Tzipi Livni: Israel Got Next

The historian J. Rufus Fears noted that great leaders – from Pericles to Lincoln to Churchill – share four characteristics. They are anchored in principles, guided by a moral compass, posses a vision, and have the ability to build consensus … Read More

By / June 23, 2008

The historian J. Rufus Fears noted that great leaders – from Pericles to Lincoln to Churchill – share four characteristics. They are anchored in principles, guided by a moral compass, posses a vision, and have the ability to build consensus to achieve their vision. These are the qualities that differentiate them as statesmen rather than mere politicians.

Unfortunately, the current leadership in Israel is the epitome of mere politicians. Prime-Minister Olmert, for example, is a drunken captain at the helm of a ship headed for an iceberg. An uninspiring power-hungry man mired in corruption and lacking vision, he is leading his country into disaster.

The truth is that people matter. For good or ill, individuals can change the course of history. Recently, the United States has seen what remarkable change the right person can achieve. A tall African-American man did what most thought impossible. No, I am not talking about Barack Obama, but Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett.

The NBA star turned around a team that had been in the basement of the league for years, whose uniformly awful under-performances of its talent led some fans to believe the team was cursed. But in just one season, Garnett led the Celtics to a championship via the biggest turnaround in league history. How did he do it? With skills, passion, tenacity, determination, and teamwork. In short, he was a true leader, the sort of individual whose rarity underscores their potential to overcome obstacles that had been thought insuperable.

As strange as it may sound, Kevin Garnett gives me hope that the Arab-Israeli conflict can be solved. But the question is, who is going to be our Kevin Garnett? As things stands today, my money is on Tzipi Livni.

While Livni and I are far from ideological soul mates, her tremendous potential is obvious. A woman who embodies the characteristics of the type of leadership that Israel needs, she is honest, sharp as whip, empathic towards her enemies, has a clear vision for Israel’s future, and has shown the ability to build a consensus to achieve her vision. (For example, in 2005 it was Livni who managed to persuade the divided Israeli parliament to ratify Ariel Sharon's controversial plan to withdraw Israel's settlements from Gaza.)

But Livni's most impressive quality is that she is willing to learn and evolve. Not in the selfish service of staying in power, but in the selfless service of her vision of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state. And to that end, she has the courage to do what she thinks is right even if it means alienating those who are close to her.

Remember, this is a woman who came from a hardcore right-wing family – her father, former member of Irgun and leader in the Likkud Party, has the map of greater Israel engraved on his tombstone – and who now after realizing the futility and danger of annexing historic Israel has dedicated her political career to creating Jewish and Palestinian states.

The former "Herut princess" undoubtedly has set her father spinning in his grave. But that is exactly what we need. Leaders who have the courage to spin the dead for the sake of the living. Even if it means going against the ones they love most. Like Abraham of old, Livni has smashed the idols of her father's home.

Some people have second-guessed Livni’s political prowess — especially after, in light of the Winograd report, she called on Olmert to resign but refused to leave her post in protest. Others have cast doubt on Livni as Prime Minister material due to her lack of known security credentials (it is hard to turn classified service in the Mossad into political advantage).

Much of the criticism leveled at her has a clear sexist overtone, effectively boiling down to: "Livni lacks the testicular fortitude to lead a country like Israel. With threats from Hamas, Hizballah, and Iran we simply cannot leave it all to a woman. Tough times call for manly men (i.e. Netanyahu/Mofaz/Barak). Yes there was Golda but she didn't really count. After all, as Ben-Gurion once remarked, Golda was the only man in his cabinet."

In a similar vein, talking about Livni, a friend of mine once said that Israel can never elect or accept a leader that blinks. I hope he is wrong, because again, that is exactly what we need. Not the My Pet Goat type of blinking, but the type that breaks the reflexive and destructive pattern of unthinking stimulus-response that has characterized Israeli leadership. We need a leader that blinks twice, ten times, a hundred times, before sending off children to kill and die in a war. A leader that in between those blinks thinks about the long-term consequence of their actions – for us and for our enemies.

As I said, Kevin Garnett's leadership of the Celtics gives me hope that the Arab-Israeli conflict can be solved. I didn't mean it glibly. He didn't, and couldn't have brought about his team's epic turnaround single-handedly; rather, he did it by making those around him better. He did it by taking to heart the African concept of Ubuntu, which illustrates how our individual success is bound up with the success of those around us. (Literally: 'Ubuntu' was the 2008 Celtics motto.) Perhaps in the end the ability to inspire excellence from others is the true mark of a great leader.

The challenges of the state Livni is likely to soon assume control of, unlike the challenges of Garnett's league, are anything but a game. The lives of millions of people, present and future, depend on Israel's next premier being a statesperson rather than a mere politician. Given the opportunity to lead, Livni would have to inspire excellence not only from her fellow Knesset members, but also from her Palestinian interlocutors. Which is not a low bar to clear, to say the least.

Abraham Lincoln said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." To what degree Livni can rise to the challenge remains to be seen, but she is a talent more prodigious than any her country has been blessed with in a long time, and she turned up at just the time her country needed such a talent.

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