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Tzipi Livni Flirts With Role In Netanyahu’s New Government

Hatenua leader Tzipi Livni is hinting that she is moving closer to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, despite her vicious attacks on him in the campaign, writes Mazal Mualem.
Hatnua party leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni gestures after the swearing-in ceremony of the 19th Knesset, the new Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem February 5, 2013.      REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3DDXP

With the major headache of forming his third government, what else does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have these days aside from two small pleasures: the first is called [Habayit Hayehudi Chairman] Naftali Bennett, and the other [Hatenua leader] Tzipi Livni.

If anything sweetens the bitter taste he's had in his mouth since hearing the election results, it's the opportunity he has been handed to watch Bennett and Livni squirm for a position in his government.

In Bennett’s case — the issue is completely personal. The prime minister simply enjoys tormenting his former chief of staff, who fell out with his wife Sara Netanyahu and did not leave his position on good terms. And, if that weren't enough, a few years later he founded a political party that “stole” Knesset seats from the Likud-Beiteinu party. The degree of tension in their relationship is reflected in the fact that it took two whole weeks until Netanyahu scheduled a meeting with him, and he only did so after he had already met with [Meretz Chairwoman] Zehava Gal-On and [Labor leader] Shelly Yachimovich.

In Livni’s case, Netanyahu is settling the score with her for what he perceives to be her arrogance and the derisive attitude she displayed toward him at every available opportunity, particularly in the international arena. However, unlike in Bennett’s case, he did take the trouble to meet with her, and even warmly, as was later reported, but he is leaving her in a state of uncertainty: Livni does not know if his invitation is serious or if he is using her to get [Yesh Atid Chairman] Yair Lapid to bring down his price.

Regardless, Netanyahu is having fun with the idea of appointing Livni as “Minister for the Promotion of the Diplomatic Process” inside a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox government that would include Likud-Beiteinu, Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Shas. This would be a bombastic title for a powerless portfolio, almost like “Minister for Strategic Affairs,” but even this would be a dream come true for someone  at the helm of a small party.

Why Netanyahu needs Livni is clear, but why Livni, who gained her standing with the public by playing the “different-kind-of-politics” card, needs to be Netanyahu’s fig leaf is far less clear.

The interesting question now is whether Livni, who ran in the elections on a left-wing political platform and presented Netanyahu as an obstacle to negotiations, is seriously considering the opposition.

Will she forget Netanyahu’s degrading statement during the campaign, in which he said that she didn’t have a chance of being foreign minister in his government, and believe his promises to create a real diplomatic process?

Livni’s silence and the signs that can be observed in her close circle and the key figures in her party indicate that she is not ruling it out. The position of “Minister for the Promotion of the Diplomatic Process'' appeals to her.

Livni — there is no better way of putting it — is truly yearning to be a minister in the government of the person she defined only a few weeks ago as a prime minister who instills fear in the hearts of the public and is an obstacle to the political process.

Over the past four years, most of which were spent as the leader of the opposition, Livni shouted at the top of her lungs that Netanyahu was causing irreparable harm to Israel’s foreign affairs. As a former foreign minister and as someone who had an important position in the negotiations with the Palestinians in Ehud Olmert’s government, her comments carried weight.

During that entire period, Livni repeatedly argued that she had refused to join Netanyahu’s second government after the 2009 elections, when she headed a party with 28 Knesset seats, because she did not believe that he truly intended to promote the peace process. Livni passed on a rotation as prime minister and remained true to her beliefs all the way to the opposition.

So what is going on now with the woman who in recent years was one of the most promising forces in Israeli politics? Why does she think that under far inferior conditions, when she’s at the helm of a small left-center party, that she will be able to influence the peace process, when we are dealing with the same Netanyahu? But no less important, it will be interesting to see how she plans to explain this grandiose zigzag to her supporters. Livni may be carrying the traumatic baggage of her lackluster performance as head of the opposition. Now, it would seem, she is looking for a way to shoehorn herself into the government, to manage to be part of Obama’s presidential visit next month.

However, do not forget that the six Knesset seats Hatenua won were awarded to it by the left-wing bloc, from people who believe the diplomatic process is the top priority. They wanted to see Livni replace Netanyahu. They would view her joining a rightist/ultra-Orthodox government as a slap in the face.

That said, given the noise coming from the Livni camp, it would seem that she will explain this move by saying that “time is running out,” that “only she can save Netanyahu from himself,” that “Obama will be arriving soon, and we need to leverage the opportunity to jump start the diplomatic process.”

That may not help. She’s already drawing fire from those who surround her. In closed discussions, former Minister Haim Ramon, who was Livni’s right-hand man in establishing Hatenua, has been vocal with his scathing criticism. He isn’t mincing words and has expressed his bitter disappointment in her. Ramon claims that she has inflicted major damage on the center-left bloc through her behavior. His main concern is that Livni will take the six seats from voters who wanted to bring down Netanyahu and give them to him in the form of international legitimacy — just as [outgoing Defense Minister] Ehud Barak did when he dragged the Labor Party into the second Netanyahu government.

Barak, at least, was appointed as Minister of Defense, and what about Livni? Former key figures in Kadima foresee her becoming “Minister for Beautification of the Diplomatic Process That Won’t Happen.”

Journalist Mazal Mualem has worked as chief political analyst for both Maariv and Haaretz.

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