Former opposition head and one-time foreign minister Tzipi Livni resigned from the Knesset Tuesday afternoon, ending a political career that saw her nearly become Israel’s second female prime minister in 2009.
Livni, who lost the leadership of Kadima, the Knesset’s largest political party, to Shaul Mofaz in internal primaries in March, said that while she was leaving Israel’s parliament she would not give up on public life.
Livni spoke to reporters Tuesday afternoon, wishing Mofaz well in taking Kadima in a new direction, and calling the opposition a “political desert.”
“Shaul Mofaz is now head of Kadima, and I wish him much success,” she said. “He is now going to lead Kadima in his way, but I must live in my own way. This obligates me to leave Kadima and the Knesset. Today I leave my seat, but not public life.”
Mofaz called Livni when she was on her way to the Knesset to hand in her letter of resignation, reported Channel 2. Kadima’s newly elected leader told Livni that was she intended to do was not good for the party. Livni for her part promised Mofaz to refrain from personal attacks against him.
Livni joined Kadima when it was carved out of the Likud and Labor parties as a centrist alternative in 2005, serving as foreign minister under Ehud Olmert while he was prime minister. She said she had hoped the party would herald in a new era for Israel’s politicians.
“I wanted to bring to Israel a different kind of politics, one that would find a solution to public problems, not work just for the individual. In all of my public life…I worked for the same things, and will continue to do so,” she said.
It’s unclear what shape her new public life will take. Since her defeat to Mofaz, Livni has remained largely mum on her plans for the future.
She led the opposition for the last three years after Likud formed a ruling coalition, despite her Kadima party getting one more seat in Knesset elections. She said Tuesday she did not regret sticking with her values rather than compromise them to form a coalition.
“I don’t regret not selling my country to the ultra-Orthodox in return for political gain,” she said. “I am not sorry I became head of the opposition, even though the price was high.”
Livni entered the Knesset in 1999 on the Likud ticket, leaving a career as a high-ranking bureaucrat. Her father Eitan Livni, was a Likud MK in the 1970s
She led talks with the Palestinian Authority before Operation Cast Lead in 2008, and said Tuesday that the country needed to quickly reach peace terms with the region.
“There is an immediate and urgent need to come to an agreement with the Arab world and the Palestinians. Israel as a Jewish and democratic country is in great danger. Our leadership is busy with spin in the media and dirty politics.”
Knesset Speaker Rueven Rivlin, who appeared at the press conference with Livni, said he believed her political career was not over.
“As Knesset speaker, quite a few MKs have brought me letters of resignation. Many of them said they were exhausted, and there were those who had to resign under other circumstances. Usually, it was the end of a political life. I can say with certainty…that this is one of the few times I received a letter from a politician who is still finding her way and whose mission is still before her. I stand next to Tzipi Livni in a difficult moment.”
Just a few years ago, Livni was enjoying a glorious career and seemed poised for still greater success. In 2006 she became Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister — presiding over intense negotiations with the Palestinians — and stayed in the position until the general elections in 2009. In the meantime she had taken over the leadership of Kadima from Olmert, but failed to build a stable government after his 2008 resignation over corruption charges.
Kadima’s coalition partners had tried to use the shakeup in the party to achieve new concessions. “If Livni wants a government, she needs to comply with our demands,” Shas chairman Eli Yishai announced at the time. Livni wouldn’t give in, preferring new elections over paying what she considered too heavy a price for the premiership. But her hope that the public would reward her for such integrity, and leave her better able to build a coalition after the elections, went unrealized.
Kadima remained the strongest party after the vote in 2009, with its 28 seats, but the margin between it and the second-place Likud had narrowed immensely, and the Likud had a wider choice of natural coalition partners, putting it in the driving seat as coalition talks began.
Kadima could still have had a central role in the government, if it agreed to share power with Benjamin Netanyahu. But Livni refused and entered the opposition, a principled step for which some praised her, although others argued that she and Netanyahu had deprived Israel of a more consensual unity government that could have marginalized special interest parties and formulated compromise policies on matters of land and religion.
Livni was seen as one of the weakest opposition leaders in Israel’s history. One has hardly felt her presence, critics charged.
In a recent interview with Haaretz, Livni was asked to evaluate herself. “I was too statesmanlike,” she answered. “In hindsight, it was a mistake. This surfeit of statesmanlike behavior exacted a price that damaged the perception of my leadership, both internally and externally.”
Livni fought hard against Mofaz ahead of the March primaries, but the final results were devastating: she received only 37.2% of the votes, a real slap in the face. After her resounding defeat, some had hoped she would join Yuval Lapid’s new centrist party, but the former TV personality-turned-politician said he was not interested in offering refuge to politicians who failed with other parties.
Having held the top spot at Kadima and unwelcome in Lapid’s new party, Livni showed today her unwillingness to be the number two in party that she helped establish. She will not have enough time to establish her own party — as some had expected her to do — but her pledge to stay involved in public life leaves the door open for a comeback.
In related elections news, sources close to Aryeh Deri said on Tuesday that the former Shas leader was contemplating starting his own party rather than return to Shas.
Deri, who was convicted of bribery in 1999 while interior minister and eventually served a two-year jail sentence, announced his return to politics in 2011.
A recent Ynet poll showed Deri’s party garnering three Knesset seats, should he form one. Shas with Deri would have 11 seats, the same as in the current Knesset, but a Shas without Deri would garner only seven.