First elected to the Knesset in 1999, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni might well have remained an obscure backbencher had she not caught the eye of Ariel Sharon.
Sharon saw something he liked in Livni – perhaps toughness, perhaps intelligence, perhaps integrity – and gave her political career a huge lift by appointing her minister of regional cooperation, and then promoting her again and again to more significant portfolios, culminating with Justice and then Foreign Affairs.
Livni, for her part, stood loyally by Sharon’s side during his battles in the cabinet and in the Likud over the disengagement plan, and was instrumental in getting one of the many votes on the issue passed through the cabinet by coming up with a very lawyerly compromise.
So Livni, to a large degree, is a Sharon protégé. Not coincidentally, as she now runs for prime minister she is surrounded by some of the same advisers who counseled Sharon: Reuven Adler, Eyal Arad, Uri Shani and Yisrael Maimon.
It should come as no surprise, then, that during the infighting among Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Livni as to how to end the fighting in Gaza, Livni has adopted a distinctly Sharon-like unilateralist approach.
According to Livni, Israel – when it feels it has accomplished its military goals (and she has never defined exactly what they would be) – should simply cease fire, leave Gaza without any agreements, and warn that if the Palestinians dare fire one more rocket on Israel, the IDF would go in with even greater force.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the same logic that was behind Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005.
What did Sharon say at the time? He said Israel should do what’s good for it, withdraw completely from Gaza, and then have all the legitimacy in the world to pound the Palestinians if they had the temerity to fire at Israel.
He didn’t want any agreements with the Palestinians, not believing they would be upheld or were necessary. The Palestinians would not fire on Israel, he wrongly thought, because of the fear of Israel’s response – thus, no agreement was needed.
Listen to Livni in 2009 and what you hear is vintage Sharon from 2005.
“I am not looking for agreements with Hamas. If they do fire, we’ll do this again, and big time. This is what we’re capable of, and this is the way to fight terror,” Livni said Sunday at a press conference with visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
“A military operation ends when deterrence has been achieved, with them knowing that if it happens again, what they saw now is only a taste of what they’ll see later,” she said.
On July 25, 2005, Sharon, reacting to a terrorist attack before disengagement, said Israel’s response to terrorism emanating from Gaza would be different following its withdrawal.
“I made it clear to the secretary of state that our response will be of a different kind, with an addition of severe means, if it is done during the evacuation, or if there will be terror after we leave the Gaza Strip. This was made unequivocally clear,” he said.
Indeed, in the run-up to disengagement, numerous Sharon advisers and government spokespeople said leaving Gaza would lead to a situation in which Israel would be given much more leeway than in the past to respond militarily, and with much more force, to attacks from the Strip. Sharon and various government spokesman on numerous occasions said Israel would not tolerate rocket fire after disengagement, and would respond in much the way Livni is describing today.
The only catch was that it didn’t happen. Israel left Gaza to the last Jew, but the rockets continued to fall, Gilad Schalit was kidnapped, and Israel did not respond with all its might, partly because it did not think it had the international legitimacy it had been touting.
As opposed to Livni, Barak’s position is that Israel should not accept a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip until there is an agreement with Egypt that ensures that the minute Israel leaves, the Sinai-to-Gaza smuggling won’t start up again at a furious pace.
Unlike Livni, he wants to see any arrangement tied to an agreement with Egypt. Livni would also like to see a mechanism to stop the smuggling put into place, but would not make a cease-fire or withdrawal from Gaza dependent on it.
Part of the reason for Barak’s interest in an agreement with Egypt is because he is running the Egyptian channel, through Amos Gilad at the Defense Ministry, while the Foreign Ministry is largely out of the loop.
As such, if an agreement is brokered through the Egyptians, he could take political credit for it.
In an ideal world, Olmert would like to continue with the military campaign, believing that Israel’s deterrence has not been sufficiently restored, and Hamas has not been sufficiently broken. Yet he is unlikely to go against the wishes of his defense minister, who wants to stop the fighting with an agreement with the Egyptians, and his foreign minister, who wants to unilaterally stop.
Diplomatic officials said Olmert, too, favors some sort of mechanism hammered out with the Egyptians before calling off the campaign.
While the prime minister might want to continue for a variety of other reasons, including wiping out the memory of the Second Lebanon War, he realizes that the world is starting to close in; the visit Thursday of UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon is expected to increase the pressure on Israel to agree to a cease-fire.
Olmert is also looking at the calendar and realizes that January 20, the day when Barack Obama becomes president of the United States, is only a week away.
The outgoing premier will not want to greet the new president on his first day in office with an uncomfortable quandary: how to relate to Gaza without infuriating the Arabs, alienating US allies in Europe, or antagonizing Israel.