The Case of the White Bird

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Tzipi Livini, as her name indicates, is the white bird of Israeli politics (Tzipi is short for Tzipora, "bird", and Livni comes from Lavan, "white"). As against the hawk Binyamin Netanyahu, the vulture Ehud Barak and the raven Ehud Olmert, she was seen as the immaculate feathered friend.

In public opinion polls, she has enjoyed a remarkable popularity. She trumps all the other politicians in the governing coalition. While the rating of the two Ehuds – Olmert and Barak – was going down, hers was on the way up.

Why? Perhaps it was a case of the wish being the father of the thought. It is generally accepted that in the present Knesset no coalition could be set up without Kadima. Therefore, if one wants to throw Olmert out while avoiding new elections, Olmert’s substitute must also come from Kadima. Livni is the only creditable candidate.

Still there is something odd about Livni’s popularity. Up to now, she has not been faced with a serious test. She has never borne any real executive responsibility. She has been only a mediocre Minister of Justice.

Her public image is indeed impressive. She seems to be honest, a rare attribute for a politician. She looks wise. She looks courageous.

But anyone who studies her record must regretfully come to the opposite conclusion. Tzipi Livni is far from courageous and far from wise.

That became clear a year ago, after the Second Lebanon War.

It seemed that public anger over the failed war would topple Olmert. Livni jumped at the opportunity. In a dramatic move she called for the resignation of the Prime Minister and offered herself as his successor. It was leaked that soon after the beginning of the war, she had already called for its termination (which did not prevent her from voting for all of Olmert’s moves.)

A courageous act, even if not very wise. Because very soon it became clear that public anger was subsiding rapidly. The protest movement petered out. Olmert, with the skin of an elephant and the cunning of a fox, just kept his head down and survived. He shook off the interim report of the Commission of Inquiry (the Winograd Report) as a dog sheds water. The day after the attempted putsch, Livni found herself alone in a political vacuum.

What does a courageous politician do in such a situation? Resign, of course. Join the opposition, exhort, admonish, preach at the gate like the prophets of yore.

But Livni did not do any of this. She just muttered some noncommittal words, folded her arms and remained in the cabinet. Like most of our politicians, she paraphrases Descartes: "I am a minister – ergo I exist."

As a minister, she continues to bear "collective responsibility" for all the acts and defaults of a government headed by the very person she herself has described as incompetent.

So much for courage. As for wisdom: if she was not certain about her ability to unseat Olmert, why did she start this escapade in the first place? And if she was not prepared to resign, why did she play at rebellion?

Olmert could have dismissed her. But he is much too clever. Better to have her in the tent spitting out, than outside spitting in. Since then he has lavished her with praise and paid her compliments at every opportunity. What a successful Foreign Minister! What a wise diplomat!

The last few days showed just how successful a Foreign Minister and how wise a diplomat Tzipi Livni really is.

It began with her appearance in the Foreign and Security Committee of the Knesset. In the distant past, that was a closed forum. But nowadays it resembles a sieve with very large holes indeed. Every word spoken there is leaked even before the speaker has closed his mouth – mostly by the assistants of the speakers themselves.

In this forum, Livni said that the Egyptians were cheating on their commitment to stop the smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip. She demanded they mend their ways and put an end to this traffic.

It was not just a verbal complaint. It had practical implications: in the US Congress, there is an ongoing campaign to punish Egypt by cutting the huge package of financial aid it gets from the US. True, the Israeli Foreign Office does not associate itself openly with this demand, but everybody in Washington knows that in matters like this, the US Congress is not much more than an instrument of Israeli policy. Members of the Knesset roam the corridors of the Capitol and lobby for the cut. They may belong to the right-wing opposition, but they are clearly acting as emissaries of the Foreign Office.

To reinforce this effort, the Israeli government has distributed a video cassette around Washington showing Egyptian policemen standing passively by while the smuggling goes on under their very noses.

No wonder that Cairo considered Livni’s remarks as another exercise of blackmail against Egypt: if you don’t comply with our demands, we shall hit you in your most sensitive spot – the pocket.

It is hard to imagine a more foolish policy. Anyone who knows anything about Egypt – and there are such people even in the Foreign Office – would be aware that this is not just about hitting the pocket, but also the heart. Not just a matter of money, but also of pride.

Every year Egypt gets more American money than any other country on earth – except Israel, of course. And not for nothing: it started when Egypt signed the peace agreement with Israel. The enemies of the Egyptian regime call it a bribe for serving Israeli interests.

No country is more sensitive about its honor than Egypt. Its leaders regularly remind everybody – and, indeed, its foreign minister reminded Tzipi Livni this week – that the Egyptian state has existed for 7000 years, and is not prepared to be lectured by Israel (which was not even there 60 years ago.)

