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Israel's Livni Vies For Spot As Second Female PM

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni visits Israeli Arab students at a local school in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, on the first day of classes, Sept. 1. Livni is running against Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz to take over the leadership of the ruling Kadima party.
Uriel Sinai
Getty Images
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni visits Israeli Arab students at a local school in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, on the first day of classes, Sept. 1. Livni is running against Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz to take over the leadership of the ruling Kadima party.

A surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria 35 years ago on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur turned the Israeli public against its first female prime minister, the legendary and charismatic Golda Meir.

Now another woman could become Israel's next leader.

Tzipi Livni is a hard-driving yet soft-spoken foreign minister who could take over leadership of the ruling Kadima party and replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert is stepping down amid corruption allegations — and Livni is ahead in the polls.

In some ways, Livni's life has been shaped by contrasts. She grew up in freewheeling, left-leaning Tel Aviv, yet her parents were heroes of the right-wing Irgun — militant, pre-state Jewish guerrillas who used what could be described as terrorist tactics to try to force the British out of Palestine.

Livni's father raised her to believe that all of British Mandate Palestine should be the Jewish homeland, and she grew up on that dream of holding on to the West Bank land Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

From Law To Politics

In 1996, Livni gave up a successful 15-year legal career and was elected to parliament as a member of the conservative Likud party. Nine years later she would follow then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in breaking from Likud to form the more centrist Kadima party, whose platform calls for territorial compromise with the Palestinians. This marked a break with her family's dreams.

Dita Kohl-Roman, a close friend of hers, says Livni realized Israel could not maintain its Jewish majority and identity if it clung to all of the West Bank.

"She said 'though for me the greater Israel is the dream. I have to give up that dream because it is more important for me to have a democratic state, therefore I want to have a Jewish national home in Israel and I know I have to create the same thing for the Palestinian people,'" Kohl-Roman says.

Livni has led the Israeli negotiating team in U.S.-backed talks with the Palestinians — talks that have, so far, shown little tangible progress.

Right-wing critics in Israel say Livni, 50, lacks the experience needed for the prime minister's job and is soft on national security. The Israeli left has criticized Livni for doing nothing to dismantle illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank or to halt expansion of the larger settlements.

In the Kadima party's primary next week, Livni faces retired Gen. Shaul Mofaz, who has made national security and tough talk against Iran centerpieces of his campaign. If Livni wins the primary, she'll be tasked with forming a new governing coalition to take over from Olmert.

Challenges For Livni

Livni, in contrast to Olmert, has a sparkling "clean" image. Yaron Ezrahi of Hebrew University says if Livni wants to be more than merely a transitional political figure, she has to offer more than "clean" government. She must, Ezrahi says, do more than talk about disentangling Israel from its 41-year occupation of the West Bank.

"The challenge she faces is also the challenge of Israel," Ezrahi says. "If she makes it, it will have to be a different Tzipi Livni, more determined to overcome the taboos that have been institutionalized by former governments of not removing settlements."

Many Israelis see Livni's public persona as stern, closed and seemingly humorless. People in Israel took note when Livni actually smiled and laughed during a recent TV interview, and some who have worked in government with Livni describe her as focused and intense, bordering on cold.

Differing Public And Private Lives

One colleague, who asked not to be named, said "she won't ask you how your weekend was. She'll ask you to get to work." Friends, by contrast, describe her as witty and entertaining — a vegetarian who enjoys jogging and playing the drums.

"She's very different in private," one friend says. "Fun to be with. Very funny. Has a great sense of humor."

Kohl-Roman says the difference between the public and private Livni reflects the reality that she is a woman fighting for acceptance from macho, former military men who continue to play a major role in Israeli politics. Livni, Kohl-Roman says, wants to change the political culture and its language.

"Some of it is the old boys' language — a group of ex-generals, who have a certain language between themselves and certain assumptions about what she knows and can or cannot do," Kohl-Roman says. "So I think it's sometimes used against her, 'she's stern.' She has to be very careful."

Critics say she's sometimes too careful.

A friend says Livni likes to read mystery novels, but always starts at the end. She likes to know how it ends and then work her way through it. Colleagues say Livni tries to take the same cautious approach to politics and negotiations.

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.