Tzipi Livni’s announcement earlier this week that she is leaving Israeli politics is far more momentous than one would ascribe to any other politician polling so far below the threshold required to enter the Knesset. It was only ten years ago that the Hatnuah chief and former foreign minister – then running as the head of Kadima – won the most seats in Knesset elections and was given the first chance to form a government, and only four years ago when she and Buji Herzog almost dethroned Prime Minister Netanyahu. Livni is widely seen as the last public face of Israel’s traditional peace camp despite never being part of the Oslo-era Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres crowd since she is the only politician who has consistently ran on a platform of two states and talked about reaching a deal with the Palestinians. Her political demise is understandably being interpreted primarily as a sign of the ultimate demise of Israel’s left and the final evisceration of the peace camp.
Livni’s departure from the political scene certainly represents that, but it represents something else as well. It is easy to lose sight of it given her political evolution over time, but Livni started off her career as rightwing royalty. She grew up in Betar – the right-wing Revisionist Zionist movement – with parents who were both Irgun members, and her father was a Herut and Likud MK. She herself entered the Knesset with Likud and her political mentor and protector was Ariel Sharon. Leaving aside her evolution on two states and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fact that Livni no longer has a viable home in Israeli politics has more to do with a transformation on the right than it does on the left, and the consequences of that right-wing transformation have already come home to roost.
Despite her move from Likud to Kadima to Hatnuah, Livni represented the last vestige of the classical liberal Likud of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. The Revisionist Zionism of Jabotinsky and Begin was one with a clear ideology that prioritized Jewish survival and sovereignty above all, sought peace and security together, and viewed political and civil rights not as an inconvenience to be managed but as fundamental to Zionism itself. Revisionist Zionism was based on territorial maximalism, but shifted its view of what that meant over time in response to facts on the ground and basic geopolitics, realizing that demanding that Israel encompass both banks of the Jordan River was not only a fool’s errand but incompatible with the overarching goal of a Jewish state. The Likud of Jabotinsky and Begin took the ideas of a Jewish state and a democratic rights-based state equally seriously.
Livni has always been the true heir to this tradition. She speaks about security rooted in peace, is pragmatic to the core, and does not compromise on issues of political rights for all of Israel’s citizens, Jewish or otherwise. She has no desire to control another people, but is clear-eyed about the choices and compromises that Israel will have to make in getting out of the West Bank. The way she has always talked about two states is in the language of securing Israel’s Jewish and democratic future, recognizing that territorial maximalism was in service of the larger goal of ensuring Jewish sovereignty rather than a goal in itself. That Likud and the Israeli right more generally abandoned pragmatism and, more importantly, abandoned any pretense to liberal democracy is why Livni had no more home in her former political camp. The fact that it is unimaginable to envision a Likud with Livni in it should be of enormous concern to those who support and identify with the Israeli right.
Livni also represented genuine experience as something to be valued, which is also now entirely absent from the right’s tableau of what matters. Livni was Israel’s most experienced politician after Netanyahu, serving as foreign minister, justice minister, housing minister, agriculture minister, immigration and absorption minister, opposition leader, and chief negotiator with the Palestinians. She was the first woman to serve in some of these posts, and may have had more contacts with foreign leaders than any living Israeli. In a government where one person holds four or five cabinet posts at once, where a defense minister can be appointed despite not having any real defense experience, and where a diaspora affairs minister’s main qualification is being loathed by the majority of the diaspora, it is no wonder that the primary qualification on the right now seems to be fealty to the prime minister and espousal of a fire-breathing ideology rather than facility in the job. Livni’s political troubles are a sign of the complete and total victory of creed over credentials in today’s Israeli right.
It is altogether fitting that as Livni departed the scene, Netanyahu was busy brokering the likely entry of fascists and terrorists into the next Knesset by midwifing the merger of Bayit Yehudi and Otzma Yehudit. Otzma is the party founded by Meir Kahane’s disciples following the designation of the Kach party as a terrorist organization and its ban from Israel, and its platform is one of Jewish primacy that embraces outright racism. Otzma was, like Livni, polling below the Knesset threshold, which would lead to wasted votes on the right, and in order to entice Bayit Yehudi to run together with Otzma and guarantee it Knesset representation, Netanyahu promised Bayit Yehudi two ministries in the next government. Bayit Yehudi itself is comprised of ideologues who espouse their own racist policies and care about democracy only to the extent that it applies to Jews and nobody else. And thus the Israeli right is now encouraging and cheering on a politics of racist and neophyte incompetence, as a former Likud princess who represents the precise opposite approach slinks off into political irrelevance.
It is the left that is mourning Livni’s political retirement, but it should be the right that is more devastated to see her go. Livni’s political and ideological commitments represent the Israeli right at its best, and what has replaced her in the right-wing firmament represents the Israeli right at its worst. Livni’s political misfortunes do not only represent the demise of Israel’s peace-seeking left, but the demise of Israel’s admirable right.