Tzipi Livni has been called the most powerful woman in Israel since Golda Meir. Born to a prominent right-wing family, Livni spent several years working for the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, before entering politics. In the decades since, she has held eight different cabinet posts—including minister of justice and minister of foreign affairs—and undergone a dramatic ideological evolution. First elected to the Knesset as a member of Likud, in 2005 she joined Kadima, a new centrist party founded by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. A staunch supporter of the peace process, Livni created her own party, Hatnua, in 2012 and then joined forces with Labor to form the Zionist Union before the 2015 election. Now a leading member of the opposition, Livni recently spoke to Foreign Affairs’ managing editor, Jonathan Tepperman, in Tel Aviv.
When you speaks to Israelis today, you’re apt to hear one of two competing narratives. According to the first, things are better than ever: the economy is thriving, most of Israel’s enemies are in disarray, and the current government reflects the will of the people.
The other narrative is the complete opposite: the region is more dangerous than ever, Israel faces growing international isolation, and the current government is steadily reducing civil liberties and freedoms. What’s your version?
It’s very clear that here in Israel there are now not only two different states of mind but also two different views about what Israel needs and what Israel is. And your view of reality depends on which of these two views of Israel you hold.
Does that mean Israel is now more polarized than ever before?
Yes, yes. It started before the last election, but the election crystallized the idea—quoting Netanyahu—that there’s a gap between these two camps. He was right then. And the things that he and his government have done since then have made this gap grow wider. Those that are not in the government feel that what is happening is completely against our understanding of what Israel is, what its values are, what Judaism is, what democracy is.
Is Israeli democracy in decline?
We are fighting to keep Israel a democracy—not just in terms of its electoral system but also in terms of its values. A lot of those on the other side see democracy only as a question of who is the majority. This is why they are trying to weaken the role of the Supreme Court. And this is why Netanyahu wants to control the press.
In a democracy, you need to have a strong judicial system. You need freedom of speech, you need art, and you need a free press. And all these things are under threat right now. We in the opposition need to fight for these values. We need to push the idea that democracy is a matter of values, and not just the rule of the majority.
Do you think you can win this battle? The right has controlled Israeli politics for years now. The current government is the most hard-line in Israel’s history. Netanyahu seems to have very few plausible challengers. Given all of that, plus the country’s changing demographics, plus the public’s frustration with the peace process, plus the chaos in the region, can the left or the center really make a comeback?
The good thing about having a government like this one is that it makes everything very clear. The more bluntly they speak, the easier it becomes to rally the support of our own camp.
What we need to do now is to go to our base and say, “Listen, it’s now clear what this government represents. If they continue, they will take us to the point of no return in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They will change the nature of Israeli democracy.”
And is your own camp big enough to win an election?
It’s 50-50—for now. You are right: Israel is changing in terms of demographics. But when [the government] says that the majority rules, they’re wrong, because Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett represent a minority in Israel. Their ideology of a Greater Israel, and an Israel that’s more Jewish than it is democratic—that’s a minority opinion here. What we need to do is to find and speak to those who are our natural partners.
But success also requires leadership among the various parties in the center and on the left, right? They must be prepared to join forces.
It requires that voters understand that in order to win, they need to work with one leader, one party, and not spread their votes all over. But as time passes, people’s despair is growing. So it depends on us. What I’m trying to do right now is to say, let’s put on the table our basic vision for the future of the state of Israel. Not a specific platform, but a general view of what needs to be done about peace and security. And let’s speak about the nature of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. It’s not more Jewish and less democratic, or more democratic and less Jewish. And of course we have to share our views about the economy and society.
We need to put it all on the table, not only for voters but also for the heads of the different parties. They also need to make a choice. Everybody needs to take a side.
Ever since 1996, Netanyahu has said openly that the way to create a permanent right-wing government in Israel is to change the elite—not just by working through politics but by creating new think tanks, changing the media, changing culture, all to replace the old secular Ashkenazi elite with a new, more Sephardic, religious, right-wing one.
So said the Ashkenazi leader.
Well, that is an irony. But is he succeeding?
For me, this is not a problem. I know how [the right] feels, OK? I was there. I was born to parents who were not accepted by the establishment in the days when the state of Israel was created. And those Jews who came from Arab states were also not accepted. They felt that the establishment patronized them. I can understand that feeling.
So giving more attention to Sephardim and everything—it’s more than OK. It’s necessary. But what Likud is doing now is just what was once done to them.
And it’s even more problematic than that, because they’re trying to delegitimize those that criticize the government. Netanyahu is using the resentment of those who felt patronized by the old elite to shut the mouths of those who criticize him.
Is there a significant difference between what he wants and what his allies, like Bennett and Shaked and Regev, want?
For Netanyahu, it’s not about ideology. It’s about using the feelings of those who were patronized in the past to say, “OK, now we are taking over, and you will get our support.”
For the others you mentioned, it is about ideology. So they and Netanyahu have different reasons for doing what they do, but the outcome is the same.
For us, it’s about keeping Israel a Jewish democratic state. The only way to do that is by dividing the ancient land of Israel into two different states. If we fail to do so, or if we annex the territories, we will face a clash between Israel as a democracy and Israel as a Jewish state.
A vast majority of Israelis want to keep Israel a democracy. If you asked them, they might say that they are right wing. But if the next question was, would you support a two-state solution with security? they would say yes.
A moment ago, you spoke about the need to convince voters of the stakes involved in choosing you instead of the right. Yet as we speak, the leader of your own coalition is in talks with the prime minister about forming a national unity government. What do you think of this?
