September 18, 2008 / 4:46 AM / 9 years ago

Livni backers see hope in another firm, female hand

By Douglas Hamilton

TEL AVIV, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Tzipi Livni does not look like a 70-year-old grandmother with a steel-grey bun, but Israel’s newly annointed prime-minister-in-waiting surely would not mind the comparisons with the late, revered Golda Meir.

They were much heard among Livni’s supporters on Thursday.

"Golda", as the senior generation of Israelis call her, was Israel’s first and so far only female leader, a novelty in the world of the late 1960s who became a political icon. She took the helm in 1969, already in her early 70s, and was quickly a force to reckon with on the world stage, earning praise from macho admirers as "the only man in the cabinet". Her nickname "Iron Lady" was later inherited by Margaret Thatcher.

Livni, 50 and a daughter of fighting contemporaries of Meir in the battles that carved out the Jewish state in the 1940s, is a mother of two and one of a new breed of women leaders, still uncommon in high office but not so much as when Golda had power.

After a decade in public life, Livni, who served in the Mossad intelligence agency in her youth, is now Israel’s foreign minister, just as Meir once was. Except she has sex appeal -- something supporters believe can help her turn around the popular fortunes of her scandal-battered Kadima party.

On Wednesday, Livni took another step in Meir’s footsteps, with victory in a party leadership election to replace premier Ehud Olmert, who faces possible indictment for corruption.

If she can hold the ring and forge a new coalition in a fractious parliament once he steps down, the career corporate lawyer will become the second woman leader of the Jewish state.

The public, as in the Israeli electorate, was actually not much in evidence in the elevation of Livni. Only 74,000 people -- Kadima party members -- were entitled to vote for their new party leader. And nearly half of them did not bother.

Nevertheless, Israeli media gave it the full election-night treatment, and many supporters hoped it would indeed prove to be the only poll the country holds for quite a while.

They say Israel above all must have stability.

"I hope, not for her, not for the party, but for the country that she can form a coalition, because we need stability," said Uri Bar-Lev, a 68-year-old supporter.

"She has a chance. She’s a woman of principle but she may be able, flexible enough to manoeuvre the various forces to find a coalition. There’s a lot of luck and chance in this business."

Given a "grace period" to let her create an agenda of her own "she might even reach the levels Golda did", Bar-Lev said.

Golda Meir did not, of course, enjoy blanket support from Israelis, even in the dark days of the Yom Kippur war of 1973, during which some blamed her for the country’s unpreparedness.

"People always remind us of Golda. She was blamed in the Yom Kippur war. But she could take the pressure. Dayan couldn‘t," said Michal Margalit, 30, evoking the other icon of that era, the eye-patched armed forces chief Moshe Dayan.

Livni is "seen as the real Kadima leader because she’s clean", she said after Livni beat former general Shaul Mofaz.

"The country is tired of corruption stories. She could bring something new," Margalit said. "She’s not left, she’s not right. She’s not a general. We’ve had too many generals."

Israel today is a long way from the embattled era of Golda Meir, the Milwaukee-raised girl who joined her chosen nation’s desperate fight for land with the Arabs.

Though she emphasises her own parents’ Zionist battle honours, Livni is a product of well-heeled, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, Israel’s confident, modern metropolis, and "a lawyer, who knows how to do a deal", in Margalit’s words.

The big deal now in question is peace with the Palestinians, which must in part be bartered for land Israel occupied in the 1967 Six Day War. That is a handover many Israelis oppose.

"I believe in her ability to lead us in peace ... to lead us to stability. We face some very difficult challenges," said the Immigration Minister Eli Aflalo of Kadima.

In a possible pointer to the future, Palestinian peace negotiators were also among those applauding a win for Livni. (Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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