The Cards Are Stacked against Tzipi Livni Heading a Government

Foreign minister Tzipi Livni, at 50, made history by becoming the first elected female party leader since Golda Meir. However, the wafer-thin margin of 431 votes (a one percent lead over her next rival, transport minister Shaul Mofaz), undermined her bid for the premiership.

The day after the vote, Mofaz announced he was quitting politics “for the time being.” Showing through his dry statement was disenchantment. After 40 years in public office as chief of staff and defense minister, he felt he had been unfairly treated by his party and the media.

Kadima’s leadership primary election on Wednesday, Sept. 17, was meant to fill the shoes of party chairman and prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is being forced out of office by a series of corruption probes.

Instead, it showed Kadima up as a puny political entity and cast Israel into governmental limbo.

The way the vote was conducted confronted the Jewish state for the first time in its sixty years with questions about the authenticity of its democratic system of government. In fact, Kadima has been an aberration from the moment it was established.

It was founded by the former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 after he bucked the policies of his Likud party and failed to carry the party with him.

A year later, Sharon suffered a brain hemorrhage, sank into a coma and was replaced by vice premier Ehud Olmert.


Her wafer-thin victory leaves Livni short of political clout


Without Sharon at its core, Kadima has proved to be a melting pot for an odd assortment of disaffected dropouts from Likud, Labor and marginal groupings. Olmert was never able to stiffen the party’s doctrinal backbone, provide it with ruling institutions or appeal to a broad national constituency.

Kadima’s primary this week was the first election it had ever held.

Olmert lost any following he might have won by mismanaging the 2006 Lebanon war against Hizballah. His public standing steadily declined as one corruption investigation after another piled up against him. He dragged Kadima down with him. The latest opinion polls showed the party had lost two-thirds of its popular support.

Finally, Olmert was forced to promise to resign as prime minister as soon as the party elected a replacement.

The primary on Wednesday demonstrated that Kadima is very short of soldiers.

Of the 74,000 registered party voters, only 50 percent turned out.

This prompted such questions as: How have 37,000 Kadima members, less than one percent of the electorate, come to choose a prime minister? How did little Kadima come to be the ruling party anyway? Why are they passing the job of prime minister among themselves? Shouldn’t they go to the country?

Had Kadima awarded Livni a landslide victory, she might have gathered enough momentum to breeze into Ariel Sharon’s large shoes. She might even have commanded enough respect from coalition partners to accept her as head of government and let her lead the incumbent administration up until the next general election in November 2010.

As things stand today, the heads of the major parties, Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu, Labor’s Ehud Barak – both former prime ministers, and the ultra-religious Shas’ Ellie Yishai ask themselves why on earth should they bow to Livni as prime minister, when she rates no more than a junior position.


The president must review alternatives to a Livni government


Netanyahu as opposition leader and Barak, head of the Labor party which is in government, secretly put their heads together some weeks ago to hatch a power-sharing scheme for rotating the premiership between them and cutting the ground from under Kadima.

(See HOT POINTS below for details of their plan).

Installing an Israeli government is a complicated process governed by a patchwork of Basic Laws enacted to solve past political crises. For Livni it will be further compounded by unclarity over whether she will be taking over the incumbent government from fellow-Kadima member Olmert or forming a new administration.

The last word rests with the president, Shimon Peres. He has the prerogative of choosing a Knesset member (lawmaker) best able to form a government coalition. If there is no suitable candidate, an early election is called within 90 days.

The president’s powers are not unlimited. He must canvass the heads of parties and ask them to recommend a candidate able to form a government supported by 61 Knesset members (out of 120).

On her first day as Kadima chairwoman, Livni does not appear to have the slightest chance of gathering these endorsements. Her loyalists refuse to give up and are urging her to set up a minority government supported by the left wing and the Arab factions.

But if the Likud-Labor venture goes forward and Shas jumps in, Netanyahu and Barak will have a more viable alternative to propose to President Peres.

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