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Profile: Tzipi Livni

Tzipi Livni
Ms Livni underwent a major ideological transformation with Ariel Sharon

Tzipi Livni, the leader of Israel's ruling Kadima party, has come from relative political obscurity to within a step of the prime ministership in just 10 years.

The 50-year-old lawyer, mother-of-two and former agent for Mossad Israel's foreign intelligence agency has moved from a strongly Zionist nationalist background to become a leading Israeli advocate of a two-state solution with Palestinians.

She is presented by her supporters as a refreshing break from the former generals and corrupt male politicians who have dominated Israeli politics.

But that also means she lacks the military background that many Israeli voters consider as a prerequisite to lead this most security-conscious society.

But she has racked up the highest-level diplomatic experience in more than two years as foreign minister - only the second woman in the role in Israel's 60-year history.

She has spearheaded negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority - though the talks have very much hit the rocks - and been at the forefront of advocacy for Israel's military solution to Hamas control of the Gaza Strip.

She is also untainted by the corruption allegations that have dogged many members of the senior political establishment in Israel.

Sharon's protege

Ms Livni's relatively short parliamentary career began when she was elected to the Knesset in 1999 for the right-wing Likud party.

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Katya Adler looks at the career of Tzipi Livni

She was a protege of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who in 2001 named her minister for regional development.

Other ministerial portfolios followed - immigrant absorption, housing and construction, justice and later foreign affairs.

She became a close adviser to Mr Sharon and in 2005 helped to broker his controversial pull-out of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip.

When he jumped the Likud ship in the autumn of 2005, amid splits over the so-called disengagement plan, he set up the Kadima party and Ms Livni went with him.

She was a beneficiary of the mass resignations from the government by Likud members, being promoted to the position of foreign minister.

And she retained the position after the March 2006 general election which Kadima won, although her political mentor was out of the picture - before the campaign began in earnest, Sharon had a massive stroke from which he never recovered.

Right-wing background

Becoming a proponent of Sharon's unilateral disengagement and latterly backing former US President George W Bush's call for the formation of a Palestinian state was a major ideological transition for Ms Livni.

KEY DATES
Tzipi Livni with UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland in Haifa, July 2006
1958: Born in Tel Aviv
1983: Resigned from Mossad to marry and finish law studies
1999: Elected as MP for Likud party
2005: Joined newly formed Kadima party, becomes foreign minister
Both her parents were key figures in the militant Zionist group Irgun - her Polish-born father serving as its chief of operations.

The group were branded terrorists, for acts such as the bombing of King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 and (with the Stern Gang) the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948.

After the state of Israel was founded in 1948 former members joined mainstream politics and in 1973 participated in the formation of the right-wing Likud party in 1973.

With this background, the young Livni was raised on the dream of "Greater Israel" with Israeli sovereignty over much more land than it controlled between 1948 and the 1967 war.

It is therefore the result of a major sea-change that she, with Ariel Sharon blazing the trial, came to believe that Israel's survival required a two-state solution with the Palestinians - whose numbers would otherwise inevitably outstrip the numbers of Jewish Israelis in the future.

In 2006, she told the New York Times: "I believe, like my parents, in the right of the Jewish people to the entire land of Israel. But I was also raised to preserve Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people and [to preserve] democratic values.

"So choosing between my dreams, and my need to live in democracy, I prefer to give up some of the land."

War controversy

Ms Livni served as foreign minister throughout the rule of Mr Sharon's unpopular and scandal-prone successor, Ehud Olmert.

Livni visits damage to Israeli home during Gaza offensive
She was able to play the role of war leader during the Gaza offensive
There have been suggestions she was largely frozen out of military-political decision-making during the war in Lebanon in 2006, although she was very involved in negotiating the UN ceasefire resolution.

Mr Olmert was heavily criticised for the handling of the war, which was condemned as an indecisive, badly managed campaign, carried out by ill-prepared forces.

One of Ms Livni's most controversial moments was her call for his resignation in the wake of an official report into the war - and then her failure to quit herself when he refused to step down.

She continued to keep him at arm's length as he became engulfed in a corruption scandal, although the outgoing PM denies allegations.

And when he decided to step down to allow a new Kadima leadership in July 2008, she was able to seize the leadership in a hard fought contest against cabinet colleague Shaul Mofaz which she won by a narrow margin.

Her meteoric rise may have been checked by not being able to form a government - hence the need for the 10 February vote - but she has now had the chance to appear in the guise of war leader.

She was a member of the three-member team political team, with Mr Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who together oversaw the 22-day Israeli offensive against Gaza beginning on 27 December 2008.

She may not have won any friends among champions of Palestinian rights - especially her statement that there was not a humanitarian crisis in Gaza - but there was overwhelming approval among Israeli voters for the conduct of the war.

Low profile

Until she reached the top of the Israeli political ladder, Ms Livni kept a low media profile, but she has been able to shake off her reputation of being cold and aloof.

But she has tried to keep her family out of the limelight. She is married to Naftali Spitzer, who owns an advertising agency.

The couple have two sons - Omri and Yuval.

Tzipora Malka Livni was born and raised in Tel Aviv, and has been described as sporty, intelligent and a tomboy during her school days.

She completed her military service, and went on to complete a four-year stint in the intelligence agency Mossad in her early 20s.

Little is known about her espionage assignments, except that some of her work involved living in Paris. She speaks fluent English and French.

She later graduated from law school at Bar-Ilan University and practised as a lawyer for a decade before entering politics.

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