Commentary Magazine


Livni’s Gambit

Bibi Netanyahu is taking the rap in some quarters for the (likely) composition of his (yet to be formed) government. But little of this is up to Bibi. The first culprit of course is Israel’s electoral system, which ensures that in certain circumstances (such as today’s) marginal parties are elevated to the role of central arbiters due to their mathematical ability to make or break a coalition.

But everyone knows about Israel’s disfunctional electoral system. What is not a given is the behavior of Tzipi Livni, who refuses to join a national-unity government despite many entreaties and the promise of ample political rewards. Her strategy is perfectly defensible as a matter of sterile power-calculation, but it is appalling from the perspective of national leadership, when the country is faced with profound security crises. By refusing to join Bibi’s coalition, Livni is ensuring that his government will be assembled from small parties, each of which will extract everything they possibly can in exchange for their support. This process will also, as in the case of Avigdor Lieberman, bring foolish politicians into roles of international prominence. The idea is to make the government as unstable, unproductive, and short-lived as possible.

The idea is also, unfortunately, to make Bibi look bad, by saddling him with fringe coalition partners and then running to the press, which is always eager to cast Bibi as a warmonger and extremist, to tell them awful tales of the government’s reluctance to pursue her conception of the peace process. A peace process which Livni spent the past several years chasing narcissistically and fruitlessly — while the Iranians continued to enrich uranium and ship rockets to Hezbollah.

Livni’s game is an ambitious one, but perhaps a dubious one. It is obvious that her objective is to engineer an incapable government in a time of profound danger for the country. Her ability to capitalize on this strategy requires either the public’s ignorance of it, or the public’s indifference to it. She believes that she will not be blamed for the embarrassment to the country of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister, or of refusing to strengthen the government in its moment of decision on the Iranian nuclear program. She believes that it will look better to sit petulantly in the opposition, castigating Bibi over the peace process. Livni is capable of ensuring a weakened Netanyahu government, but I don’t see how she can accomplish much more than reinforcing the impression that she has little to offer Israel but her own ambition.

UPDATE: Ynet reports — who knows whether it’s true — that a deal has been struck to bring Labor into the coalition. This would indicate that Livni indeed intends to stay in the opposition. If Labor thought she would join the government at the last second, Labor would have abstained, prefering to lead the opposition.