My responsibility is to ask, how can I serve my ideology and my voters? So the question is, will joining the government allow us to implement our vision, or serve Netanyahu’s vision?
To answer that, you have to ask, if we joined the government, would it be to create a true unity government or just a broader coalition for Netanyahu? Those are two different things. Unity governments are based on an understanding among the major parties that there are things we can agree on and implement together. This is not what Netanyahu is proposing. He is talking about a broader coalition to help him and his natural partners.
So I’m against it, because it would betray our voters and what I believe in.
Would you be prepared to leave the party if it joined the government?
I have my own party.
Then would you leave the Zionist Union, your coalition with Labor?
I hope that will not happen, but yes. What’s the use of being in politics if it means serving someone else’s vision?
You asked me before about Netanyahu, whether he thinks like the Jewish Home or he thinks like us. I’d answer by quoting that old line: “Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Let’s return to the peace process. You’ve spoken in the past about the dangers of not doing anything to address the situation. But given the disarray on the Palestinian side, and the fact that Abu Mazen’s [Mahmoud Abbas’] days are numbered, what can be done?
Israel needs to decide which road we want to take; we need to decide on our destination. If the destination is Greater Israel, it doesn’t matter whether there’s a partner on the other side.
But if your destination is a secure Israel that is Jewish and democratic, then it can’t be on the entire land. That is our GPS setting. To get there, we’d prefer to have an agreement with the Palestinians, because that is the way to create a secure border, a demilitarized Palestinian state, and an end to the conflict. Because you can’t end the conflict without their consent.
And if we cannot end the conflict tomorrow morning, let’s at least start moving toward our goal. That means not doing things that take you in the opposite direction. Netanyahu says his destination is two states for two peoples. But he’s going in the other direction.
So what do you propose?
First, we need to win the trust of the international community and the Palestinians by saying this is where we want to go. Not for you, not as a favor to the United States. But because it’s in our own interests.
Second, we would stop doing things that serve the different vision for the state of Israel.
Stop expanding settlements, especially those outside the fence that are not going to be part of Israel. Then let’s change the atmosphere. Let’s show we’re serious. Let’s give the Palestinians the right to build in Area C. Let’s see whether these and other confidence-building measures can create enough trust to relaunch negotiations.
And then in the negotiations, we need to find out what they really want. Are they willing to end the conflict and take steps that would serve their interests as well?
And we need to work completely differently with the international community. We have lost their trust by speaking about two states but then acting in ways that serve the vision of a Greater Israel.
There are certain interests that nobody in Israel would give up. Security: a Palestinian state should be demilitarized. And the major settlement blocs would become part of Israel.
Is there anyone to negotiate with on the other side, or does this have to wait until a new Palestinian leader replaces Abu Mazen?
I’d prefer to work with them directly. But if they are not willing, let’s start working also with the international community.
Do you see unilateral separation as a last option, if necessary?
As long as it moves us toward a two-state solution. We can act with the Palestinians or without the Palestinians. But unilateralism would not bring us to the end of the conflict.
How worried are you about Israel’s growing isolation?
First, I want to make it clear that nothing I suggested would be done to appease the international community. Anything we do has to be in our own interests. But by not acting in our own interests, we are affecting our relations with the international community. And Israel’s security is based on its relationship with the U.S. It’s not a question whether [the Americans] like us or love us; it’s about our security. And it’s not just about money or weapons. They also give us legitimacy to act against terror; they have their veto on the Security Council.
Somebody recently said to me that for the United States, Israel is becoming just another state. That’s not good news. Netanyahu and others in the government say that foreign attitudes have nothing to do with what we do but are based on who we are: the world is anti-Semitic, so they will hate us no matter what we do.
What I would say is that there is anti-Semitism in the world, but not everybody is anti-Semitic. And instead of giving the anti-Semites an opportunity to further isolate us, let’s isolate them. Let’s build a wall between them and those that are criticizing Israel because of its policies or because they don’t understand us.
Do you worry that Israel is too dependent on the United States?
The United States is the anchor. I also believe that we should have better relations with Europe; we need to work with everybody. But the United States is the anchor.
Looking at all the recent changes in Israel’s region, do you see other opportunities, as well as threats? For example, relations with the Sunni monarchies have never been better. And the Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table. Is that worth exploring?
Yes. The original idea behind Israel was to take the Jewish people out of a ghetto and create a sovereign, independent state. So Israel shouldn’t be a new ghetto, a big ghetto in the Middle East.
There are opportunities here. We and the Sunni Arab states share an understanding. We share the same view of extreme Islamists, of terrorist organizations, of Iran.
But the glass ceiling that’s constraining relations between Israel and the Arab Sunni world is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So our strategy should be a dual strategy: On the one hand, we should act against the extremists, against Hamas. But on the other, we need to help those that are willing to work with us by making all those gestures I mentioned earlier. I have had discussions with Arab League representatives about this. I asked, “Is this a take-it-or-leave-it deal?” And they said, “It’s negotiable.” I said, “Great. Should I negotiate with you?” And they said, “No. Negotiate with the Palestinians.” So in the end, it’s all connected.
You sound surprisingly optimistic, given what’s happening here and in your neighborhood.
I’m not optimistic, but without hope, you can’t survive in this swamp called politics.
I once heard a story about a Western doctor working in Africa who worked 24/7 with victims of terrible atrocities. Someone asked him, “Where do you find the strength to keep doing this night and day?” “Two words,” he said, “anger and hope.”
I have both.