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Tzipi Livni – man of the moment?

February 9, 2009

jfl_mg_7797-2Sex has rarely been far from centre-stage in an otherwise low-key campaign for Israel’s election on Tuesday. The fact that the ruling Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni is a woman has, however, been largely debated by allusion and suggestion, often in a  far from gentlemanly way in the still macho world of Israeli politics. So it’s striking then, in the campaign’s final days, to see Livni herself, bidding to become the country’s first woman leader since Golda Meir in the 1970s, putting the issue front and centre. Take a look at this poster, photographed in Jerusalem by my colleague Jerry Lampen.  It reads, in French, “Tzipi Livni – Man of the Moment”, or perhaps “The Right Man for the Job”. It looks like a direct response to repeated attacks from right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu especially that “she” is not ready to lead a country facing threats on numerous fronts. “She’s not up to the job,” runs one ad from Netanyahu’s Likud party. It shows Livni, slumped, with her head in her hands.

On Tuesday at 10 p.m.  (2000 GMT) we should know if Livni has been able to turn around Netanyahu’s opinion poll lead. Even if she does, it is not guaranteed that she can form a coalition government. The reason this election is being held over a year early is because Livni, taking over from the corruption-hit Ehud Olmert, was unable to cobble together a workable coalition. As my colleague Jeffrey Heller had predicted when she took over her party’s leadership, many believed the former soldiers running the other leading parties found it hard to accept her. Some saw the refusal of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to join her cabinet as a reflection of religious sexism. That wasn’t the official reason. But Livni, a secular denizen of liberal Tel Aviv, did go out of her way, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to appeal to religious tradition. She donned monochrome clothing and swapped her favoured pant suits for long skirts when meeting Shas leaders. Even so, the Orthodox press would not even print her picture. They would airbrush her out of group photos. Or, as for other women, they might photoshop her into “a tree, or something”, one journalist at an ultra-Orthodox paper told my colleague Dan Williams.

Livni seems to have been reluctant to “play the woman card” early in the campaign, focusing on her record. But observers have detected a clear strategy to play the men at their own game. Both Netanyahu and Labour party leader Ehud Barak were commandos, Barak indeed is Israel’s most decorated soldier. Livni has pushed her family credentials – her parents were famed guerrilla fighters against the British and Arabs in the 1940s – and her own shadowy past in the Mossad intelligence agency.

This TV ad showing a pixellated figure intones a list of career highlights down the years: “… he served in the Mossad … he served as foreign minister…” and so on. “No one would doubt he could lead the government.” Then the figure is revealed as Livni and the narrator says, “If only he wasn’t… a woman.” Hitting back at snide chauvinistic comments that, as a Mossad agent in Paris in the early 1980s she did only menial chores, Livni told an audience in Tel Aviv last week: “I make decisions, not coffee.”

golda-meir2With the poll gap narrowing sharply in the final days, the gender issue could be crucial.  Rina Bar-Tal, chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network,  told my colleague Allyn Fisher-Ilan that Likud’s poster jibe at Livni that “the job is too big for her” – with clear emphasis on the final pronoun - could backfire on Netanyahu. Bar-Tal said: ”There are women who pass by these posters and say, ‘I wasn’t going to vote for her but I certainly will now.’”

So is Tzipi Livni the man of the hour? If she makes it through, she can always recall what Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion said of Golda Meir: “She’s the only man in the cabinet.”


The real issue is not so much of whether Livni is a man or woman, that is superfluous. It is her policies, experience, and strength of character. Ability to negotiate with foes, and make tough decisions for war and peace.

In many ways, she is more qualified that Ehud olmert, who had little security experience, and jumped form Mayor of Jerusalem to PM. And decision making skills are also important.

Israeli populus veer from peace to security. They try peace, see it fails, then are cocnerened with their lack of security. Noone has yet reached a formula to acheive both.

Posted by eddie | Report as abusive

Why is there a French-language political advertisement in Jerusalem? Is there some Francophone constituency there I am unaware of?

Posted by Andrew | Report as abusive

Andrew – There is a large Francophone community in Israel and French can often be overheard on the streets of Jerusalem and other big cities. Many Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian Jews are French-speakers and there has been an increasing number of immigrants from France moving to Israel in recent years. If you do a Google search ‘francophones in Israel’ all will be revealed. Thanks


Thanks Julian. The constituency for the ad makes a big difference in its interpretation, and that context was not provided in the story.

Also, thanks for the tip on google. I hadn’t thought of that.

Posted by Andrew | Report as abusive

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