Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Israel has had one female prime minister, Golda Meir. And now, another woman could become the second. Tzipi Livni is currently the Israeli foreign minister, and she is ahead in the polls to take over leadership of the ruling party. She would replace Ehud Olmert, who is stepping down over corruption allegations. NPR's Eric Westervelt has this profile of the woman who may become Israel's next leader.

ERIC WESTERVELT: In some ways, Tzipi Livni's life has been shaped by contrasts. She grew up in freewheeling, left-leaning Tel Aviv, yet her parents were heroes of the right wing Irgun, militant, pre-state Jewish guerillas who used what could be described as terrorist tactics to try to force the British out of Palestine.

Her father raised Livni to believe that all of British Mandate Palestine should be the Jewish homeland. She grew up on that dream of holding on to the West Bank land Israel captured in the 1967 war.

In 1996, Livni gave up a successful legal career and became active in government as part of the conservative Likud Party. She was elected to Parliament in 1999, but six years later she would follow then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in breaking from Likud to form the more centrist Kadima Party, whose platform calls for territorial compromise with the Palestinians. It marked a break with her family's dreams.

Dita Kohl-Roman, a close friend of hers, says Livni realized Israel could not maintain its Jewish majority and identity if it clings to all of the West Bank.

Mr. DITA KOHL-ROMAN (Friend of Tzipi Livni): She said though for me, the greater Israel is the dream. I have to give up that dream because it is more important for me to have a democratic state. Therefore, I want to have a national Jewish home in Israel, and I know that I have to create the same thing for the Palestinian people.

WESTERVELT: Livni has led the Israeli negotiating team in the U.S-backed talks with the Palestinians, talks that have so far shown little tangible progress.

Right-wing critics here say Livni lacks experience for the prime minister's job and is soft on national security. The Israeli left has criticized Livni for doing nothing to dismantle illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank or to halt expansion of the larger settlements.

In the Kadima Party's primary next week, Livni faces retired General Shaul Mofaz, who's made national security and tough talk against Iran centerpieces of his campaign. If Livni wins the primary - polls show her with a narrow lead - she'll be tasked with forming a new governing coalition to take over from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who faces numerous corruption allegations.

Livni, in contrast to Olmert, has a sparkling clean image. Yaron Ezrahi of Hebrew University says if Livni wants to be more than merely a transitional political figure, she has to offer more than clean government. She must, he says, do more than talk about disentangling Israel from its 41-year-old occupation of the West Bank.

Mr. YARON EZRAHI (Hebrew University): The challenge that she faces is also the challenge of Israel. If she makes it, she will have to be a different Tzipi Livni, more forceful to overcome the taboos which have been institutionalized by former governments of not removing settlements.

WESTERVELT: Many Israelis see Livni's public persona as stern, closed and seemingly humorless. People here took note when Livni actually smiled and laughed during a recent TV interview. Some who've worked in government with Livni describe her as focused and intense, bordering on cold.

One colleague who asked not to be named said: She won't ask you how your weekend was. She'll ask you to get to work. Friends, by contrast, describe her as witty and entertaining, a vegetarian who enjoys jogging and playing the drums.

Ms. KOHL-ROMAN: She's very different in private, in person, fun to be with, very funny, has a great sense of humor.

WESTERVELT: Dita Kohl-Roman says the difference between the public and private Livni reflects the reality that she's a woman fighting for acceptance from macho former military men who continue to play a major role in Israeli politics. Livni, she says, wants to change the political culture and its language.

Ms. KOHL-ROMAN: Some of it is the old boys' language, ex-generals who have a certain language between themselves and certain assumptions about what she knows and what she can or cannot do. I think sometimes it's used against her. She's stern. She's - she has to be very careful.

WESTERVELT: Critics say she's sometimes too careful. A friend says Livni likes to read mystery novels but always starts at the end. She likes to know how it ends and then works her way through it. Colleagues say Livni tries to take the same cautious approach to politics and negotiations.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.