Zip for Tzipi: Change Atop Israel’s Kadima Signals Opposition in Disarray

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Oded Balilty / AP

Tzipi Livni casts her vote for the Kadima party primary elections in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2012.

Three years after leading the Kadima party to first place in national elections, Tzipi Livni has lost a fight for its leadership, adding to the disarray in an Israeli opposition that grows less coherent while the position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grows stronger.

Livni lost Tuesday’s primary balloting by more than 20 percentage points to Shaul Mofaz, a bland former military chief of staff with whom she had been sniping for years in what was widely viewed as a difference in styles; reporters detected no significant policy differences between the two, beyond Mofaz’s reputedly much keener appetite for joining Netanyahu’s government and landing a ministerial post.

“She was a failure: She was unable to form a government and take part in the pork barrel, and that’s what politics is all about,” says Efraim Inbar, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University.  “People are in politics, particularly party members, to be close to power. She didn’t have the right political instincts. She’s too principled.”

(READ: From 2008 — Tzipi Livni, “Israel’s Mrs. Clean”)

The low turnout, around 40%, underscored the tepidity of it all: Livni managed just 14,500 votes from registered party members nationwide. She was in seclusion after the loss, which she had signaled would prompt her departure from the party.  “If I’m not the chairperson, will someone care if I sit there?” she told Haaretz earlier in the week. “As what? As decoration?”

Kadima, which translates as “Forward,” bills itself as a centrist party even though it was founded by Ariel Sharon, a famous hawk and an architect of the right-wing Likud Party, which he left in 2005 after engineering the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a move that infuriated the settler movement that is a key Likud constituency.

The new party was so popular it retained the premiership after Sharon suffered a massive stroke — he remains in a vegetative state to this day. But without its charismatic founder, Kadima came to be known almost as much for infighting as for its primary difference with Likud: though tough on security, Kadima favors a more active engagement with the Palestinian leadership in negotiating a peace agreement. During his two years as Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert both launched two wars and spent hours in private meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, hashing out particulars of a possible two-state bargain that hung fire when Olmert was forced to step down amid corruption allegations.

Livni, then Foreign Minister, became the face of Kadima, but was unable to form a coalition, prompting new elections. In that 2009 campaign she led the party to 29 seats in the 120-member Knesset, one more than second-place Likud.  But again she could not manage a coalition, while Netanyahu fashioned a government by partnering with religious parties; the right-wing, heavily ethnic Russian party of Avigdor Lieberman (who became Foreign Minister); and the Labor Party that was led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak until he left it last year to form a new party, following sharp complaints from Labor rank and file that he was bending too far right.

Labor now stands in the opposition – and like Kadima, appears much reduced in the eyes of the public, at least according to recent polls that political professionals warn are notoriously fluid between elections. That may be especially true just now, given how much Israeli electoral politics might be affected by the demands for a more equitable economy. Such concerns brought hundreds of thousands into the streets last summer, sparked by a tent protest in Tel Aviv.

(READ: What Occupy Wall Street can learn from Occupy Tel Aviv.)

The tent protest phenomenon held the potential to recast a political spectrum historically aligned on questions of Israel’s security and approach to the Palestinians: In Israel, to be leftist is to favor concessions for peace.  But that shrinking cohort has been steadily more marginalized since the trauma of the Second Intifadeh. One of the worst moments of that uprising erupted exactly 10 years ago this week, when a Hamas suicide bomber killed 30 Israelis at a Passover supper in a Netanya hotel. In the competition to succeed Barak as head of Labor, the winning candidate, former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, emphasized social justice issues.  Livni was faulted for failing to embrace the tent protests, which had brought a steep dip in Netanyahu’s approval ratings.

The Prime Minister has rebounded since, however, and prevailed handily in his own party’s primary in January. That set the stage for elections that are formally scheduled for next year but which, some analysts predict, Netanyahu will call in autumn. The coalition appears firm; his personal approval rating stands near 50%; and Israeli analysts have praised him for manfully steering the Iranian nuclear program toward the top of the global agenda — goading President Obama to articulate a more martial stance in a motion that, some pundits noted with approval, simultaneously pushed the stymied Palestinian peace process into the shadows.

As for Livni, reports in the Hebrew media suggest she has left open the possibility both of forming a new party and of leaving politics altogether. Inbar, the politicial science professor, claims her ambition included a sense of entitlement bound in a family history that was repeated on American television interviews: Her parents were fighters in the Irgun, the paramilitary group that harried British forces stationed in  the 1940s in what was then called Palestine. “She was the white hope,” Inbar says. “I think she’s much more popular abroad than here. She was Bibi’s best asset. He’s going to miss her.”