Is there a political opposition in Israel? Tzipi Livni versus ex-Mossad chief

While there is plenty to be criticized about Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, his recent statements place a long-lost check and balance on a government that seems to bow to no voice of reason.

For over two years, Israel has had no serious political opposition.

Kadima head Tzipi Livni, who is supposed to be fulfilling this role, has maintained a mysterious radio silence for much of the last two years, as if trying to convince everyone that she is brewing up some very deep and strategic thoughts. In the meantime, Kadima has helped to advance the ultra-nationalist approach of the right-wing parties – indeed, some of the most pernicious anti-democratic legislation has been co-sponsored by Kadima and Israel Beitenu. With Labor in the coalition until the recent split, the government has had no real resistance to its agenda of non-action regarding the conflict, and easy access into the soft underbelly of Israeli democracy.

From being a Prime Ministerial hopeful, Livni has almost fallen off the radar.

Then over the last few weeks, an unexpected figure has emerged with one of the few serious critiques of government policy heard up to now. Of all people, retired head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, has suddenly unleashed a blunt-instrument attack on the backbone of Netanyahu’s entire weltanschauung: the Iran approach.

The feeling that finally, someone of authority questioned the government and penetrated the Israeli armor around an issue as ultra-sensitive as Iran was refreshing. While there is plenty of critique to be offered about Dagan, his recent statements place a long-lost check and balance on a government that seems to bow to no voice of reason.

Dagan’s main points (which the media has been reporting since his departure from the Mossad in January) are that the Iran’s nuclear armament is not so imminent, and Israel’s belligerence is foolhardy and dangerous. This week, at a conference at Tel Aviv University, he rocked the airwaves with a much more targeted strike (so to speak), lashing out against the idea of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In the same talk, according to the news media, Dagan also came out squarely in favor of Israel working with the Arab Peace Initiative.

The contrast between official opposition and the come-from-behind (or rather, inside) opposition was expressed spot-on by Aluf Benn in Haaretz today (although I swear I wrote it in an email to a friend yesterday). Unfortunately, the Internet version cuts out this important point, which I’ve translated here. (The English title also loses the punch of the Hebrew print version: “From Head of Mossad to Head of Opposition”)

Dagan’s message in his speech at Tel Aviv University yesterday, can be summarized by the sentence: ‘military restraint and diplomatic initiative.’ In his approach, Israel must not attack Iran, and must accept the Arab peace plan…This is the message we expected to hear over the last two years from the formal head of the opposition, Tzipi Livni, at the same level of volume and clarity. But it didn’t happen.  Livni preferred to sit in her corner, and wait until Netanyahu stumbles and falls, in order to inherit his throne.”

For a quick comparison, consider Livni’s appearance this week, also at Tel Aviv University. Livni and Bernard-Henri Lévy appeared together on a panel moderated by the New York Times bureau chief Ethan Bronner. She showed up half an hour late (maybe she didn’t think anyone would miss her?). The title of the panel was “Israel and the Arab Spring,” but when Bronner opened by asking Lévy about his very recent trip to Libya, Livni interrupted to demand first that Lévy respond to accusations that he supports Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Not that I minded the question, but the slight audience/moderator/speaker scuffle that ensued, together with Lévy’s response (about letting justice determine DSK’s guilt), wasted at least another ten minutes and I wonder if she intended it that way.

Finally, Mr. Bronner asked Livni about the topical and important questions of the day: What would she tell the government to do differently? Does she support negotiations based on the 1967 lines with swaps? What should Israel be doing now? Livni was no less than tongue tied. She stuttered out platitudes about “Any Palestinian leader who wants to make peace must have the support of the Arab world.” “Israel shouldn’t have to say yes or no – Israel should be initiating.” The kicker was: “We need to build trust.” Bronner tried to force specifics, asking her about the 1967 issue but all she could manage was the cryptic and hardly audible “there are no means…”

Her lack of policy was disconcerting, but perhaps worse was the fact that Livni seemed flustered by the most relevant and obvious questions. That’s not exactly Prime Ministerial – and certainly not a model for opposition.

I’m not a Dagan cheerleader; Israeli politics hardly needs one more intelligence or security figure. Nor will we have that any time soon – due to the “chill out” law requiring that senior military figures wait three years before entering politics.  But maybe Dagan can set an example for those who are supposed to be saying something, but aren’t. In the meantime, Dagan is invited to keep talking.


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