Is Livni’s move to team with Labor one of principle or opportunism?

In the latest episode of the satirical show “State of the Nation,” the zingers aimed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weren’t coming from the comedians.

Tzipi Livni, who until last month was Netanyahu’s justice minister, called the prime minister a “zero” on the program Saturday night and promised to “take out the trash” in the March election.

But her most brutal jab came when she defended the recent union of her center-left Hatnua party with Labor, led by Isaac Herzog. The parties will run as a joint slate in the upcoming national elections and, if victorious, Herzog and Livni would each serve two years as prime minister.

“I thought a rotation of two potent prime ministers is better than one prime minister who’s impotent,” Livni said. “In my new pairing with Herzog, we’re going on a new path that will give hope to the nation of Israel.”

The Labor agreement is one more stage in what has been a tumultuous political decade for Livni.

A former minister of the right-wing Likud, Livni is joining her fourth political party in nine years and leading a campaign to replace the current Likud government with a left-wing coalition.

Her allies say her progression reflects a steadfast commitment to sensible policies amid a chaotic political landscape. Critics say the party switching reeks of opportunism.

“At this point in time, party institutions are weak, so we’re in a place where every candidate makes his own calculation for every election,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who served with Livni in the Kadima party and now heads the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. “The lines blurred, so it allows much more flexibility in people moving between parties.”

A daughter of former militants in the right-wing Irgun militia, Livni began her political career with Likud in 1999. She ascended to Cabinet minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and followed Sharon when he split with Likud in 2005 to form the centrist Kadima.

Livni became foreign minister when Kadima won the 2006 elections, and rose to lead the party in 2008 after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned. But she lost the 2009 elections to Likud and left Kadima in 2012 after losing in the party primary.

Ahead of the 2013 elections she founded Hatnua, promising to depose the Likud government and sign a peace accord with the Palestinians. But when Hatnua took only 5 percent of the vote, Livni joined a Likud-led coalition. That government broke up last month when Netanyahu fired Livni from her post as justice minister, and she united with Labor about a week later.

Throughout the changes, Livni has sought to portray herself as a principled leader who has stayed the course as the political ground has shifted beneath her. She advocates for minority rights, tough security measures and territorial compromise with the Palestinians — policies, she says, that a rightward-shifting Likud has mostly abandoned.

“I’m in the same place, with the same positions and the same opinions,” she said on “State of the Nation.” “Likud is escaping to the extreme right. Others are going to delusional places. I’m continuing with what I believe.”

Livni’s opponents in Likud, quick to document her zigzags across the political spectrum, counter that her willingness to discard party loyalties shows that she’s interested only in her own career.

“The unholy alliance between Herzog and Livni breaks a new record of political cynicism,” Likud lawmaker Yariv Levin wrote on Facebook last week. “Livni’s journey of switching from Likud to Kadima, from there to Hatnua and now to the Labor party, shows that a loss of direction, despair and small politics have taken over the Israeli left.”

Despite the criticism, the union with Labor seems to have elevated Livni’s public standing. Recent polls show the Labor-Hatnua list as the leading party heading into the elections. Before the merger, polls showed that Livni would barely have garnered enough votes to enter the Knesset.

Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Hebrew University, said voters might not mind Livni’s maneuvers because party switching has become a mainstay of Israeli politics. Sharon helped form Likud in 1973 only to leave it, rejoin in 1977 and leave again in 2005. Former President Shimon Peres was a member of three parties during his nearly 60-year political career. And changing loyalties, Avineri said, has only become more frequent in recent years.

“The last 10 years have been characterized by some very centrist people in the Likud leaving the Likud and moving toward a more centrist position,” Avineri said. “People in the center are usually not party loyalists. They can go either way.”

Netanyahu, with team of rivals, puts together a government

He’s had to bite a few bullets to get there, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lead Israel’s next government.

Barring a last-minute surprise, Israel’s new governing coalition will be sworn in this week: a center-right grouping of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud-Beiteinu faction, the centrist Yesh Atid party, the religious nationalist Jewish Home party, the center-left Hatnua led by Tzipi Livni and the tiny, centrist Kadima.

In total, the coalition will include 70 of the Knesset’s 120 members.

The government’s priorities will be to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, enact budget reform, expand Israel’s mandatory military conscription and lower the cost of living, according to Netanyahu.

“Above all,” Netanyahu said at his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, the next government must address “the major security challenges that are piling up around us.”

The coalition deal is a bittersweet victory for the prime minister. He won a disappointing 31 seats at the ballot box in January. Now that divided vote has turned into a divided government that he’ll have to lead with ambitious rivals by his side.

Those divisions have grown more intense since the election, as Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett formed an alliance after the vote.

“He’s a much weaker prime minister,” said Hebrew University political science professor Shlomo Avineri. “We see the emergence of two popular leaders who are not constrained by internal party institutions and can dictate to their own parties whatever policies they wish.”

By forming the coalition days before his final deadline of March 16, Netanyahu gets another term as prime minister. And because his party will control the Foreign and Defense ministries — Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon slated to be the next defense minister – Netanyahu will be able to preserve the status quo regarding security issues and Iran.

And Israelis shouldn’t expect a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. Hatnua supports a two-state solution, while Jewish Home resolutely opposes a Palestinian state, as do many in Likud.

