Next Jewish Agency chair? Just not Livni

Tzipi Livni’s candidacy smacks of desperation that overlooks the fine crop of dynamic candidates already standing for the Jewish Agency’s top post, especially the women. Moreover, the JAFI chairmanship should not go to a failed politician who is the antithesis of “consensus,” and who will abuse the post as a bully pulpit to rebuild her political career.

Published in The Jerusalem Post, October 15, 2021. Print-friendly copy

According to numerous reports, some Diaspora Jewish leaders and center-left Israeli politicians are pushing the candidacy of Tzipi Livni to head the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).

The impetus for Livni’s late candidacy is twofold: The desire to appoint a woman after front-runner Elazar Stern dropped out of the race for behavior viewed as insensitive to women, and concern about a “right-wing takeover” of national Zionist institutions.

The supposed solution: Drag a failed, nasty, and bitter politician out of retirement in the name of “liberal values.”

The problem here is threefold. First, the important Jewish Agency chairmanship should not once again end-up being a place where retired Israeli politicians are put out to pasture.

Alas, that was the case with so many previous chairmen, including Simcha Dinitz, Avraham Burg, and Yitzhak Herzog. (At least Herzog came to the JAFI chairmanship with true commitment to building Israel-Diaspora ties.)

The has-been Israeli politician is a bad template for leadership of an institution that plays a central role in managing the increasingly difficult Israel-Diaspora relationship. The has-been Israeli politician rarely has the moderate temperament and the drive to succeed that are essential to doing this job well.

SECOND, a short refresher on Tzipi Livni’s political career makes it clear why she is unsuited for JAFI leadership.

Across eight cabinet posts and membership in five contradictory political parties, Livni specialized in hysterics and doomsday predictions. Her trademark was to portray Israel as a country in danger of going down the drain – unless she would be elected to head it.

In Livni’s parlance, Israel was a country threatened by dark forces, where “religious extremists” and “ugly nationalists” sought “to turn back the clock” and impose their intolerant views on a beleaguered society. She loved to slam Likud and then-Prime Minister Netanyahu for “selling the state to the Ultra-Orthodox.”

She furthermore posited a false dichotomy between Netanyahu and his political opponents; between purported “extremists,” and those who were “Zionists” and “democrats” – with the latter meaning whichever of the multiple political parties she was involved in at any given moment. (As mentioned, Livni bounced from party to party at a dizzying pace, like an Energizer Bunny without ideology or shame.)

An outstanding example of Livni’s feverishness was the fanatic stance she adopted in 2014-2015 against the Jewish Nation State law. Livni fulminated that the proposed law was rooted in “radical nationalism” and sponsored by “extremist elements of the right wing.” She erupted that the law would “subject Israelis to a theocracy” and drive Israel into a “fundamentalist and discriminatory reality.”

None of these deprecating comments had any basis. The Israeli Supreme Court upheld the law and explicitly dismissed such allegations as “overexcited.”

Livni’s stance also was hypocritical because it was her colleagues in Kadima, when she led that party, who first introduced in 2011 the draft law on “Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People.” Avi Dichter presented the bill, and it was co-sponsored by 40 MKs, including two-thirds of Kadima and several members of the Labor Party. And note: Dichter’s legislation was constitutionally much more far-reaching than the softer version eventually passed by a Netanyahu coalition government.

But of course, when it served her narrow purposes, blocking the Nation State Law became the keyed-up raison d’etre of Livni’s political career and the most important defense of democracy known to mankind.

Tzipi Livni also championed and led a peace process with the Palestinians which crashed unceremoniously and violently. But of course, Livni haughtily rejected any responsibility for that disaster, and even today cannot admit to any mistakes.

Then and now, in Livni’s discourse the solution to all Israel’s problems was rapid withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. At every opportunity, she warned that Israel must retreat or else it will lose (fill in the blank…) its Jewish and democratic character, or its diplomatic standing, or its moral standing, or its economic prosperity, etc., etc.

Not a day went by without Livni lamenting the looming Western boycott of Israel. She howled and wailed about Israel’s impending isolation. According to Livni, Israel constantly was about to be hit with unprecedented diplomatic, economic, and academic chill, with severe repercussions for Israeli prosperity – unless the country Israel snapped quickly to Livni’s tune of withdrawal from the West Bank.

Of course, this was manifest nonsense. The menace of BDS was deliberately overstated as part of a campaign of intimidation. It was a bogeyman meant to scare the Israeli public into retreat and withdrawal; an artificial threat manufactured by the Israeli left and magnified a thousand times over by Livni’s repetitious moralizing. John Kerry and other Western leaders just copied Livni’s remonstrations.

In sum, Tzipi Livni would be a bad choice for JAFI. Her career has been the antithesis of “consensus.” She would not accentuate the more refined and harmonizing sides of Jewish leaders – which is what the organization is all about.

Instead, she probably would exploit the Jewish Agency as a platform to rebuild her political career, harping on the need for Israeli territorial withdrawals and Palestinian statehood. She would abuse the post as a bully pulpit to bash religious and right-wing Jews, too – thus increasing Israel-Diaspora tensions, not ameliorating them.

THE THIRD THING wrong with Tzipi Livni’s left-field, last-minute candidacy is this: It smacks of desperation that overlooks the fine crop of dynamic candidates already standing for the Jewish Agency’s top post, especially the women.

I am thinking of Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Irina Nevzlin, and Yaffa Zilbershats. Cotler-Wunsh was the most prominent and effective immigrant advocate in the previous Knesset and is a leader in anti-BDS diplomacy. Hassan-Nahoum is the deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a diplomat par excellence. Nevzlin is a philanthropist and activist who reimagined and rebuilt Beit Hatfutsot as the ANU Museum of the Jewish People. Zilbershats was head of the Budget and Planning Committee of the Council for Higher Education and is an experienced team leader.

Any one of these four dynamic women would be a healthier chief executive of an organization that is synonymous with fostering consensus – than Tzipi Livni. A better bridge-builder for Israel and the Diaspora – than Tzipi Livni. A more believable advocate for global Jewish partnership – than Tzipi Livni. A better motivator of Jewish youth – than Tzipi Livni.

Resurrection of Tzipi Livni from the political dead will not spark the renaissance that Jews in Israel and the Diaspora aspire to. Livni doesn’t deserve the Jewish Agency position, and the Jewish Agency deserves better than her.

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David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker