Polls indicate Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will score a decisive victory in next Wednesday’s Kadima Party primary, setting the stage for her to become the first woman prime minister since Golda Meir more than 30 years ago.
But analysts caution that an upset is possible and believe she may have an even harder time putting together a coalition government to succeed that of Ehud Olmert, who has promised to resign after the election because of a corruption probe. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz is Livni’s chief rival for the Kadima top spot.
If Livni, 50, is able to put together a new government and become prime minister, it will be in part because “she has a clean image and a clean record, which is very important with the corruption” allegations against Olmert, according to Naomi Chazan, a former Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party.
In June, Chazan wrote an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post in which she predicted Livni’s opponents would attack her because she is a woman and use such words as “inexperience and indecisiveness” and even “weakness (or is it femininity?), and so is unworthy of taking over the reins of power.”
Chazan said this week that “all of the attacks were the way I predicted them. … I think there has been a tremendous amount of chauvinism in the campaign against Livni.”
The fact that Livni has not responded “is probably good,” she said.
Chazan said she believes Livni may succeed at forming a government because “Israelis are perfectly happy having a civilian run the country” after many military men as prime minister.
But Colette Avital, a Knesset member from the Labor Party and a 2006 candidate for president, said she does not expect Livni to press the gender issue.
“She wants to be seen more like a leader than a woman,” she said. “She is not too much of a feminist and wants to be elected as a statesman, not a woman. She could add the fact that she is a woman, but she doesn’t.”
Avital said Livni’s political ascendancy is part of a “sea change in Israel” in which Israelis are “much more ready to accept women leaders.” She pointed out that a woman in Israel now holds the top post on the supreme court, that another is the speaker of the Knesset, and that women are ministers of Education and Tourism.
“It’s getting better,” Avital said.
Although she said Livni is not expected to bring many more women into her cabinet should she become prime minister, her election would encourage more women to enter government .
“We are already seeing it with more women competing in municipal elections — more than double the number of four years ago,” Avital observed. “I think my candidacy for president had a role in that because the public started to get accustomed” to women in politics.
And having a prime minister who runs the country in a transparent, corruption-free manner may also begin to give politicians “more credibility,” she said.
“People have a sinister view [of politicians] and she may reestablish trust in politicians,” Avital said. “Even in the last election, a lot of people cast a blank ballot because they were so distrustful of politicians. There was very low participation in the election altogether. And many of those who voted for the Penshioners Party were young people who said there was nobody to vote for, so they voted for their grandfather.”
Despite Livni’s wide lead in the polls, polls in Israel are notoriously unreliable and Jonathan Rynhold, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said Mofaz, 59, is still very much in the race for support from the party’s 70,000 registered members.
“People say Mofaz spent more time in local Kadima regional offices and that he may have the ability to get his people out to vote,” he said. “So you can’t count him out.”
Rynhold said Mofaz’s strategy of saying Livni has no experience and is too left wing hasn’t worked and that the only question is which one of them can get their supporters to the polls. He said she picked up some ground this week when Kadima’s election committee decided to remove 3,691 Kadima members who were found to illegally belong to the Likud Party too. Most are believed to have been Mofaz supporters.
The two other candidates in the primary are Minister of Public Security Avi Dichter and Minister of the Interior Meir Sheetrit.
But the polls indicate that the only way for Kadima to survive as a party is for Livni to be elected next week, according to Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“The polls show that in a general election, Kadima could win more than 20 or 30 seats [in the Knesset] with Livni as the candidate, but with any of the others the party might disappear,” he said. “So if I was interested in the survival of my party, I would support Livni. … You don’t have to like her but it is a matter of life or death for Kadima and I think people understand that.”
When Mofaz first entered the primary, analysts said he had a better chance of establishing a new government because he, unlike Livni, knew how to deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties, Rahat pointed out. And there was speculation that if Livni won the primary she would move directly for new general elections.
But published reports this week said Livni has ruled out calling for new elections and believes she can assemble a coalition government. Rahat said he believes that is a smart move.
“Kadima is the largest party and it is located on the middle of the political map,” he said. “If there were new elections, Likud could win. I don’t see any interest for any Kadima candidate going for elections, and I don’t think Kadima could dream about a better position than it has now. The reason Olmert has not been kicked out already is that there is no alternative. In Israel, you cannot kick out a government unless you have an alternative.”
Although Chazan said she and Livni are not politically aligned, “I think she will make a good prime minister.”