Livni: the making of an Israeli “dove”

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris, France, December 2007. (Omar Rashidi/MaanImages)

With Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert forced to concentrate on his corruption charges, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, won the ruling party Kadima’s primaries and is hoping to form a new government. Livni, like Olmert, is a scion of the right-wing Revisionist movement, the Likud party’s ideological antecedent (the name refers to their demand to revise the terms of the British Mandate so that what is now Jordan would be included in the future Jewish state). Her father, Eitan Livni, was operations officer of the revisionist terrorist group Etzel. Last spring, Livni expressed her honest arrogance by demanding that Palestinians erase the word “Nakba” (the Arabic term for the Palestinians’ forced dispossession of their homeland) from their lexicon if there was to be any chance of a “Palestinian state” and “peace” — hardly the statements of a “dove.”

Yet, both inside Israel and in the world media, that is precisely the reputation Livni has cultivated. This perception of Livni rests primarily on her supposed “journey” from the far right to supporting a Palestinian state. Livni’s political career started in the Likud. However, she followed her mentors, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Olmert, into Kadima in 2005 after Likud became identified too strongly with the settler movement which was blocking Sharon’s planned disengagement from Gaza. Olmert has since explicitly and somewhat testily lectured his constituents that the dream of the “entire land of Israel” was dead: a Palestinian state established on some area of the West Bank and Gaza, including some part of East Jerusalem, is the only basis on which Israel can seek to negotiate with its neighbors. Livni is closely associated with the same “dovish” views.

This characterization of Livni (and Olmert) as doves is based on a legendary distinction between the peace-seeking “Zionist left” and the land-grabbing “Zionist right.” With Sharon, Olmert and Livni, all right-wingers with pedigree, successively adopting so-called “leftist” positions, we see paradoxically the victory of the “Zionist left” political vision of (partial) withdrawal from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and yet at the same time the continuing growth of the settlements and the matrix of control and daily violence that surrounds them to the point that the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel looks to many informed observers as no longer viable.

To understand this paradox and decipher the tendencies Livni embodies we need to unpack the deep logic of Israeli politics. The terms “Left” and “Right” carry connotations of opposing political and moral outlooks. In the colonial context of Israel, however, the terms described tactical and factional disagreements, and even these have largely faded with time. The Likud party emerged in the 1970s as an alliance of resentment against the corporatist ruling Labor party. Likud brought together small business owners, grudge-holding nationalist ideologues and angry masses of impoverished and marginalized Mizrahim, Jews from Arab countries. The fateful alliance Likud established between economic liberalization, class and cultural resentment and revanchist ultra-nationalism would know many changes yet remain the fundamental defining deep structure of Israeli politics.

Since the 1990s, Israel went through a strong neo-liberal globalization and privatization that dismantled the welfare state and increased economic inequality to nearly United States levels. This program reflected the combined interests of Israel’s upper-middle and upper classes. But it also coincided with the political maturation of the impoverished Mizrahi population, which would be among globalization’s losers. Ultra-nationalism and growing support for the settlements became the mechanism for reconciling the rising political weight of these poorer social sectors with the economic interests of the middle and upper classes. Military service and settlements in the occupied territories became effectively an alternative social safety net available only to poor Jews, a way for marginalized Jewish constituencies to receive subsidized funding, work and education through special allocations instead of the national welfare system that had been defunded and dismantled.

This class compromise was always sensitive to international conditions. In its formative period in the early 1990s, the pressure to liberalize was wedded to the Madrid and later Oslo negotiations frameworks. The US put significant pressure on Israel to exercise a modicum of restraint. Lip service to Palestinian statehood was the entry ticket to the New World Order of US-led globalization. This pressure empowered a “Peace Movement” by a militant white middle class in Israel that was afraid of being locked out of globalization by the intransigence of the lower classes. However, the newly-found US appetite for warfare during the George W. Bush administration effectively killed this “peace” movement. Especially once the second Palestinian intifada lost its momentum, settlement expansion and military repression no longer threatened the integration of Israeli elites in the neo-liberal global order. On the contrary, with the Western world on a war footing, Israel could be both neo-liberal and warlike.

Livni’s first major “public service” position was leading the agency for the privatization of national corporations. Like Sharon and Olmert before her, Livni represents first and foremost neo-liberal interests. She draws her backing from Israel’s small oligarchy and owes her political appeal to the affluent coastal residents. In contrast to her miniscule victory in the general primaries, polling stations in Tel Aviv went to her by an 80 percent margin. Her party Kadima split from both Likud and Labor when both of the latter were threatened by internal populist insurgencies, by representatives of the settlement movement in the Likud and by the rise of the Mizrahi labor activist Amir Peretz in Labor.

As representatives of the ruling oligarchy, Kadima and its new leader have a complex balancing act. They must deliver growing economic opportunities for their affluent constituents while keeping the system of alternative welfare embodied by settlement building and militarized repression of Palestinians. This balancing act is rendered especially difficult by the great uncertainty occasioned by the shrinking global power of the US and the uncertainty regarding the policies of the next administration. A less powerful US is one that might be forced to depend more on the goodwill of Arab oligarchies and European states. That could spell less international tolerance for the outrages of the occupation. The affluent classes are keenly aware of the importance of international legitimacy to their welfare and will rise against any threats, real or perceived. The “dovish” Livni is their hope. However, she cannot risk alienating the poorer classes, for whom the settlements and the military represent access to governmental funds and social mobility. Losing them would mean electoral defeat.

The “Palestinian state” that Livni supports, a series of carved and convoluted Bantustans surrounded by walls and checkpoints, is not a compromise, however flawed, between Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms. It is a compromise between the need of affluent Israelis for international economic integration and the economic dependence of poorer Jewish constituencies on the continuation of the occupation. Palestinian aspirations are not part of this arrangement at all. They are expected to merely erase themselves from their lexicon. But this is not going to happen.

Gabriel Ash is an activist and writer. Ash is a core member of IJAN (Inrternational Jewish Anti-Zionist Network). He writes because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword and sometimes not. He welcomes comments at g.a.evildoer A T gmail D O T com.