“I don’t think there is any chance of a final-status agreement with the Palestinians,” Avineri said, but “partial agreements” could be possible.

Netanyahu will serve as foreign minister while former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu’s No. 2, fights corruption charges. Should he be acquitted, he will return to the post. Lapid, who has said he wants to be prime minister, had fought hard in negotiations for the foreign minister post.

In managing his coalition, Netanyahu’s biggest challenge will be including haredi Orthodox men in Israel’s mandatory draft – one of Israel’s burning political issues. Yesh Atid campaigned on a platform of drafting almost all haredi men, who currently receive exemptions if they stay in yeshiva. Along with Bennett, a pro-settler Zionist who strongly favors haredi conscription, Lapid has been pushing for a strict draft law.

Not wanting to alienate the haredim – a traditional support base for Netanyahu – the prime minister has pushed for a more lenient version. The compromise, according to the latest Israeli reports, will be that haredim will be subject to the draft at age 22, not 18, like the rest of Israelis. And up to 2,000 haredim will continue to receive exemptions, far higher than the limit of 400 that Lapid had sought.

“The new political leaders are capable of reaching an agreement that will gradually change the rules of the game,” Bar-Ilan University political science professor Eytan Gilboa said.
Avineri says he’s skeptical the haredim will obey any draft law reached without the imprimatur of the haredi parties.

“The only way of seriously extending the haredi draft is to do it with negotiations with at least one of the haredi parties, and getting a wishy-washy compromise,” Avineri said. “You’re not going get it by drafting thousands of haredim against their will.”

Draft reform is one of Lapid’s signature issues, but his harder task may be succeeding as finance minister. For this a media personality who decided to enter politics a little more than a year ago with a campaign that promised commonsense policies and “new politics,” it will be a challenge to maintain his appeal while actually being a politician.

Lapid’s campaign slogan was “Where’s the money?” and he promised not to raise taxes on the middle class. Facing a budget deficit of $10 billion, Lapid may become the face of some unpopular spending cuts or tax hikes.

That could condemn the fate of Lapid’s Yesh Atid to that of other Israeli centrist parties that flared and then burned out. Kadima, for example, dominated Israeli politics after Ariel Sharon founded it in 2005, and it won 28 seats in the previous elections, in 2009. But this year it squeaked into the Knesset with just two.

“Lapid is in danger,” said Hebrew University professor Gideon Rahat. “What happened to the rest of the centrist parties is they disappeared in two or three years. But if he does things differently, he may be able to hold on.”

For his part, the ambitious Bennett, formerly Netanyahu’s chief of staff, reportedly does not get along with the prime minister. Personal rivalries could cause rifts in the government should Bennett, Lapid and Netanyahu disagree on sensitive issues.

“There are too many internal coalitions inside this coalition,” Gilboa said. “The prime minister is not good at resolving coalition disagreements.”

Netanyahu’s main threat, however, may come from outside of the coalition. Usually part of the government, the Knesset’s haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – have been excluded this term because they oppose drafting haredim. They have vowed to fight the coalition tooth and nail. The opposition leader will be Labor, with whom the haredi parties share support for progressive economic policies.

Gilboa said that Israeli public support of draft reform will drown out haredi protest.

“I think the haredim will fight the government on economic issues, but I think the Israeli public in general will support reforms,” he said. “But I would advise the new politicians to go slowly and cautiously.”

Livni turned away from Iron Dome battery by military

Tzipi Livni was turned away from an Iron Dome anti-missile battery where she had planned to hold a campaign photo opportunity.

Livni, head of the new center-left party Hatnua, and Amir Peretz, who is second on her party list, were prevented from holding a photo op at the Ashkelon site on Tuesday for failing to cleared the visit with Israel's military and because military officials feared that the photos would give away the battery's exact position, Haaretz reported.

The party wanted to use the battery as a backdrop since Peretz had pushed for the development of Iron Dome when he served as defense minister in 2006 and 2007.

Tzipi Livni to run in upcoming Israeli elections at head of new party

Tzipi Livni has reentered Israeli politics at the head of a new left-of-center political party.

Livni, former head of the Kadima Party, announced Monday that she would lead a new party called Hatnua, or The Movement.

“I'm here to fight for Israel, not against anything. I'm here to fight for peace, for security, for a Jewish Israel, for a democratic Israel, for a country whose citizens all have equal rights,” Livni said at a news conference Monday morning in Tel Aviv.

In forming her own party, Livni turned down offers to join the leadership of two existing political parties. Yair Lapid, head of the new Yesh Atid Party, announced Sunday that he had offered Livni to be his number two, and to be a “full partner in all major decisions.” Lapid had called on Livni not to further split the centrist bloc .

Labor Chairman Shelly Yachimovich had also called on Livni to join the Labor Party.

Livni has one week to present her Knesset candidate's list. It is believed that several Livni supporters from the Kadima Party will follow her to the new party. She is also talking to several high-profile public figures about joining her, Haaretz reported, including former top IDF officers Shlomo Yanai, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, and Amram Mitzna.

Livni's former political home issued a statement following her announcement: “Kadima wishes Tzipi Livni success in her new endeavor, but wonders what she will manage to achieve with only a few Knesset seats that she didn't manage to achieve with the 28 seats Kadima had over four years. This is not a politically wise move. Instead of uniting the center-left bloc, Livni decided to split it.”