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Q&A: Tzipi Livni: The Kadima leader on Peace, American Jews, and Iran

The Kadima leader says Israel is not the safest place in the world for Jews

David Samuels
October 08, 2010
Tzipi Livni in Tel Aviv, 2009.(David Silverman/Getty Images)
Tzipi Livni in Tel Aviv, 2009.(David Silverman/Getty Images)

When Tzipi Livni is uncomfortable with a question, she shifts in her chair. When she is called upon to lie or evade, she blushes. If something strikes her as funny, she laughs. She is not naturally inclined toward paradox or irony. Her patent lack of interest in deception makes politics seem like an odd career choice.

In a country and a region led by men with outsize egos and florid personality disorders, the leader of Israel’s opposition Kadima party is an anomaly because she seems so resolutely normal—the hard-working child of ideologues who devoted their lives to building the state. Along with President Shimon Peres, she is the acceptable face of Israeli democracy in world capitals that feel little affection for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A protégée of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Livni served as foreign minister under Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. She was the official lead Israeli negotiator during the 2007 Annapolis peace conference (while the real negotiating was done in secret by Olmert) and explained Israel’s wars to the world.

She began her career in an elite Mossad unit in Paris between 1980 and 1984, after being recruited into the agency at the age of 22 by a childhood friend named Mira Gal, who later became her chief of staff. “The risks were tangible,” Gal has said of those years, when the Jewish community in Paris was targeted by Palestinian bombs and machine-gun attacks and Israeli agents were said to have assassinated a key figure in the Iraqi nuclear program, an Egyptian physicist named Yehia el-Mashad, who was found in his hotel room with his throat slashed open and multiple stab wounds.

While it is assumed that Livni’s role as a young Mossad officer involved her formidable analytical skills and fluency in French, it is also worth noting that her father, Eitan Livni, served as chief operations officer for the Irgun during the Jewish underground’s bloody revolt against British rule in mandate Palestine.

I spoke to Livni in a modest room in an Upper East Side hotel. She was accompanied by a handler and a lone security man.

After Sept. 11, many in the American Jewish community had a renewed sense of a shared fate with Israel, especially in New York City. We were looking around nervously on buses and subways and being checked for weapons and bombs. Do you think that feeling of mutual understanding has dissolved?

Sept. 11 was a shock to the whole world. But I don’t think we should define ourselves through shared threats, because in doing so, we allow our enemies to define us. We need to define ourselves through a common vision that helps Israel put some meaning into the words “Jewish State.”

Many American Jews were shocked when the Rotem bill got wide publicity here. They felt that the State of Israel asks them to support the state and consider themselves partners in a shared vision, and here the State of Israel is saying that we, our children, our marriages, our rabbis, our customs, are not really Jewish.

I think that it’s a combination of a problematic system of election with very weak politicians. The problem is that a party like Likud, which is not ultra-Orthodox, gives the monopoly on the substance of the words “Jewish State” to the ultra-Orthodox. And this is something that affects not only our relationship with world Jewry but also my life in Israel. Together we need to change this bill. Kadima voted against it, and we hope the coalition will change it as well.

I was recently at a very nice dinner at the Plaza Hotel with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, the former national security adviser, and assorted luminaries of the American Jewish community, hosted by Danny Abraham to honor President Mahmoud Abbas. Do you think these kinds of events are helpful in promoting peace, or do they simply give the Palestinian leadership a propaganda card they can play here?

In order to understand the others, we need to sit and speak with them. Since the elections, I decided personally not to have these kinds of meetings with Palestinians, because according to the rules of Israeli democracy I need to give space to the prime minister to make the right decisions. But I think this is an opportunity not just for Mahmoud Abbas to make propaganda but also to be asked difficult questions.

Supporting Israel was a free ticket for American Jews when George W. Bush was president. The Jews could count on the fact that Bush would support Israel even while they voted for the Democrats. Now with Barack Obama in office, some American Jews seem to feel torn between their traditional attachments to the Democratic Party and to Israel.

