February 19, 2013 (TSR) – Tzipi Livni was named as Binyamin Netanyahu’s first partner in a new coalition on Tuesday, committing the next Israeli government to reviving the collapsed peace process with the Palestinians.
Hatnuah party leader Livni will serve as justice minister in Netanyahu’s coalition with a special mandate to push forward in negotiations towards a peace settlement, which, if successful, would see Israel withdraw from Palestinian territory in the West Bank after decades of occupation.
The veteran politicians form an unlikely alliance. In contrast to Netanyahu’s scepticism, Livni has dedicated her political life to the peace process, often at significant personal cost. In 2009, she turned down the opportunity of forming a coalition government with Netanyahu despite an offer to share the role of prime minister because she did not feel he offered enough commitment to the peace process.
Having retired from politics, Livni returned to the political arena in the last elections with a ticket focused almost solely on the peace process.
“I came to fight for peace … and I won’t allow anyone to turn peace into a bad word,” she vowed last November in a comeback speech that was fiercely critical of Netanyahu. Her narrow campaign focus cost her at the ballot box, with an Israeli electorate more concerned with domestic than foreign issues – as the success of Yair Lapid proved. Hatnuah won only six Knesset seats in January.
Speaking on Army Radio on Sunday, Livni’s Hatnuah party colleague Amir Peretz, who is tipped to serve as environmental protection minister, said an agreement could be made only if Netanyahu “promised that negotiations for a political settlement with the Palestinians would occur”.
“The parties that form the government are not important but rather its guiding principles,” Peretz added.
In her new position, Livni will be a member of the security cabinet and will lead a small team of personally appointed special staff into talks on condition that Netanyahu’s man Yitzhak Molcho will have a place on her team. The prime minister will, however, retain the final word in any potential deal, which must also be approved by the Knesset and the cabinet.
“This development should lead to optimism. No [Israeli politician] is more identified, or has such a burning desire and severity of belief in the possibility of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, than Tzipi Livni. She is ‘Mrs Peace Process’,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
“Livni may have felt she had no option to agree to join the coalition after her poor showing at the election. Netanyahu may not keep his word. But knowing her record and her principles, I imagine she has reached some understanding that will seriously advance the peace process. Shared political goals make strange bedfellows,” Ben Meir added.
A former foreign minister, Livni has a reputation for being strong-willed and difficult to work with in Israel. One Israeli diplomat explained bluntly: “She is pretty widely unpopular here, even if she is liked abroad.”
Political commentators received Tuesday’s announcement with optimism but most nurse doubts that any newfound understanding between Livni and the prime minister will hold.
This article is first published in The Guardian.