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Tough Love

The woman who may save the Likud.

It's a humid July evening and about 100 people are crowded into a second-floor loft without air conditioning that serves as local Likud headquarters in this northern town. Likud banners expropriate the blue and white of the Israeli flags hanging beside them. There are young Sephardi men, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, and even an elderly kes, or Ethiopian religious leader, in a white robe and turban--the kind of crowd that only the Likud can transform from periphery into governing mainstream. 

They have all come to hear Immigrant Absorption Minister Tzipi Livni, one of the Likud's rising stars, defend Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan. It's not an easy crowd to convince. A majority of Likud members in Hadera, one of the Israeli towns hardest hit by terrorism, voted against Sharon in the recent party referendum on withdrawal. Livni is here to tell them why Sharon is proceeding with his plan even though he lost the vote and why they, as loyal Likudniks, should support him. But, if anyone can convince Likudniks that uprooting settlements and withdrawing under terrorist fire isn't a self-betrayal, it's Livni. In a party increasingly dominated by opportunists rather than ideologues, Livni is one of the few Likud leaders who can still recite from memory passages from the writings of Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the Likud's ideological mentor. Her family credentials define Likud aristocracy: Her father, Eitan, was operations chief for the underground Irgun; in the right-wing Betar youth movement, they still sing a hymn about an Irgun heroine named Little Sarah--Livni's mother. In fact, Livni possesses the Revisionist bona fides that Sharon, who grew up in the Labor movement, lacks. 

Livni has provided Sharon with not only ideological legitimacy but also crucial practical support. She saved Sharon's government after the referendum debacle by suggesting a compromise Cabinet resolution that supported withdrawal without mentioning uprooting settlements, preventing a likely defeat for Sharon and new elections. Livni also averted a schism in the Likud by convincing Sharon not to fire the Cabinet minister who heads the Likud's anti-withdrawal camp. Sharon recently rewarded her with an additional Cabinet portfolio, the housing ministry, a key post with responsibilities that include the projected relocation of Gaza's 7,500 settlers. 

"Withdrawal is very painful," Livni tells the crowd, competing with a large fan that generates more noise than relief. "And so, we avoided doing it all these years. But there is no vacuum. The international community is constantly proposing plans and so are political forces in Israel. When we said no at Madrid [the 1991 peace conference], we got Oslo. And, when we hesitated again, we got [Ehud] Barak, who put Jerusalem on the table. Either the Likud will initiate its own process and make sure that Israel's basic interests are protected, or others will do it their way, and we'll keep running after them to control the damage." 

"What about our values?" someone calls out. 

"I have to consider the whole range of our values, not just one aspect," she says. "Our values are a Jewish state and a democratic state. That means we will have to compromise on what is precious for all of us--sovereignty over parts of the land of Israel. Some among us say that they're ready to withdraw only as part of a comprehensive agreement. Others warn against withdrawing under fire. I understand them; there is a legitimate argument among us. But the Likud is our home." She reflexively places her hand on her heart. "You don't burn a home just because of a disagreement. We have to stay together."

Arguably not since 1983, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin abruptly resigned from government and became a recluse, has the Likud been in such emotional disarray. There is fury at Sharon's dismissal of the results of the party referendum he initiated himself: At one recent meeting of disgruntled Likud activists, Sharon was compared to the dictatorial Juan Peron. There's a growing party revolt over a proposed unity government--with the Labor Party and the anti-religious Shinui--that would leave the Likud in a coalition without any of its traditional right-wing allies. And there is confusion about the Likud's red lines. Recently, Sharon confidant and former Likud Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert declared that some Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem should be transferred to Palestinian rule, raising the possibility of a Likud-sponsored redivision of the city. Demoralized Likudniks are wondering whether their party still differs from Labor, which, in the last elections, urged unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and construction of a West Bank security fence--precisely the policies now advocated by Sharon. It's an ironic spin on the old election slogan, "Only the Likud Can." Only the Likud, it seems, can implement Labor's policies. 

