Who can blame Israelis for being disgusted with their politicians? A sex scandal brought down the last President; a former Finance Minister faces indictment over alleged fraud, theft and money-laundering; and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be indicted for taking more than $150,000, mostly in cash, from a New York businessman. A popular bumper sticker says, OLMERT, YOU DISGUST ME. The deepening sense of odium is reflected in Olmert's single-digit popularity ratings. He may be forced to resign within weeks, and already politicians have begun to handicap the succession.
It's probably no coincidence that the odds-on favorite to replace Olmert is a politician with an ironclad reputation for honesty and integrity--she famously insists on always picking up her own tab, even if it's just for a plate of hummus. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is in many ways Olmert's opposite. The Prime Minister is a jokey backslapper and charmer, a consummate pol with expensive tastes in cigars, flashy wristwatches and fountain pens; Livni, 49, is a no-nonsense former Mossad agent who eschews small talk, avoids the Bar Mitzvah circuit most Israeli politicians use to rack up favors and lives quietly in a modest Tel Aviv home with her husband and two sons. And she has strong views on probity in the public sphere. "I resent the idea that corruption comes with the political system," she tells Time in her glass-and-wood-paneled Jerusalem office. "It doesn't."
Livni is the most prominent member of Olmert's Kadima party to have urged that he step down. He has said he will stay on and fight to prove his innocence. (He admits taking money but says he spent it legitimately on campaign expenses.) But if pressure grows, he could step aside, allowing the party to pick a new leader. In a poll of Kadima members, 35% said they wanted Livni as the next party leader, giving her a 10% lead over her closest rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief. Livni doesn't try to hide her hopes. Friends who've asked her why she wants to become Prime Minister have received the reply, "I know I can do this job."
Livni was born into a political family: both her parents belonged to the Irgun, the armed Zionist militia responsible for attacks against the Arabs and the British in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s. But she chose to steer clear of politics, first serving in the army as a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces, then waiting on tables in the Sinai before joining Mossad, the Israeli foreign-intelligence agency, in which she served from 1980 to 1984. She learned elementary spy craft in Paris, including lessons on how to recruit agents. She also learned the importance of discretion, a valuable skill in her current role as chief Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians.
She left Mossad to become a lawyer and continued to avoid politics for 10 years, at a time when the country was being torn apart over the question of exchanging land for peace with the Palestinians. When she finally took the plunge, it was to help shape the terms of the exchange. "Tzipi said she'd prefer to be the negotiator than let someone else do it and give it all away," says Eran Cohen, her former political adviser.
Voted into the Knesset in 1999, she became a loyal supporter of Ariel Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud Party; when he created the more centrist Kadima, she followed. In six years, Sharon named her to seven different ministerial posts. Along the way, she broke with her parents' Zionist views; friends say she'd rather have a peaceful Israel to bequeath to her children. Livni also rejects the Likud Party's vision of an Israel encompassing both banks of the Jordan River. "In order for us to be a democratic and a Jewish state, in the long run, we'll have to give away some of the land," she says.
That doesn't make her a soft touch as a negotiator. Her Palestinian counterparts say she is fair but tough to the point of stubbornness, especially on Israel's refusal to accept Palestinian demands for the right of refugees to return to their old homes inside the Jewish state. Livni's reply: Let them return to a future Palestinian state. Livni has also earned the admiration of European colleagues, who cite her lawyerly logic and pragmatism. And she has made a close friend of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whom she calls at least twice a week. "Tzipi's strength to endure, indeed to excel, in what were difficult, often heartbreaking, conditions was a testament to her character," Rice wrote in a tribute last year when Livni was named one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People.
Her parents would have been proud--even if she strayed from their vision for Israel. When Livni accepted a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, she got a call from her ultra-Zionist mother Sarah: "This hurts me to say this, but we didn't fight for the state of Israel for our generation but for all generations to come. This is about your generation, and I trust your decision." After Sarah's death seven months ago, Livni found out that her mother's old comrades had turned against her because her daughter had betrayed the Zionist dream. A friend told Livni how Sarah had responded: "My daughter's always right." Israelis may soon have an opportunity to judge whether she's right for them.