I know at first that when Obama was elected and he said that he supports a two-state solution, there were some people in Israel who said that he was anti-Israeli. But this was basically the same vision as President Bush. I don’t think that everything is a zero-sum game, in which when the president of the United States says something, that means that he is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli, or vice versa. I think that part of the responsibility of leadership here and in Israel is to find the common interests and issues on which we can work together. I believe that the need to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon is a shared interest, and to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a shared interest.

You had a close relationship with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. What did you learn from her about how American administrations, regardless of party, perceive the conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and its neighbors?

For me it is clear that when it comes to the need of Israel to defend itself, the role of the United States of America is crucial. It was clear in our relations that we don’t have a hidden agenda. We played with open cards, I with her, and she with me, hopefully. There was the same kind of relationship between the prime minister and the president. This openness is something very important.

In World War II, the American Jewish community sent 550,000 troops to fight Hitler, and Jewish scientists were central figures in the invention and manufacture of the atomic bomb. They were the foot-soldiers of American democracy. Now they go to Harvard and start Facebook.

They contribute in another way.

But we have no connection to military life. When we see pictures from the war in Lebanon or Operation Cast Lead, we say, “This is wrong. Why should we support this? It’s terrible. This is not what Judaism in my synagogue was about. This is an army that’s killing people.”

I made a speech at Harvard, and someone asked me the same question. [Here, Livni’s handler states that the person who asked the question was also a Jew. Livni nods.] He said, “How can you speak about Jewish values when the Israeli army killed a thousand people in Gaza?” I said to him the following: “I don’t ask the world to turn a blind eye when Israel is attacking Gaza or Lebanon, and I’m willing to be judged by the entire world, as long as the world is judging us according to its own values. In each democracy, in the legal system, which is the expression of the values of the society, there is a distinction made between a murderer and someone who kills somebody by mistake. When a terrorist is looking for a child to kill, on the lines at a discotheque, at a pizza parlor, on buses, in schools, in kindergartens, that person is a murderer who is looking for children to kill. When an Israeli soldier in Gaza is trying to kill terrorists sometimes, by mistake, civilians are also killed. I expect the entire international community, and especially the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and other members of the free world, who send their soldiers to fight all over the world, where sometimes civilians are killed, will understand and support us in making that distinction.”

I expect the Jews to understand because they know that in Israel, these soldiers are our children. An Israeli soldier is raised on values of respecting human life, and they don’t change their values when they turn 18 and enter the army. Even though they feel uneasy when these pictures are coming, they need to understand that these things happen when you defend your own citizens.

But that’s not how American Jews live their lives. They go on Facebook, they go to the shopping mall, they go to Harvard—but by and large, they don’t go into the army. Their reality is the reality of most people in the West, who live in a world that is largely detached from the killing that our soldiers do every day in far-away places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

While you were talking I had the following thought, which I think is important, and perhaps not unrelated to what you just said. In the past, Israel said to world Jewry that Israel is the safe place to be when things deteriorate in the places where you live. Israel is the safe shelter, we are going to keep this shelter for you, we are going to fight for the existence of this shelter. In return, you need to defend Israel whenever it is necessary, whether it is with AIPAC, or whatever. This was the nature of the dialogue between Israel and the Jews in the Diaspora.

Today’s Israel is not a safer place for Jews to live than other places in the world. Sometimes Israel is more dangerous. I don’t expect world Jewry just to defend Israel unconditionally. It is fine for them to criticize the policy of any Israeli government, as long as they understand that there is a difference between criticism of the policy of any government and the basics. Because there is a process of delegitimization of the State of Israel, and some of the criticism is being used by those who do not accept the right of Israel to exist. Simultaneously, we need to work together in order to decide what the meaning of the Jewish State is in terms of our shared values, and to speak about it.

I’m going to ask you a nice question that relates to the major themes that brought you here after I ask you one more bad question.

