Tzipi takes a stand

“Tzipi”! called out Israel’s Internal (or Public) Security Minister Avi Dichter, greeting Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday afternoon as she breezed into a conference room, surrounded by an unusually relaxed security escort, at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel – a favorite meeting place of Israel’s conservative elite – where she was scheduled to address an illustrious audience on the Challenges to Homeland Security.

Livni was glowing – confident, radiant, fit, tanned.

At the podium, she joked that when pictures of her and fellow Kadima Party politician Dichter hit the newspapers on Friday, “I can guarantee you that the papers won’t be mentioning homeland security or terror”.

In fact, the headlines were about her open break with Olmert, a bombshell she revealed to a crush of journalists in a corridor outside, just minutes before entering the conference room.

The journalists all immediately rushed off to file reports, without going into a Conference they were sure would be boring. And they missed hearing Livni tell the Homeland Security ministers of many of the main countries in the Western world that Hamas has to be deposed in the Gaza Strip before a Palestinian State is created.

Dichter, who was hosting the “First International Security Forum of Ministers of Interior and Homeland Security” at the Inbal Hotel, indicated elsewhere on Thursday that he would be among those who would run for the party leadership — if and when party primaries are held — to replace scandal-tainted Prime Minster Ehud Olmert.

Olmert himself claims that he will eventually be able to prove that he is innocent. He repeated on Thursday that he did not intend to resign, and added that he felt he is being done an injustice: “Some people think that every investigation requires a resignation. I do not agree”, he said.

Veteran Israeli journalists caution against placing too much credibility in the many leaks now coming from partisan sources close to the police investigation or to the Attorney General’s office. Olmert has survived previous reports of scandal.

But there has never previously been any reaction as significant as the gauntlet thrown down on Wednesday by Labor Party Leader Ehud Barak – Israel’s powerful Defense Minister and himself a former Prime Minister – who called on Olmert to step down “soon”.

Barak said Olmert could handle the matter in a number of ways – including by claiming disability. Olmert revealed last year that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and that he would eventually have to face surgery. But, that surgery was postponed so that Olmert could attend the Annapolis Conference last November, then so that he could host George Bush’s first visit to Israel as U.S. President in mid-January…and Olmert is scheduled to visit Washington again next week. However, Olmert may well soon decide that it is time to step aside (but not necessarily resign) to address his medical concerns.

In that case, Livni would take over as acting Prime Minister.

Livni, just before addressing the conference at the Inbal Hotel on Thursday, willingly entered a narrow – even claustrophobic — space under a stairwell to stand in a prepared spot in front of a poster for the Homeland Security meeting, where a throng of cameramen and photographers had been waiting, to make her first clear comments on the developing crisis.

Apparently referring to Ehud Barak’s statements, Livni told the journalists that “the reality has changed since yesterday … I suspect that Kadima needs to start right away acting for every eventuality, including elections.”

Livni said: “It is impossible to do nothing while Ehud Barak threatens to force early elections…”
YNet later reported that Livni said in an interview that “Kadima must set a date for primary elections as soon as possible. We must determine who will be the party’s candidate for the premiership in order to ease tensions. This has to be done. Things changed following the testimony of (American financier Morris) Talansky”.

Livni’s deliberate and pre-meditated remarks were, as the Israeli media is now reporting, an indication of the extent of the now-open rebellion in Olmert’s own Kadima party. Livni told the journalists that “In this way, we can operate to restore the trust in Kadima”.

Accusations immediately surfaced in the Israeli media of treacherous coordination (particularly coming from Livni’s Kadima rival Shaul Mofaz, Transportation Minister) between Livni and the Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, whose statements on Wednesday set in motion a new dynamic that will almost inevitably lead to early parliamentary elections (earlier, that is, than the next scheduled elections in 2010 – and perhaps even by the end of this year, as Barak has suggested).

But, Barak has denied any coordination, and Livni told the crush of journalists at the Inbal Hotel on Thursday that “The issue isn’t only legal, and the test on what is criminal and what isn’t is not only the personal business of the prime minister. It is related to the values and norms and their influence on the trust of the public. It infuriates me … and I am coming out against the attempt to impose improper norms on politics.”

Minutes later, in the Homeland Security Conference, Livni told the assembled ministers – including U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff – that new trends toward open borders and a world village was fine “when it comes to Coca Cola, but when it comes to Al-Qaeda, it is a threat to the whole world”.

She said that “national conflicts are being changed to religious conflicts … but religious conflicts are unsolvable”.

“There is no just cause for terrorism, but some groups’ agendas are ideological-religious, and they are not fighting to get rights but to deprive others of rights”.

“We are ready to fight for others to put their agendas on the table for discussion”, Livni said, referring here apparently mainly to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – “this is part of democratic values, and I believe deeply in democratic values, but not to spread their own religious agendas”.

She added that “We are working with those who represent the national interests of the Palestinian people, but we need to de-legitimize a Hamas that cannot accept the right of Israel to exist … or accept prior agreements”.

Livni called, at the Homeland Security Conference, for a new “universal code for democratic elections”.

Groups dedicated to armed struggle should have to make a choice before standing for elections about whether or not they will continue on this path — not after elections — “Let them do it before”.

“Before the [2006 Palestinian] elections, I tried to prevent the participation of Hamas”, Livni told the Conference. “According to the Israeli political system, and to our Supreme Court, this should not have happened. It’s the same in Europe (including Spain and Turkey), and it’s part of the new constitutions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The only place in the world that it’s not is in the Palestinian areas”.

In response to the concerns she expressed about Hamas’ participation in the elections, Livni said, she got two answers:”(1) ‘Don’t worry, Hamas will only get 20% of the vote’, and (2) ‘But look at Hizballah in Lebanon – the fact that they have become a part of the political system has made them more moderate’”.

Now, she said, “We can avert a process by which a Palestinian state becomes a failed state or an Islamic state. Part of the solution is to address the situation in Gaza and change the situation on the ground before the creation of a Palestinian state”, Livni said.

In an extremely unusual gesture, Israel’s Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter had invited his Palestinian counterpart, General Abdel-Razak al-Yahya, to attend (but as an observer) the Homeland Security Conference. In an even more unusual gesture, the Inbal Hotel had very prominently displayed the Palestinian flag on the wall of the building, to the immediate right of the Israeli flags hanging over the entrance door, and in parallel with the American flag displayed to the left of the entrance door. The flags of the other ministers participating – Germany, Canada, France, Spain, Poland, Italy – were ranged on either side.

Palestinian taxi drivers in Jerusalem said they were absolutely amazed – they had never seen such a prominent display of a Palestinian flag in West Jerusalem – and not last, but in the first ranking. “Who was there?”, they asked “Was it Mahmoud Abbas?”

No, it was not Abu Mazen, it was supposed to be the Interior Minister, General Abdel-Razak al-Yehya – the man who is working with U.S. Lt. General Dayton and his Israeli counterparts to build a new, reformed, Palestinian police and security force. But even he was not there – and the Homeland Security Conference organizers said they had no idea why the Palestinian Minister had not come.

No one could be reached immediately in Ramallah to explain the Palestinian Minister’s absence, either.

U.S. Homeland Security chief Chertoff told this reporter that he thought the Conference was “very good” – but when asked if he had been expecting to meet with the Palestinian Interior Minister, Chertoff said “I don’t want to get into this with the press”, and hurried off.