Livni's Ill-Advised Threat Against Bibi

06.11.13 8:30 PM ET

Tzipi Livni was the first to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and she’s now the first to explicitly threaten to leave it. Her comments come in response to remarks made by Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, who mocked the idea that the current government is committed to or even interested in a two-state solution. Livni called on Bibi to reject this “Danonism,” and in response he had the Prime Minister’s Office put out a statement that they “do not represent the position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government of Israel.” In a later cabinet communiqué, Bibi was more explicit, noting that he would try to work with Secretary of State John Kerry to achieve an agreement “based on a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state, and on solid security arrangements based on the IDF.” Lots of conditions, but it was still an oblique rejection of Danon’s position.

The lack of agreement on the peace process was entirely expected. The coalition includes Livni’s Movement, whose reason for being created was to advance the peace process (alongside Livni’s own career), Jewish Home, whose leader wants to outright annex more than half of the West Bank (and some of whose members are even more radical in their demands on the issue than Bennett), and Yesh Atid, which seems unsure where it stands—its members have joined both the two-states caucus in the Knesset and the Greater Israel caucus.

Still, it’s a moment of truth for Livni. When she jumped at the chance to enter the coalition, I argued that this was good for peace. Regional, global, and political conditions were all converging to make this an opportune moment to advance negotiations.

But it was always a risky gambit for her. She agreed to join a government that contained staunch anti-Palestinian state advocates, including in Likud, and though she demanded and got the position of chief interlocutor with the Palestinians, she also accepted Bibi’s stipulation that his personal envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, attend her negotiations to keep an eye on her. She knew it would be a struggle. And now she knows that even if she left, the coalition wouldn’t fall—it has enough MKs without her six.

The threat to bolt, then, is more harmful than helpful. First, American pressure to achieve an agreement has been increasing lately. Bibi is more likely to respond to it if it’s combined with domestic political pressures from his rivals and allies. Now is the time to push the process forward, not abandon it. Second, Shelly Yachimovich has now explicitly said that if an agreement were to be signed and Jewish Home left, Labor would be willing to save the coalition and the agreement. Combined with the Knesset’s recent effort to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative, it seems more energy is being directed at a peace process.

Third, pulling out before any real efforts have been tried sends a message of hopelessness and defeatism more than anything else. Fourth, Bibi is more likely to be scared of threats to undermine him from within Likud—because they can more directly endanger his position—than another party that is currently polling at only four seats. If he sees he has support from outside the party, he can more effectively fend off these internal challenges.

Threatening to bring down the coalition is a time-honored tradition in Israel politics. But the threat only has meaning under the right conditions. For Livni’s sake and purposes, this isn’t that time.