[Laughs] OK.

How many more years do you think that the State of Israel can maintain a wide-ranging settlement policy in the West Bank and still speak to the American Jewish public and the leaders of democratic nations as a normal, functioning democratic state?

I believe that the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state require us to make one big decision, which is not easy for any Israeli leader, and this is to divide the land of Israel and to implement the vision of two states for two peoples. We need to choose between two different visions, one of which used to be the vision of the State of Israel, and is now the vision of a minority, which is that we need to have Jews living on the entire land—

That’s the vision that you grew up with. It was your father’s vision.

Yes. But I grew up with other values, including respect for others. That was also part of the vision of my parents and of Jabotinsky. Usually people are familiar with Jabotinsky for saying that both sides of the Jordan River will be ours. But that is not simply what Jabotinsky wrote.

Jabotinsky was the most human and realistic of the early Zionist leaders because he understood that the Palestinians were also a people with a history and human pride and that they would not simply accept the idea that the Jews would transform Palestine into a Jewish state.

So, you see, I grew up with this understanding and these values also. We need to divide the land so that we can have Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and a democratic state.

Former Prime Minister Olmert recently spoke in public about what he says are the terms he offered to Mahmoud Abbas, including the division of the land more or less on the 1967 borders and giving up Israeli sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem. He says that Abbas did not respond to his offer. If Netanyahu were to make the same offer and again there was no response, do you think that Israel simply needs to leave that land unilaterally the way Sharon left Gaza?

I supported the disengagement plan, but I prefer to have a peace treaty with the Palestinians. Any withdrawal from more land needs to be part of an agreement that this is the end of the conflict.

But what if that’s not possible?

I know it’s possible. I negotiated for nine months. Olmert’s offer to Mahmoud Abbas was not part of these negotiations. I believe that by building the negotiations in the right way we can end the conflict. At least, I believe we haven’t tried it the right way yet, so we don’t know what the result will be.

If you had to imagine a project that would help to build a sense of community and shared destiny between the American Jewish community and the government and the people of Israel, what would that be?

I think we should have a kind of roundtable in which we decide on our priorities. But from listening to the situation here and knowing the situation in Israel, I think it’s education. In Israel we have a young generation that—whether they are ultra-Orthodox and not willing to accept other streams in Judaism, or whether they are secular and for them being a Jew is being a Hebrew-speaking Israeli person and going to the army—they don’t relate to the understanding that they are part of something larger and have brothers and sisters all over the world. In the Jewish communities here, my understanding is that, as you said, some young people feel embarrassed by Israel, they don’t defend Israel, for them Israel is somewhere in the Middle East, and they don’t feel that they need to be that concerned when things deteriorate in Israel. I think we need to invest in education on both sides.

I am being told that I have exhausted my 30 minutes. Can I have another five minutes?

OK. Three minutes.

How successful has the campaign to isolate and delegitimize the Iranian government been over the past year?

I think that the economic sanctions were not effective enough. And since you were talking in terms of delegitimization, I think that it didn’t work, because you could see Ahmadinejad only a few weeks ago taking the stage at the United Nations—

I was there. The room was two-thirds empty. Except for the press gallery, which was full.

The world gives Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials stages to express their agenda of hatred. I think that part of the sanctions should be diplomatic sanctions that deny these people stages to express these ideas. This is another kind of sanction that would not hurt the Iranian people but target these officials. The people in Iran can feel that these leaders are being delegitimized and not being given stages to say whatever they want to say, including Ahmadinejad’s horrific words about Sept. 11, denying the Holocaust, and stating clearly that his vision is to wipe the State of Israel off the map.

Is it your sense that the Stuxnet worm—

Oh, no. Your last question was enough.

If the Iranians can’t be sure that they control their own nuclear facilities, it makes it less possible for them to believe in the efficacy of their program, or in a future bomb. You have nothing to say on this subject?


David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.