Fly, Tzipora, Fly!

By Uri Avnery

The polls were wrong, as usual. And in a big way. As usual.

Instead of winning by a huge margin, as predicted until the very last moment by all the polls, she just squeaked through. Of the 72 thousand or so registered Kadima members, only 39,331 troubled themselves to go to the polls, and among these she defeated Shaul Mofaz by just 431 votes.

But a majority is a majority. Tzipi Livni was duly installed as Kadima chairperson.

What does that say about the Israeli public?

First of all: this is the victory of a person without a military background over someone with almost nothing apart from a military background.

On the advice of his right-wing American political strategist, Stanley Greenberg, Mofaz emphasized the word "security" on every occasion, almost in every sentence. A popular talk-show turned this into a parody: Security, security, security, security.

Well, it did not work. T-h-e general, the chief of Staff, the Defense Minister, was beaten by a mere woman devoid of any military experience (even if she did serve for 15 years in the Mossad.)

That does not mean that Tzipi Livni may not turn out to be a warmonger, like Elisabeth I, Catherine the Great, Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi. But fact is fact: the Kadima voters have preferred a non-general to a general.

Moreover, Kadima, is a party of the center. The very center of the center. Its members are not fervent about anything, neither on the right or the left, they have no strong convictions of any kind. So their decision can be regarded as a reflection of the general mood.

Mofaz presented himself not only as Mr. Security, but also as a genuine right-winger, a man who opposes both peace with Syria and peace with the Palestinians, a leader prepared to set up a coalition with the Right, even with the extreme Right. He was the declared exponent of open-ended-war.

Tzipi Livni presented herself as the personification of the peace effort, the woman who conducts the negotiations with the Palestinians, who prefers diplomacy to war, who points the way to the end of the conflict. All this may be sleight of hand, pure deceit. Perhaps there is no difference at all between the two. But even if this is so, that is not the most important aspect. The important fact is that the Kadima voters, the most representative group in the country, accorded victory – well, a tiny victory – to the candidate who at least pretended to favor peace.

In his "The Second Coming", the Irish poet W. B. Yeats describes utter chaos: "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold". The metaphor is taken from military history: in bygone days, armies drew up for battle with the main force in the center, and lighter forces defending the two flanks. As long as the center held, everything was fine.

In Israel today, the center is holding. The centrist party voted for the woman of the center.

It can also be described otherwise: in Israel, 2008, the forces are divided equally between the "Right" and the "Left", and the "Left" won this time by the smallest possible margin.

I remember the elections nine years ago. In May 1999, Ehud Barak won a decisive victory over the incumbent, Binyamin Netanyahu: 56.08% against 43.92%, a difference of 388,546 votes. The public was just fed up with Netanyahu.

The response was overwhelming. The general feeling in the peace camp was of a release from servitude to freedom, from an era of failure and corruption into an era of peace and well-being. Without any proclamations, without anybody planning it, masses of people streamed into Tel-Aviv’s Rabin Square, the place where a Prime Minister had been assassinated fours years earlier. I was among them.

In the square, the atmosphere was intoxicating. Delirious people danced, embraced each other, kissed. Tel Aviv had not seen anything like it since November 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly decided to establish a Jewish (and an Arab) state. I experienced a similar scene in April 1948, when I was part of the force that brought a huge relief convoy into beleaguered and starving West Jerusalem. A similar atmosphere was captured by film of Charles de Gaulle entering liberated Paris.

Barak promised to be a second Rabin, only more so. He promised to make peace with the Palestinians within months. A rosy future was warming the horizon, "the dawn of a new day".

A year and a half later, nothing of all this remained. Ehud Barak, the hero of peace, brought on us the greatest disaster in the annals of the struggle for peace. He came back from the Camp David conference, which had taken place on his express demand, with a declaration that was to become a mantra: "I have turned every stone on the way to peace / I have offered the Palestinians unprecedented generous terms / Arafat has rejected everything / We have no partner for peace."

With 20 Hebrew words Barak destroyed the peace camp and brought about a public mood which even Netanyahu could not create: that there is no chance for peace, that we are condemned to live with an everlasting conflict.

Therefore, no one got excited about Tzipi Livni’s victory. The masses did not stream into the square, did not dance and did not embrace – and not only because this was just a party-internal election. The general reaction was a sigh of relief and a shrug of the shoulder. So Kadima has voted. So it has a new chairperson. So there will be a new Prime Minister. Let’s wait and see.

So what to expect, after all?

There are already jokes circulating about "Tzipi and the Tzipiot" (a Hebrew word-play, "tzipiot" meaning expectations), a new rock-band which is about to take to the road. Nobody really knows what kind of a Prime Minister she will be. Strong or weak. Determined or open to pressures. Tough or compromising. Warmonger or peace-seeker.

