Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian
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Rank Misogyny in the Israeli Electoral Campaign

Tzipi Livni is the rare politician with coherent, and consistent positions -- and yet she's still 'just' a female

Two days ago, the head of the Labor Party, Avi Gabbay, abruptly and without notice ended his party’s alignment with MK Tzipi Livni and her party, Hatnuah, that composed the Zionist Union. He did so publicly, cameras rolling, with Livni sitting right there, in their glare. An ambush.

Gabbay has been a singularly ineffectual head of Labor. He has not shown any leadership ability; garnered any public trust that he has the stuff to be Prime Minister. In public appearances, radio and TV interviews, he rambles, pouring words without focus, clarity, or force. He does not articulate a coherent position about religion and state, not to mention, strategic and security issues. On the contrary, these he and his party avoid like the plague. In this he is not alone but he certainly does not lead on platform or principle. Or at all.

Many in his own party have been looking for ways to dump him, or jump ship. Since Netanyahu’s decision to go to elections, seven Labor MKs turned to Livni, offering to follow her—and with just one additional such MK, be able to take significant campaign funds with them– if she broke with the Zionist Union. She refused because, as she has said since what Gabbay did, she honors commitments. Which is not to say that she has not been discussing options with other players. Polls have been showing a precipitous drop in seats from the Zionist Union’s current 24 in Knesset to single digits in coming election. Since she is the constant in this situation, the difference since the last election, in which Labor was headed by Yitzhak Herzog, is Gabbay.

What Gabbay did struck many as debased and lacking in character.

Not all, however, found it so.

Chemi Shalev, political analyst at Haaretz, had this to say about it:

“After a long period in which his only response to his faltering polls was an irrelevant mumble, Gabbay seized center stage, showed leadership and cut his party in two. He proved that he too possesses the kind of killer instinct that has proven to be a prerequisite for becoming prime minister.”

According to Shalev, in other words, in perpetrating this intended humiliation of Livni, Gabbay had showed himself manly. With the stuff to firm up flagging Labor.  Gabbay had shown himself—a gever: a real man. The highest complement in Israeli macho terms.

According to Shalev, the newly potent Gabbay is now attempting to court Benny Ganz, the former IDF Chief of Staff, who is the great wild-card in the maelstrom of new parties, with polls giving him double-digits in seats though Ganz has not said a word about his positions. But this is not news; we heard this last week already, before Gabbay’s emergence into the ranks of political manhood. And that Ganz had refused.  But now, minus Livni, Labor with newly-gever Gabbay is suddenly attractive to Ganz, whose gever quality has been in evidence since he was in second grade? Gabbay brings him what, exactly?

Anshel Pfeffer, another senior columnist at Haaretz, does not like Livni. His beef is that she failed to form a government when given the mandate, in 2008, because she could or would not reach agreement with the Shas haredi party. As if haredi theocrats, whose party platforms bar women candidates; whose partisans deface campaign, or even commercial ads with women’s faces on them, would help a “nekevah,” a woman, become Prime Minister.

Not all Haaretz columnists seek for ways to dismiss, and diss, Livni. Some actually listen to her, in particular, as she has several times taken on right-wing elements on their turf and talked straight and tough.

In his “Weekend” analysis of December 21, 2018, Yossi Verter covered a remarkable performance by Livni after another ambush—perhaps that is  why Livni so kept her cool at Gabbay’s event, because she is used to them?—that Likud MK Avi Dichter set up. After terrorist attacks two weeks ago in the west bank, which took several lives and inflicted grievous injuries on others, Livni, as opposition leader, asked for an urgent meeting of the subcommittee for Intelligence and Security Services of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which Dichter chairs. As Verter reports, ”She felt members of that panel ought to be updated on the situation in the territories by… the Shin Bet security agency and Israel Defense Forces.” The subcommittee, Verter continues, is “known to be hermetically sealed: Its members receive briefings on the most sensitive information, and nothing leaks out.”

Not in this instance, however. Several hours after her request, Livni was invited to “what promised to be a total circus”: a session of the full committee, to be held in the settlement of Ofra, with the heads of the regional councils in Judea and Samaria. When her turn came to speak, in full view and recording of cameras,  Livni said: “You have an ideology, and that is legitimate. I want to separate from the Palestinians; you want annexation. Okay. But don’t pretend that construction and annexation contribute  to security. They hurt security.”

In response, Livni was confronted with a screaming chairman of the Samaria Regional Council— a video of the exchange, in full decibel level, is on Livni’s facebook page—who bellowed, “Why do you hate us?… We buried a resident, a 3-day old baby. We expected that when you came here, you would express your condolences and help us obtain greater security for our settlements.”

To which Livni replied, without skipping a beat: “The baby you buried may be your resident, but he is the citizen of all of us. Your pain is my pain. But this is a political argument, and I will not pretend that it has to do with security. Those that decide on the security steps we take are the cabinet, the IDF, and the Shin Bet, not you. Construction [of settlements] is not an answer to terror.”

There is much being said, rightly, about current Israeli parties lacking clear platforms, ideologies; about parties being about personalities, unlike the old days, when there was an ideological Left and Right and a few small, inconsequential parties on the side. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, of the just-minted New Right party; Avigdor Liberman, of Jewish Home; Moshe Kahlon, of Kulanu, are all Netanyahu drop-outs. They are all Likudniks who could not abide Netanyahu and saw no future for their ambitions in Likud so formed their own parties, with no real difference from Likud. Others in the riot of new parties declared in the week since Netanyahu announced elections, are fervently trying to avoid saying anything (Ganz literally, has not uttered a word), lest it cost them votes in the “center,” all hoping to draw votes from Likud and one another while mouthing platitudes but taking no clear positions, certainly not  controversial ones.

Livni, too, used to be Likud, but from her, we hear coherent, and consistent positions, no matter which audience she addresses. She is on record that Israel should talk with the PA, because it, unlike Hamas, with whom Netanyahu is dealing, has security agreements with Israel. She speaks, as in the quoted comments above, of the need to separate from the Palestinians and avoid de facto or de jure, annexation; about the need to protect Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, with civil equality for all citizens, exactly as the Declaration of Independence states it; indeed, about making that Declaration a Basic (that is, a constitutional), law. She worked fervently against the nation-state law; she is outspoken in defense of an independent judiciary and a free press; for curbing the power of religion in the state. In a radio interview just this morning (Jan. 3, 2019), Livni said that “Jewish state” does not mean a state of halakha but state of the Jewish people.  With equal civil rights for all.

Somehow, all this does not make Livni a “gever.” She remains a “nekevah”, someone through whom any man, even the smallest of them, can show himself a “gever.“

For those, at least, who see it in those terms.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book, the first history of agunot and iggun across the map of Jewish history, with a critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals for fundamental change to end this abuse, is entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains to Free Agunot and End Iggun." She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. She opposes the Kotel deal, which would criminalize women's group prayer at the Kotel and end the site's status as a "national holy site," awarding it instead, to the haredi establishment. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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