The announcement brought a hush to the faculty lounges.
In the newsroom of Haaretz, tambourines fell silent; the morning rendition of Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu cut off mid-chorus. Over at the New Israel Fund, filing of petitions to demand the Supreme Court demolish yet another home in Judea and Samaria was put on hold. There was grieving to be done, and eulogising.
Tzipi Livni, recently defenestrated leader of Israel’s opposition Kadima party, had announced her resignation from the Knesset.
Many had been expecting Livni to turn tail and defect to Yair Lapid’s new faction Yesh Atid but when the statement came on Tuesday morning, it was an exit not a sidestep. Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister perpetually touted as the next prime minister by people who know little about Israel and even less about Tzipi Livni, was out altogether.
Livni will be remembered as the most ineffectual opposition leader in Israeli history. She was a compulsive screw-up who fashioned the political misfire into an art-form. The most stunning was her eleventh-hour victory in the 2009 Knesset elections, after languishing in the polls for weeks, only to alienate almost every potential coalition partner and send them flying into the arms of Benjamin Netanyahu. He came second in the voters’ estimation but Livni pushed him over the finish line.
She was a reluctant hero for the Israeli peace camp. The daughter of two Irgun officers, Livni was raised to believe in Jabotinsky’s dictum “Shtei gadot la Yarden; zo shelanu, zo gam ken”. She joined the Likud and was a proud defender of Eretz Yisrael but by the early 2000s she had undergone a change of heart, or of political calculation. She began to drift leftwards, culminating in her joining Ariel Sharon in abandoning Likud to form Kadima as a platform for pushing the disengagement from Gaza. Leftists who had viewed her with disdain now took a second look and if they didn’t quite like what they saw they figured she could deliver their radical goals in moderate swaddling.
The Left was right not to trust her. Livni’s ideology swayed with even the mildest breeze – or polling report. She was what British right-wingers mistakenly accused Tony Blair of being: a triangulator with no foundational principles. While Blair did have principles (if not the old socialist ones dear to his party), Livni had no discernible belief system. And, crucially, Blair was an electoral prizefighter. Livni lost even when she won. If her career teaches us anything, and it is generous to assign it any value beyond political history or tragedy or comedy, it is surely a rebuke to cynics who decry modern politics as a marketplace of chancers and PR smoothies. Livni stood for nothing and refreshingly the voters wouldn’t stand for it.
After conceding to Bibi, she became leader of the opposition and embarked upon a series of miscalculations that made her coalition negotiations look like the work of a Machiavelli or a Clausewitz. She took to the Knesset podium to issue shrill denunciations of the Netanyahu government’s policies but stumbled when asked to outline her alternatives. She was slow to appreciate the opportunity provided by the social protests and by the time she got herself clued up her attempts to co-opt the movement looked hollowly political. Her favourite cliché – that she hated politics and was only in it to do her patriotic duty – registered as flippant and self-aggrandising with voters. Fatally, her leadership was overshadowed by growing corruption scandals engulfing Kadima, a party which had touted, if not squawked, its clean-hands credentials to the country. So when she was forced into holding leadership primaries in March, her rival Shaul Mofaz – a human form of Ambien – trounced her by 25 points.
During the vicious 2009 campaign, Likud tagged its attack ads with a coda (voiced by a female actor to distract from the blatant sexism at play) that questioned Livni’s suitability to be Prime Minister. “Tzipi Livni: Ze Gadol Aleya,” the voice claimed. “It’s too big for her”. Livni was championed by the international Left and the media for her commitment to the peace process, which is to say her commitment to the process of making yet more concessions in return for no peace. She was feted regularly by Newsweek, which frequently placed her on its lists of the world’s most powerful women. Of course, she was no such thing but presumably her American media sympathisers hoped that if they said ‘Livni’ and ‘next Prime Minister’ often enough it would come true.
She carried the hopes – and agenda – of many, confidence placed in her that bore no relation to her abilities as a politician or a leader. She was the worst kind of opportunist: one who misses every opportunity.
In the end, Tzipi Livni proved her critics right. It was too big for her.