One can only point at her background, as I hinted last week, and perhaps go into some detail.

On the eve of the elections, in one of those vapid questionnaires the media are so fond of, she was asked who was her hero. Her answer: Jabotinsky.

That was the most predictable answer there could be. Tzipi Livni grew up in a Revisionist household. She is a Revisionist, model 2008. What does that mean?

Her father, Eitan, who was born in Grodno (a town that has belonged variously to Lithuania, Poland, Russia and now Belarus), came to this country at the age of 6 and joined the Irgun underground in 1938 (the same year as I did), when he was 19 years old. He lived all his life under the influence of Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky and his teachings.

Eitan Livni, as I knew him, was not a brilliant or exceptional person, but rather solid, loyal, as his name suggests. (In Hebrew, "eitan" means strong, steadfast). A person one could rely on. He served in the Irgun as an operational officer, and among other operations he took part in the daring break-out from Acre prison, where he was being held. As a Knesset member for the Herut Party, the predecessor of today’s Likud, he was rather inconspicuous and supported Menachem Begin through thick and thin.

In order to understand Tzipi, one has to go back to Jabotinsky. His many enemies have often called him a Fascist, but that is inaccurate. He was born in the 19th century, and was a nationalist in the 19th century mold. Born in Odessa, he lived for some years as a young man in Italy, and his heroes were the leaders of contemporary Italian nationalism: the ideologue Giuseppe Mazzini and the fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Jabotinsky wanted, of course, all of Palestine to become a Jewish state. When he founded his party in the 1920s, he named it according to this vision: the demand was for a "revision" of the British decision to separate the land west of the Jordan river from the land east of the river, today’s Kingdom of Jordan, then called Transjordan. In her youth, Tzipi sang Jabotinsky’s most famous song: "Two banks has the Jordan – this one belongs to us and that one, too."

But Jabotinsky was also a real liberal, and a real democrat. He entered the political arena for the first time when he formulated the "Helsingfors (Helsinki) Plan", which demanded human and national rights for the Jews and the other minorities in Czarist Russia.

A person educated according to these values is faced today with a tough dilemma.

Years ago, the Revisionists used to tell this joke: rewarding David Ben-Gurion for founding the state, God promised to grant him one wish. Ben-Gurion asked that every Israeli should be honest, wise and a Labor Party member. "That’s too much even for me to grant," God replied, "but every Israeli can choose two of the three." So a Labor member can be wise but not honest, a Labor member can be honest but not wise, and somebody who is wise and honest cannot be a Labor member.

Something like this is now happening to the Revisionists themselves. They ask for three things: a Jewish State, a state that encompasses all of historic Palestine and a democratic state. That is too much even for God. So a Revisionist must choose two of the three: a Jewish and democratic state in only a part of the country, a Jewish state in all the country that will not be democratic, or a democratic state in all the country that will not be Jewish. This dilemma has not changed over the last 41 years.

Tzipi Livni, an honest to goodness Revisionist, has announced her choice: a Jewish and democratic state that will not encompass the whole of the country. (We leave open here the question of whether a "Jewish" state can be democratic.)

In up-to-date Hebrew, we differentiate between "national" and "nationalistic" attitudes. A national view recognizes the importance of the national dimension in today’s human society, and therefore respects and recognizes the nationalism of other peoples, too. A nationalistic view says "we and no others", my nation ueber alles.

It seems that Tzipi, like her hero Jabotinsky, adheres to the national view. Hence her emphasis on "two nation-states for two peoples". She speaks about a Jewish nation-state and is ready to sacrifice Greater Israel on this altar.

That may not be an ideal basis for peace (what would be the status of Israel’s Arab citizens in this Jewish nation-state?) but it is realistic. If she has the power to implement her ideas, she can make peace. If.

Reacting to the election results, Gideon Levy wrote that the heart wants to hope, but the brain cannot. That is an understandable reaction.

Since Tzipi, short for Tzipora, means bird, one wants to cry out: Fly, Tzipora, fly! Fly to heaven! After your election as Prime Minister, lose no time! Set up a government coalition with the peace forces, use the first few months of your term to achieve peace with the Palestinians, call new elections and submit yourself and the peace agreement to the public test! As Livni herself phrased it in her direct way: "There is no time for bullshitting!"

That is what Ehud Barak should have done in 2000. He did not take the chance, and therefore he lost.

Will Tzipora the bird reach these heights? The heart hopes. The brain has its doubts.

-Uri Avnery is a journalist, peace activist, former member of the Knesset, and leader of Gush Shalom. He contributed this article to

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