Israel Pulse

Livni's UN gig a win-win for everyone, even Netanyahu

Article Summary
Zionist Camp co-leader Tzipi Livni has been offered the position of UN undersecretary-general as part of a deal to appoint former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad the head of the UN mission to Libya — and she's found support from all corners.

At the start of the government meeting on Feb. 12, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded like someone who supports the possibility that Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister and current co-chair of the Zionist Camp, would be appointed to the prestigious position of undersecretary-general at the United Nations even though she harshly attacks Netanyahu’s policies on a daily basis.

That morning, Israeli news outlets had reported that United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had offered Livni the position about two weeks ago at a meeting in New York. According to reports, her possible appointment is part of a deal to enable the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to head the United Nations' political mission to Libya, an appointment to which the United States objected Feb. 11.

On the front line of the opposition is Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations. Through her, the Donald Trump administration expressed its disappointment at the secretary-general’s intention to appoint Fayyad to the senior post as a representative of Palestine, arguing that it reflects unfair preference for the Palestinians over Israel in the United Nations “to the detriment of our allies in Israel."

The fight over the appointment of the former Palestinian prime minister is playing out in the background of the offer to Livni. If the deal comes through, it would be the first time in the history of the organization that an Israeli representative and a Palestinian representative have served in such senior positions.

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At the government meeting Feb. 12, Netanyahu revealed that he has been involved in these events, saying, “Several days ago I was informed of the possibility of the appointment of Salam Fayyad to a UN position. I said that the time has come for reciprocity in the UN's relations with Israel and free gifts cannot be constantly given to the Palestinian side. The time has come for positions and appointments to be made to the Israeli side as well. Should there be an appropriate appointment, we will consider it.”

Netanyahu didn’t mention Livni’s name, but it was clear from his statement that he would support her appointment, even though it does not officially depend on his approval and is the decision of the UN secretary-general.

After the death of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, Livni is the Israeli diplomat most admired by the liberal international community, thanks to her long years of fighting to realize the two-state idea. In this respect, Israel’s image would benefit from her appointment to a senior position in an organization traditionally considered hostile to the state, and certainly in a period when the diplomatic process with the Palestinians is extinguished.

Personally, Livni is at a point when she is deciding her political future. While she still heads Hatnua (the smaller partner within the Zionist Camp), it is not clear that she would run for the party in the next election as well. Her initiative to hold open primaries for the head of the center-left camp isn’t taking off. A move to New York and service in a senior position in the UN could return her to the center of the international stage and give her future political capital in Israel. As far as is known, the role in question deals with humanitarian issues and human rights, since according to the organization’s rules she could not work on issues pertaining to Israel or the Middle East.

Livni would no doubt have preferred for the appointment not to be part of a deal with the Palestinians but as a personal move by Guterres. The two met when Guterres served as prime minister of Portugal and she was foreign minister in 2006-2009. Livni then led the diplomatic process with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, backed by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and became a popular figure among leaders of Western nations.

The latest development puts her in a position where the prime minister she vilifies on a daily basis could help her win this desirable appointment. Netanyahu, who on Feb. 13 flew to his first meeting with Trump, will talk about this issue in the White House, and in the coming days it will likely become clear if the deal will be made.

This move in the UN is also an interesting development in Livni and Netanyahu’s relationship, which has seen ups and downs along the years. In the last two years, since he fired her from her position as justice minister in December 2014, there has been a lot of bad blood between the two.

In the last few weeks, Livni has attacked him full force from every available stage. On Feb. 6, after the Regularization law was passed in the Knesset, Livni stated on Facebook, “This is a bad day in the history of Israel. An extremist and belligerent minority with the patronage of a weak leader is leading us all to Masada [a historic site of mass suicide]. We have to replace them. It’s a fight for our home.” A week earlier, following a diplomatic incident with Mexico in which Netanyahu expressed support for Trump’s proposed border wall, Livni posted a call for Netanyahu to take responsibility for his actions instead of blaming the media.

So why would Netanyahu help Livni win this position? There are two reasons: He would thus silence a significant opposition voice, and having Livni at the UN — even if she doesn’t directly deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — would help him soften international criticism of his policies.

It is a classic move for Netanyahu, similar to the appointment of the Likud's Danny Danon as Israel’s ambassador to the UN. Danon opposed him forcefully within the party. He attacked his failed management of Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in 2014 and was even fired by Netanyahu from his position as deputy defense minister in July that year.

Livni in the position of deputy undersecretary-general at the UN could be perfect casting in every way. Surprisingly, she has received the blessings not only of leftist politicians but also of the extreme right. Knesset member Betzalel Smotrich of HaBayit HaYehudi tweeted, “As a Zionist patriot and experienced leader, Livni will certainly do a terrific job. Enough with the automatic catalog of right and left.” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked tweeted in response, “You’re right.” They, too, seem to recognize the move's political advantages.

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Found in: israeli politics, palestinian-israeli peace process, palestinian-israeli conflict, united nations, salam fayyad, benjamin netanyahu, tzipi livni

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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