As Tzipi Livni, 50, heads toward Tuesday's national election for prime minister, she is reshaping the centrist Kadima Party in her image, reaching out to female and far-left voters who never supported the party founded by gruff former Gen. Ariel Sharon.
JERUSALEM — First there was the “healing through laughter” seminar. Then “Orit the Carpenter,” sort of a lesbian Martha Stewart, took the microphone and yelled: “We have seen our share of candidates over the years … all oozing testosterone and ego. But I have news for them: We, the woman, can do this!”
Later, transsexual pop star Dana International performed a bouncy disco song and announced, “I now formally invite you to the Diva Sisterhood.”
Cue the candidate: Tzipi Livni entered the room to a rapturous reception, working the crowd and accepting hugs and air kisses from the nearly 1,000 supporters (90 percent female) attending a “campaign happening for women” in Jerusalem.
As techno-music boomed and Livni danced awkwardly onstage, her husband, Natfali Spitzer, strolled the crowd, bouncing to the music and carrying his wife’s purse over his shoulder.
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The atmosphere Friday afternoon was somewhere between political rally and Lilith Fair. Splashes of pink and fuchsia leapt from posters, balloons and T-shirts. Female artisans at dozens of tables offered handmade jewelry and baby clothes, plus tarot card readings and personal life-coaching sessions.
As Livni, 50, heads toward Tuesday’s national election for prime minister, she is reshaping the centrist Kadima Party in her image, reaching out to female and far-left voters who never supported the party founded by gruff former Gen. Ariel Sharon.
Israel’s foreign minister is working to retain Kadima’s base while leapfrogging over the traditionally leftist Labor party and attracting voters further left on the political spectrum.
With the latest polls showing her narrowly trailing hawkish Likud Party leader Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Livni is honing an image that combines the strength and decisiveness Israelis seek in their leaders with a distinctly girl-power vibe — along with a dose of Barack Obama-styled hope and change rhetoric.
“She’s growing into the role and adapting the party to her personality,” said Edna Mayza, an Israeli playwright and prominent member of Israel’s leftist political establishment.
Mayza described herself as a longtime supporter of the far-left party Meretz. But this time she’s voting for Livni, hoping to stave off a right-wing tilt under Netanyahu and hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman.
Livni has portrayed herself as the only candidate who can deliver a negotiated peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu says the time is not right for so-called final status negotiations, while Lieberman opposes an independent Palestinian state.
“You’re not voting for someone, you’re voting against those who you don’t want in power,” said Henriette Dahan-Kalev, director of Gender Studies at Ben-Gurion University, who described Livni as a potential “default vote” for large segments of the left.
Despite years on the national political scene, Livni has never had to define herself on this large a stage.
She rose to public prominence as a protégé of the larger-than-life Sharon and followed him from Likud when he formed Kadima. When strokes incapacitated Sharon in 2006, she emerged as a lieutenant and sometime rival to his successor, Ehud Olmert.
The Israeli offensive in Gaza was conducted jointly by Livni, Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who heads the distant-third-place Labor Party.
“We never got to see her in action as an individual leader,” said Dahan-Kalev. “She was always part of a team.”
Now, as the dominant figure in Kadima, Livni is honing her public persona.
As a civilian female competing with Netanyahu and Barak, both former generals, Livni consistently talks tough on security. She generally minimizes the significance of her gender.
“There’s a twisted logic which says that defense issues belong to men,” she said in a speech.
But at Friday’s female-targeted event, Livni displayed a different side. Her speech mentioned security issues only in passing and focused on the need for hope, optimism and a better country for Israel’s children.
Livni’s recent push hasn’t gone unnoticed by her rivals. A recent Likud TV ad appealed to female voters and pointed out her checkered record on women’s issues, including parliament votes against expanding alimony payments, extending maternity leave, and child-care compensation for working mothers.
“Livni always voted against you,” the ad concluded. “Why should you vote for her?”
A longtime follower of Livni’s political career, Dahan-Kalev said she doubted whether Livni could tap the female voting bloc effectively at this late stage. Livni was “never really interested in gender issues,” she said. “She’s too late. She missed the train.”