Give Livni a chance
Sep 11th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Israel needs a new leader. Tzipi Livni is the best on offer
A DANGEROUS uncertainty hovers over the Levant. The Lebanese have a ramshackle government with no one really in charge. An Islamist guerrilla movement, Hizbullah, is a restive partner in the country’s ruling coalition while it runs its own armed statelet near the border with Israel. Syria has lost control of Lebanon but still hankers after its old dominance there; indirect talks with Israel are sputtering nowhere. Egypt, once a force in regional diplomacy, is weighed down by its own worries (see article). The Palestinians remain viciously split between the Islamists of Hamas, who run the Gaza Strip, and secular-minded Fatah, which runs the West Bank. Israel has a lame-duck prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who may soon be formally charged with corruption. The United States, essential for knocking heads together, has a lame-duck president whose quacks for peace have probably come too late.
Nothing good is likely to happen until some of these political uncertainties have been ironed out, a process that will take months. But at least there is one hopeful prospect, albeit one that may not last long: Israel may soon get a better prime minister, its present foreign minister, Tzipi Livni (see article).
On September 17th Israel’s ruling party, Kadima, opens the first round of a primary election to pick a leader to replace Mr Olmert. After he-or she-is chosen, the wearisome business of refashioning a ruling coalition may drag on for weeks. If it proves impossible, in view of Israel’s mischievous, ultra-democratic system of extreme proportional representation that gives government-busting powers to small parties, then a general election must take place within three months. If the opinion polls are to be believed and hold firm, Binyamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party still rejects the idea of a genuine state for the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, could then become prime minister once again. This is a glum prospect, though it is conceivable that Mr Netanyahu would feel obliged, as have other hard men before him, to change his mind about how to make peace with the Palestinians.
Even if Ms Livni gets the job and hangs on to it, she will not perform miracles. But she is tough and now seems to believe firmly that a proper two-state solution, with the Palestinians entrenched in a separate, viable, sovereign, contiguous state, is the sole path to Israel’s survival as a predominantly Jewish country. Within Kadima her leading opponent for the job, Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief of staff and defence minister, gives the impression that keeping the Palestinians down, without necessarily having a real state of their own, is the best way to keep Israel safe. But this is a self-defeating fallacy.
What she would have to do
The outlines of a solution have long been clear: draw a border roughly along the lines that existed before the war of 1967; share Jerusalem as capital of both states; and acknowledge, while agreeing not to implement, a symbolic right of return of Palestinians to the parts of their old homeland now in Israel.
If she became prime minister, Ms Livni would also need to undertake several other fiendishly hard tasks. None of her predecessors since 1967 have managed it, but she would have to stop, once and for all, Jewish building on Palestinian land. She should adjust the security barrier that bites out further chunks of Palestinian land so it runs closer to the 1967 line-and obey Israeli courts when they order this. And she would need to understand that encouraging divisions among the Palestinians-egging on Fatah to bash Hamas-is unlikely to secure long-term peace for Israel. If she wants to bolster a united Palestinian leadership to carry its people towards peace, she could raise the possibility of freeing Marwan Barghouti, potentially the most effective Palestinian leader, as part of a prisoner exchange. In case the Palestinians’ floundering president, Mahmoud Abbas, finally runs out of steam, Mr Barghouti may be the Fatah man to woo Hamas supporters and do a deal.
None of this will be easy. It needs the co-operation of both a new American president and a host of difficult Arabs. But Ms Livni has the toughness and the vision to do it. She is thus Israel’s best chance of peace.