Livni was born on July 8, 1958, as Tzipora Malka in north Tel Aviv. Her parents both belonged to right-wing Revisionist Zeev Jabotinsky’s Betar movement, which morphed into Herut and then today’s Likud party. They were also both fighters in the Irgun. Her mother, Sarah (Rosenberg) Livni, once helped rob a train carrying salaries for British Mandatory officials while disguised as a pregnant woman. Her Polish-born father, Eitan (Benozovich), Livni, was the Irgun’s chief operations officer. He was arrested in 1946 by the British for taking part in an attack on a military base and sentenced to 15 years in jail. A year later, he escaped in the famous Acre prison breakout and was sent on an Irgun mission to Europe.
Livni’s parents' marriage was the first ever in the newly declared State of Israel, as they were the only couple to get special wartime dispensation from the rabbinate to marry on May 15, 1948, during the counting of the Omer when marriage is usually forbidden. Her father became a Likud Knesset member in 1974 and served until 1984, setting the political stage for this daughter.
Tzipi was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces in 1976, becoming a lieutenant and an instructor at the officers’ training school before her release in 1979. That year, she enrolled at Bar-Ilan University for a law degree; the following year, she was recruited for service by the Mossad. From 1980 to 1984, Livni was an employee of the Mossad and became Director of the Registrar of Government Corporations. In 1983, she interrupted her law studies when sent on a sensitive mission to Paris, though she resigned from the Mossad soon afterward.
In 1996, in the wake of the Oslo Accords and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Livni decided to enter politics, running for a place on the Likud Knesset slate and taking the 36th spot on the list. Although Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu won the election, the party garnered only 32 seats, leaving Livni out of the Knesset. Netanyahu, however, soon named her director general of the Government Companies Authority, where she saw through the most ambitious privatization program in Israeli history, selling off government companies for $4 billion in just two years.
In 1999, she was finally elected to the Knesset, taking 18th place on the Likud list in an election where Likud won 19 seats. She became a member of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee and the Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women. In 2001, when Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister, Livni's political career took off as she quickly became part of the Prime Minister’s inner circle.
In March 2001, Tzipi Livni was appointed Minister for Regional Cooperation. In February 2003, Livni was appointed Minister of Immigrant Absorption in the 30th Government, in which she also served as Minister of Housing and Construction. In June 2004, using her lawyerly expertise, Livni helped draft a compromise agreement on the disengagement between Sharon and three senior cabinet rebels: Netanyahu, Silvan Shalom, and Limor Livnat. Later that year, she won the “Quality of Government” medal for her contribution to clean government in Israel. In December 2004, Livni was appointed Minister of Justice and, in January 2006, Minister of Foreign Affairs.
On November 20, 2005, Livni left the Likud with Sharon and other party moderates to set up the new, center-leftist Kadima Party. As one of the founding members of Kadima, Livni helped draft the new party’s platform and was placed third on the party electoral list. She did not challenge Ehud Olmert, who was second, for the leadership when Sharon suffered a major brain hemorrhage in January 2006.
In May 2006, Tzipi Livni was appointed Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs in the 31st Government of Israel. She also served as Minister of Justice from November 2006 until February 2007. In April 2007, Time magazine recognized Livni as one of the world’s100 most influential people.
On September 17, 2008, Livni beat out political rival Shaul Mofaz in the Kadima Party primary to take over the party's leadership.
In the February 2009 Knesset elections, Livni ran as head of Kadima. Though the election results gave Kadima the most seats, Livni could not form a coalition due to the large rightist bloc. President Shimon Peres, therefore, asked Netanyahu, whose Likud party garnered one less seat than Kadima, to form a government, and Livni became head of the opposition.
In November 2011, several Kadima members opposed to Livni's leadership called for a primary to be held as soon as possible, and a primary election was set for March 2012. Livni lost by a wide margin (64.5% to 35.5%) to challenger and former defense minister Shaul Mofaz.
On May 1, 2012, Livni officially resigned from the Knesset after more than thirteen years as a parliamentarian. In her resignation speech, Livni said, “I have had the privilege of being among Kadima’s founders, a party that aims to promote a (government) based on responsibility and hope – one that can resist extortion. Today, Kadima is the biggest political party. I wanted to introduce a different kind of politics in Israel, one that prefers principles to seats, one that promotes the greater good over personal interests, and one free of cynicism and power-drunkenness.”
In November 2012, Livni announced that she would be returning to parliamentary elections for a new party - HaTnuah. She was soon joined by former Labor leaders Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz. In the January 2013 elections, HaTnuah polled well and won 6 seats in the Knesset, becoming the seventh largest party. Livni's old party Kadima barely crossed the electoral threshold, garnering only 2.09% of the vote and winning just two seats.
Despite the six seats, Livni was outwardly disappointed with the results. “It’s no secret that we entered the race late and no secret that we thought the issue we believe in and will not stop believing in for a moment – the diplomatic issue – would have greater support. But that’s democracy,“ Livni said from party headquarters in Tel Aviv.
On February 19, 2013, Livni held a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing that her HaTnuah Party would become the first to join his coalition following the January 2013 elections. Livni was appointed as the incoming Justice Minister and was tapped to lead the Israeli peace negotiating team.
Two-and-a-half months ago, we established HaTnuah with the intention of fighting for a peace deal, Livni said at the press conference.
Iran, Syria, the Palestinians are not less pressing than these domestic issues. Livni added a call for other parties to
set aside their campaigning and join a wide Netanyahu-led coalition.
Due to various disagreements about budget measures, settlements, and a controversial Israeli Jewish nationalism bill, Livni was fired on December 2, 2014, along with Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Netanyahu claimed that the two were causing gridlock within his cabinet, which was
forced on [him], and stated that he felt
harshly attacked by them.
After the dissolution of the Knesset in December 2014, Labor leader Isaac Herzog and Livni announced a joint slate between Labor and HaTnua, called the Zionist Union, to contest the 2015 elections to keep Netanyahu from securing a fourth term as prime minister. The partnership galvanized Israel's center-left voters; nevertheless, the Zionist Union won only 24 mandates to the Likud’s 30. Following the elections, Livni and the Zionist Union went into opposition.
Labor leader Avi Gabay announced that Labor would not run with HaTnua in the April 2019 Israeli legislative election, surprising Livni. Electoral polls showed that HaTnua was not close to crossing the 3.25% electoral threshold. Livni announced her retirement from politics and HaTnua’s withdrawal from the election to avoid splitting the center-left vote.
In September 2019, Tzipi Livni was named a Fisher Family Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.
Livni is married to accountant Naftali Spitzer. They have two children, Omri and Yuval.
Sources: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Yuval Karmi, “Livni Secures 7 MK’s to Split Kadima,” Ynet News (February 2012).
Elad Benari, “Mofaz wins Kadima leadership, calls on Livni to stay,” Arutz Sheva (March 28, 2012).
Niv Elis, “Disappointed Livni mum on coalition option,” Jerusalem Post (January 23, 2013).
“Netanyahu Echoes Livni, Extends Hand toward Palestinians,” Jerusalem Post (February 19, 2013).
Leslie Susser, “Marching to the Livni Beat,” The Jerusalem Report (July 7, 2008).