, in turn, only strengthens Netanyahu.

At first glance, Livni represents a distinct challenge to Netanyahu. While Shelly Yachimovich has been careful to avoid international affairs, and Yair Lapid has only discussed the West Bank and settlements as a campaign ploy because he doesn’t have any other issues to run on, Livni has explicitly said she’d focus on the peace process.

She did serve as Foreign Minister, and she did conduct negotiations with the Palestinians. Thus, she only mentioned domestic issues with now-standard boiler-plate language, claiming she’d push for haredim to be drafted into the military and for “young people to have homes, earn a living, and live with dignity without always fearing for the future.”

But she’s really helped Netanyahu in two ways. First, she split the center and center-left vote, drawing support from Yesh Atid and Labor. A Channel 10 poll gives her nine seats, leaving Yesh Atid with five. More bigger parties on this end of the spectrum make it difficult for them to cooperate. Netanyahu knows this, and will have less to fear from them during the bargaining over a coalition government after January 22.

Second, Livni could well join a Likud Beiteinu government. Netanyahu could see her as an opportunity to play the opposition off one another, and bring her into the coalition. She’s negotiated with Mahmoud Abbas but she’s no dove (and the new Likud would constrain her if she was), and she’s no socialist on domestic social and economic issues. She’ll also have former Kadima members with her, some of whom originally came from Likud.

But where would she go in a new cabinet? Not Defense, which could still go to Ehud Barak but also possibly Moshe Ya’alon or someone else from Likud. Not to her old stomping ground, the Foreign Ministry, which, if he doesn’t take Defense, will go to Avigdor Lieberman. She doesn’t belong at Finance. Unless Netanyahu puts her in an existing extraneous ministry, like Strategic Affairs, it’s hard to see where she would fit—more, where she would matter.

What all of this demonstrates is that Livni brings nothing new to the political game. Her party is appealing right now while the public is still unhappy with the inconclusive end to the Gaza operation. She’s a known quantity, and remains popular despite having no credible achievements to her name and having been associated with major government failures (under Ehud Olmert).

There’s nothing she’ll accomplish with The Movement that she couldn’t have with an existing party. Centrist parties don’t last long in Israeli politics anyway. Her accomplishment, instead, will have been to help keep the right in power. As one operative on the right tweeted, “On behalf of the right in Israel I have two words for Tzippi Livni: Thank You.”


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