Interview: Tzipi Livni
Tzipi Livni led the Kadima Party to a plurality victory in Israel’s 2009 Knesset election but became leader of the opposition after Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud—which garnered one seat less—was able to form a larger coalition. Livni, a lawyer, served as a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces and in the Mossad. First elected to the Knesset in 1999, she served in senior government positions including minister of justice and minister of foreign affairs.
Q. Do you share the Israeli public’s deep-seated resistance to President Obama’s efforts to pressure Israel to stop building new housing for Jews in East Jerusalem?
A. Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem are part of the Israeli consensus. I disagree with how [Prime Minister] Netanyahu is handling the issue, however. We have a prime minister who tries to keep everyone happy without taking a clear, direct path. This weakness is leading us to a diplomatic collapse. In the past, I said specifically after earlier criticism from Washington that Gilo, on the capital’s southern flank, will always be a part of Jerusalem and Israel. Since ’67, the United States has never accepted any settlements or building activities over the green line.
Q. One year after elections, is the Likud-led coalition becoming stronger?
A. The real issue is not whether this coalition can survive but where the coalition wants to lead. If Netanyahu is primarily driven only to survive, then Israel has a serious problem. Leading a government is not a reality show in which you get a million dollars for just crossing the line at the end. It’s about vision and leadership, and if you merely survive by doing nothing, it doesn’t serve the interests of the State of Israel.
Q. What would a Kadima government do differently today considering that the Palestinians are split between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Gaza?
A. Kadima would have continued the negotiations from where they stopped. I negotiated with the Palestinians for nine months. We made some real progress, but it was stopped because of the elections and the changes that followed. With Kadima leading, we could have had a peace treaty one year later, perhaps. The region and the world are divided between extremists and moderates, and that same division is reflected in the Palestinian Authority. Hamas doesn’t represent the aspirations of the Palestinians for a national state. Rather they represent extreme religious ideology, similar to that of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Q. Do you have a plan?
A. We must work in a dual strategy—on one hand fighting against Hamas, stopping terror. This was the idea behind the operation in the Gaza Strip over a year ago, when we entered to fight all the terror attacks against our citizens [that took place] for years before the operation. Simultaneously, we need to…work with moderates to reach a peace treaty. A Palestinian government must accept the requirements of the international community, including the right for Israel to exist and the renunciation of violence and terrorism and, of course, the changes in terms of security that are needed to establish a Palestinian state.
Q. You envision a mutually arrived-at solution?
A. Yes, an agreement that is the outcome of the interests of both sides. Once we have this, this is the only agreement really required. No more Arab plans, French plans, Swedish plans. It brings the Palestinians to a state of their own and to change the situation in Gaza. It would be the ultimate test for Hamas. Such an agreement could only be signed with the support of the entire Arab world. So it [would] put the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and the Arab world on one side and Hamas on the other side.
Q. Once Netanyahu accepted the idea of a two-state solution and froze settlements in the West Bank for 10 months, why didn’t Kadima join the coalition?
A. It is not a matter of words, it is a matter of understanding what needs to be done to end the conflict. It took Netanyahu years before he could bring himself to say “two states for two peoples.” Netanyahu’s offer was that Kadima join the government without the Labor Party, to be a minority in a government in which a majority is right wing by Israeli standards.
Q. What were your conditions for joining the government?
A. I offered Netanyahu something that was completely different—a coalition based on Likud and Kadima, based on the idea of two states. Netanyahu refused.
Q. What are your party’s leading values?
A. Kadima’s vision is to keep Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people, a Jewishly demographic state reflecting its values, a secure state living in peace…. From this starting point, we base our decisions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I know there are those in Israel who believe the goal is for Jews to live in Israel throughout the entire land. Due to demographic realities, this outlook might lead to the weakening of the Jewish majority, even to the point of [having] a state with a non-Jewish majority. It might be a democracy, but not a Jewish state. To me, the Jewish state means playing a part in Jewish history, tradition and not only from a religious perspective. Unfortunately, since the creation of the State of Israel, we have failed to define our very essence in a formal constitution. Creating one is an extremely important next goal.
Q. What would such a cornerstone document contain?
A. The goal would be to bring substance to the words “Jewish state.” For example, the Law of Return would be the first article for the future constitution as a basic law, enabling all Jews to come as citizens to live in Israel. The symbols of the State of Israel, some substance regarding Shabbat and the holidays, something that represents to the vast majority of Israelis that Israel is homeland to the Jewish people in a national, not only religious, perspective.
Q. You would like to see a more pluralistic approach to religious practice?
A. I criticize the way Likud gives the Orthodox parties in the Knesset the monopoly on religion, making it something that most Israelis, who are not religious, cannot accept. I believe it is very important for a national identity. This also leads to reforms in education in both the secular and religious schools, giving tools to everybody to participate. The word democracy must be translated into equal rights. Finally, the idea of two nation states means that each and every Arab citizen has an equal right as an individual—but they cannot demand national rights in Israel, which is the Jewish state.
Q. Prior to your recent visit to England, a loophole in British law—allowing individual citizens to initiate warrants for war crimes—resulted in the threat of the police there detaining you. What was the outcome?
A. I first heard about it when Tony Blair was visiting Israel. I was foreign minister during the [Gaza] war and I am proud of my decisions [during the war], so my first thought was this cannot be. The second thought was about my parents who served their time in British jails before Israel’s independence. In my son’s room there is a “Wanted” picture of my father from the British Mandatory police. [The story of the threat of arrest] was embarrassing for the British government. I represent the idea of peace, not only the need to fight terror…. At the end of the day, Britain’s foreign minister called me to apologize. But there is still a risk to Israeli officials or soldiers visiting these places. In other countries, this same trap could apply to U.S. or British soldiers.
Q. Has the past decade brought significant improvement to the public role of women in Israel?
A. It is not a yes or no answer. We have more women in the Knesset, but it is still far less than 50 percent. I was a candidate for prime minister, but many men still cannot accept a woman as prime minister. [But] women on the grass-roots level are actively supporting women in politics. We have more young women working outside the home. We have also a large number of single mothers with economic difficulties whose needs must be addressed by the government. So I believe that…the situation is better and moving in the right direction. But we are not there yet.