That's why Livni is so crucial in the Likud's struggle to redefine itself. She has become, in effect, the party's psychologist, reassuring the faithful that the Likud remains true to itself even as it withdraws from its core ideological commitment to preserve Israel's post-1967 borders. As she stumps before Likud branches to promote Sharon's plan, Livni resorts to a combination of ideological fervor, empathy, and straight talk. Revisionist Zionism, she notes, is a much broader ideology than loyalty to greater Israel, and it includes a complex mix of nationalist and liberal values; even the old Revisionist song advocating a maximalist Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan River included a verse promising equality "for the son of Nazareth, the son of Arabia, and my son." During a recent interview, Livni read me a passage from her father's autobiography, in which he recalls telling a Labor Zionist in the 1940s that there was no real difference between them because both were committed to creating a Jewish state. "You see?" she asked, perhaps trying to convince herself as much as me. "He didn't mention both banks of the Jordan." 

Yet withdrawal is no less difficult for her personally than it is for Sharon's opponents within the Likud. At a recent meeting with American national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Livni said that her father's tombstone is engraved with the old Revisionist map of an imagined Israel, including both banks of the Jordan. Livni mentioned that detail, she says, because she wanted Rice to understand how hard withdrawal is for a Likudnik. 

But, even as Livni empathizes with their trauma, she reminds Likudniks of the party's mistakes, such as Begin's failure to transfer Gaza to Egypt during Israel's withdrawal from Sinai in 1982, which led, eventually, to the current Gaza stalemate. "No Likudnik has ever denied to me that he wished Begin had made that deal," she says. Meeting recently with Irgun veterans, whom she had known as a child by their underground nicknames, she recalled that Begin wanted to annex the West Bank in 1967 and grant Palestinians Israeli citizenship. "Where would we be today if he had succeeded?" she asked. One old-timer, outraged at her refusal to rule out a Palestinian state, replied that her father was turning in his grave.

Livni, 46, spent most of her career as a lawyer, entering the Knesset only in 1999. Her biography includes one detail she won't discuss: a stint with the Mossad. That discretion extends to her political discourse; Livni's mouth tightens as she speaks, as if to control the flow of words. And, in an increasingly corrupt political culture that includes reported mob penetration of the Likud central committee, Livni is widely respected for her integrity. "We're on opposite sides," says Natan Sharansky, one of the Likud's leading opponents of Gaza withdrawal, "but, with Tzipi, you always know where she stands, not like some other politicians"--a pointed reference to Likud leaders, such as Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who have opportunistically wavered between opposing and endorsing withdrawal. 

In fact, Livni did oppose Sharon's plan initially, sharing skeptics' concern that withdrawal under fire would encourage the perception that Israel was on the run. Her turning point came when President Bush endorsed Sharon's opposition to a return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, insisting that refugees return only to a Palestinian state. Livni sees Bush's position as precisely the kind of political victory Sharon needs to convince the Palestinians that their terrorist strategy has backfired. And it's the Likud's ability to draw red lines that still distinguishes the party from Labor, which, she notes, accepted the principle of right-of-return during the Taba talks in January 2001 and even began negotiating over the number of refugees Israel would absorb. 

Still, the Likud of Sharon and Livni has come to resemble the Labor Party--the old Labor of pragmatic hawks like Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. Though Livni insists she remains true to her ideological roots, her transformation into a pragmatist represents the end of Israel's romantic politics and the marginalization of supporters of greater Israel. And, for all its ambivalence about withdrawal, says Livni, the Likud will remain the party of that new Israeli center. 

After her talk in Hadera, Likudniks gathered in small groups to argue over the Gaza plan. "The day we pull out, missiles will fall on Ashkelon [an Israeli town near Gaza]," said one young man. His friend responded, "I say get out of there, and, when the first bullet comes over the fence, we smash them." "Maybe once they're a state," conceded the first speaker, "we'll be able to hit them with everything we have." Livni listened without intervening. Afterward, like a therapist explaining the stages of grief, she said to me, "We need to go through this process. In the end, people will accept the withdrawal, however unhappily. It's because concessions are so hard for us that we can be trusted to make them."

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

By Yossi Klein Halevi