A swanky new ballroom on North Broad Street is quite a distance from Tzipi Livni’s usual political home turf. But during her Oct. 14 speech here, Israel’s onetime foreign minister and deputy prime minister sounded an awful lot like a candidate.
Maybe that’s because a marquee politician — even one who is out of office — may just automatically come across like a contender for something. But there’s also rampant speculation that the onetime Kadima Party leader might make a dramatic return to Israeli politics and even stage a challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January’s elections.
“The prime minister decided to have early elections, and some people thought that I should cut short my participation in this event and go back directly to Israel and say something,” Livni told more than 600 people who attended the second annual gala dinner for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces’ Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey Chapter.
“But I said, ‘No, I’m going to be here tonight,’ ” said the 52-year-old who spent 13 years in the Knesset, first as a member of the Likud Party and then as a member of the centrist Kadima Party.
Netanyahu announced last week that Israel would have early elections, citing an inability to pass a budget under the current coalition alignment. Israeli lawmakers voted on Oct. 16 to dissolve the Knesset and set elections for a new government on Jan. 22.
In her speech, Livni stuck to some of the major themes of her political career. The scion of a right-wing, Revisionist family has come to embrace the idea of a two-state solution. She has repeatedly said it is the only way to preserve Israel as both a Jewish and Democratic state.
“It’s not about who has more rights on the land, it is about how we can create and shape a better future for our children,” said Livni. Pursuing negotiations “is not a favor to the Palestinians. Not to the Arabs, and not even to the president of the United States of America. This represents our own values.”
She also spoke about the need to counter efforts worldwide to delegitimize the Jewish state and how the United States must continue to lead the international community in opposing Iran’s nuclear program.
“The United States needs to send a message of determination. When the U.S. says that we are going to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, they need to know that all the options are on the table,” said Livni, herself the mother of an Israeli paratrooper.
Livni has long been thought of as a tough pragmatist and, in a country ripe with leaders tainted by corruption, she has cultivated a clean reputation.
After the election three years ago, Livni’s party won the most seats and she appeared poised to become the second female prime minister in Israel’s history. But she was outmaneuvered by Netanyahu in coalition negotiations and found herself leading the opposition, often criticizing Netanyahu for not being more active in negotiating with Palestinians.
In March, Kadima members ousted her as party leader. Shortly afterward, she resigned from the Knesset.
Her name has been floated as a potential dark horse to defeat the heavily favored Netanyahu, but it is not clear what party she would lead. Reportedly, she is weighing her options before deciding on whether to throw her hat in the ring.
The Israeli media have also mentioned former premier Ehud Olmert as a possible contender. He was recently cleared of corruption charges, but still faces outstanding legal issues.
Livni’s name was mentioned in a recent Ha’aretz report that stated that more than half of all donations made to Israeli politicians’ campaigns over the past two years came from overseas contributors. According to the paper, Livni raised $415,000 from foreign contributors, or 58 percent of the total sum raised.
A number of politicians and communal leaders attended the FIDF dinner at Vie, a relatively new venue across the street from Congregation Rodeph Shalom.
FIDF raises funds for a variety of projects that help Israeli soldiers with everything from medical care to paying for college.
Larry Magid, the legendary Philadelphia concert promoter who traveled to Israel for the first time last year, was the honoree. In his short speech, Magid spoke about how, upon Israel’s independence, his grandfather gave him a silver spoon with the engraved image of David Ben-Gurion.
“Tonight is important, and the IDF is important,” Magid said. “Tonight, I represent all the children who got a spoon.”
Livni told the crowd that the evening represented a “concentrated injection of Zionism.”
Throughout her political life, she said, she has faced questions about her parents’ involvement in the Irgun, the pre-state paramilitary organization that some have labeled, in retrospect, a terrorist group. In discussing the West’s fight against extremism and terrorism, she addressed this issue directly.
“They were freedom fighters. They were not terrorists because they acted against the British Army and not against civilians,” she said. “I ask the international community to judge us according to its own values.”
Material from JTA was used in this report.