Egypt lives in a painful contradiction: it sees itself as the cradle of human civilization and the center of the Arab world, but it is a very poor country and needs every dollar it can get. Hosni Mubarak’s regime is totally dependent on the United States, but desperately craves the respect of 70 million Egyptians and hundreds of millions of other Arabs.

That demands subtlety, even finesse. The accumulated experience of thousands of years has prepared the Egyptian diplomats for such a task. They never say "no", but "Yes, quite, but the moment is not appropriate" or "good idea, we shall consider it with utmost seriousness". Those who understand, understand. No wonder that Egyptian diplomats look upon their unsophisticated Israeli counterparts with thinly veiled contempt.

Tzipi Livni entered this porcelain shop like an elephant.

Why did she do it? The political correspondents, most of whom are merely reporters of political gossip, assume that the motive was personal: she spoke on the eve of Ehud Barak’s meeting with Mubarak. Her real aim was to spoil it for Barak.

Perhaps she saw it as an opportunity to polish her image. For weeks now, the security establishment has been running a public relations campaign concerning the arms in the Gaza Strip. Its agents in the media tell us every day about the quantities of arms and explosives that are flowing into the Strip from Egypt through the tunnels under the border. The Egyptians are accused of closing their eyes. Livni wanted to ride this crest.

Livni’s problem is common to all of Israel: the inability and unwillingness to see the point of view of the other side, especially if the other side is Arab. (The other side has, of course, a similar problem.)

The Egyptians consider themselves the natural leaders of the Arab world. President Mubarak and his followers are very sensitive to the accusations of their enemies – especially the Muslim Brotherhood – that they are serving the Israeli occupation at a time when Israel is starving the Gaza population and killing their leaders. Mubarak has no wish to do anything against Hamas that would seem to confirm these charges.

It is quite possible that the Egyptian authorities would be unable to prevent the traffic even if they wanted to. Most of the smuggled items are unobtainable in the besieged Gaza Strip, from milk powder to cigarettes. The smugglers can do business with the Sinai Bedouins or bribe the Egyptian policemen – who most certainly do not cherish the idea of stabbing their Arab brothers in the back while they are fighting against the Israeli occupation.

The Israeli public lives in a bubble. They cannot imagine that the same people who they know as "terrorists" are the heroes of the Arab world, that the detested "murderers" are the holy martyrs of the Arabs, that the "terrorism" is seen by the Arabs (and not only by them) as a heroic resistance to a monstrous occupation, that the "smugglers" are seen by the Arabs the same way as we saw "our fine boys" of the Palmach who smuggled arms under the noses of the British and risked their lives in order to break the blockade.

In the eyes of the Egyptians – and, indeed, of all Arabs – the Palestinian people are defending themselves against a brutal oppressor. The Palestinian martyrs restore the honor of the entire Arab nation. Even the Egyptians who support Mubarak and believe that there is no choice but to cooperate with the Americans and to keep the peace with Israel are torn between conflicting emotions.

If one does not understand the psychological and political dilemma of the Egyptian people, one is liable to do foolish things. And nothing could be more foolish than the Israeli action against those returning from the Hajj last week.

The pilgrimage to Mecca is, as everybody knows, one of the five pillars of Islam. A person starting on this voyage, with all its hardships, is much respected by all Muslims.

The million and a half inhabitants of the Gaza strip are prevented from fulfilling this duty, unless they undergo a "security check" by the Israeli army, often accompanied by harassment and humiliation. On Israel’s demand, the Egyptians have closed the only border station that connects the Gaza Strip with the outside world: the Rafah crossing.

Two thousand pilgrims from Gaza have broken this blockade and crossed the Rafah border. It seems that the Egyptians cooperated, either openly or by closing their eyes. Indeed, how can an Egyptian leader block the path of devout Muslims on their way to fulfill one of the holiest duties? But the chiefs of the Israeli security establishment were furious.

The problem became worse when the pilgrims were on their way back from Mecca. When their ferry reached the Sinai shore, Israel demanded that the Egyptians block the Rafah crossing and compel the pilgrims to return through Israeli territory. This would have delivered Hamas members and other "wanted" people into the hands of the Israeli Security Service.

For the Egyptians, that was an altogether intolerable demand. If they had acceded to it, they would have looked to the whole Muslim world like collaborators who had turned over to the Jews pious Muslims returning from the holy Hajj.

The end was foreseeable: the Egyptians allowed all the pilgrims to return through Rafah. The Israeli government had scored an own goal.

All this would not have happened if the Foreign Minister had persuaded her colleagues to close their eyes and shut up. She didn’t. They would not have listened to her anyhow.

Something tells me that this white bird will not be flying very far.

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