Interview: Tzipi Livni

Israel’s leading opposition politician says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to “face reality” and work toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians -- before it’s too late.

Ronen Zvulun-Pool/Getty Images
Ronen Zvulun-Pool/Getty Images

Tzipi Livni has led Israel into war, and also attempted to guide it to peace. She played an integral role in Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah as foreign minister in the government of Ehud Olmert, and negotiated the agreement, enshrined as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, that ended the conflict. In 2008, she held talks on the "core issues" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei — the first time such discussions had been held since the acrimonious collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000. Israel’s Knesset elections, held in February 2009, presented a mixed bag: Her Kadima Party won more seats than any other party, but the Israeli right captured a majority of the total vote.

Rather than bring her party into a government headed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Livni elected to join the opposition. She has assailed the Netanyahu government for overseeing a "serious decline in Israel’s standing around the world," and for failing to resume peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Foreign Policy spoke with Livni shortly after the announcement that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would agree to a U.S. proposal for "indirect talks," marking the tentative resumption of negotiations for the first time since 2008. The position of Livni, who told FP‘s David Kenner that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is "the reason for me to be in politics," will do much to determine whether this new round talks sputters to a halt or leads to serious negotiations between the two sides. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: It appears that Abbas will agree to resume proximity talks. Is it a diplomatic victory that the talks are being renewed, or is it a step backwards from the direct diplomacy of previous governments?

Tzipi Livni: Direct talks are very important. I think that the best thing to do is continue from where we stopped — there is no need to start all over again. It is true that 16 years passed [after the Oslo Accords], and during all these years we had ongoing negotiations. [When I was] representing the Israeli interest [during] the negotiations, there is nothing that I discussed or agreed with the Palestinians that any Israeli prime minister who wants to make peace cannot agree to. I believe that we need to continue from where we stopped — and when I say from where we stopped, it means from where the negotiation teams led by Abu Alaa [Qurei] and myself left off [in late 2008].

I’m glad to see the beginning of something, but for me the goal is not the negotiations — the goal is the peace treaty. There is a big question mark [as to] whether this is just the beginning of a dialogue, or it is going to lead to a real peace treaty. For me, this is the real issue, and this is the goal: To end the conflict and [sign] a peace treaty. We faced a situation in the past in which negotiations led to more frustration, and blaming one another.

FP: Do you think this Netanyahu government is capable of engaging in serious negotiations with the Palestinians and reaching a deal without breaking apart?

TL: I think the question is where Netanyahu is, and later where his party is — and only then where his coalition is. After my talks with Netanyahu before the formation of the government and afterwards, and I cannot say that it is clear that he’s ready to make the decision. But let’s see. We can test this. If he is clear, and the only thing that is needed is my support, he is going to get it. For now, it is too early to know.

FP: If the talks do appear to be advancing, and it looks like they could reach a serious agreement, would it be possible that you would drop your conditions for joining the government?

TL: I say to you what I said to Netanyahu publicly and privately: I entered politics because of the need to end the conflict with the Palestinians. In a moment in which the only thing that is needed to make peace is my support, he’s going to get it — even if this is going to be the last thing I do in politics. But as I said before, it’s not just about atmosphere, it’s about a real understanding of his sense, and what he’s willing to do in order to make peace. And it’s too early to know right now.

FP: It’s no secret  that this hasn’t been the best year for American-Israeli relations, and a lot of that has to do with relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. From the Israeli side, how do you believe that it could have been handled differently?

TL: There is a mutual interest between Israel and the United States of America. It is more than friendship — it is friendship plus mutual interest, and it is bipartisan. The understanding that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon, plus the need to solve the conflict with the Palestinians according to the idea of two states for two peoples is something that represents the Israeli interest and the American interest.

So, instead of having all these suspicious thoughts [about] Barack Obama’s speeches and intentions, we should sit with him and share not only our views and vision in general, but what is the best way to achieve these goals. But it took some time for the Israeli government to understand that two states for two peoples is something that is needed — that it is more than words, and that the alternative is worse. And it led to misunderstandings, unfortunately.

FP: At the same time, there have been interesting developments  within the American Jewish community and its relation with Israel. Do you think the Netanyahu government made an error by boycotting more liberal organizations such as J Street?

TL:  I meet all the groups, and especially all the congressmen and senators, who come to Israel and who are willing to support us. And more than that, I’m willing to meet with everybody to share ideas — to explain and to convince them on what is needed for the sake of the state of Israel. This is, as I just said, also an American interest. When there is somebody, or a group of people, who want to support Israel, we need to allow for different views on different issues, and to discuss this — not to boycott them.

FP: What can the United States do, or what can Barack Obama do, to facilitate direct talks?

TL: Everybody is focusing on resuming direct talks, and I would say to end the conflict. We have no time — time works against us. The conflict can be transferred from a national conflict to a religious one, which is unsolvable, and this is something that we cannot afford.

The United States needs to know where the parties are, not just in the willingness to enter the same room, but where they really are in the final-status agreements. The proximity talks are good opportunity to do so.

FP: Some people say that progress on the Arab-Israeli front would be helpful in limiting Iranian influence in your region. Do you believe that’s true?

TL: The Iranians are abusing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to gain more support from radical elements in the region. It is clear to me that the Iranian ideology is not an outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let us assume that we solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The next day, their religious ideology is not going to be changed. But it is also true that they abuse this…. They try to [position] themselves as representing the Muslim and the Arab narrative when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But I think any connection between the two is not useful. We need to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And we need to solve the conflict between the Israel and the Palestinians, for itself. The goal is to reach a peace treaty between the Israel and the Palestinians, not just to prevent the Iranians from exploiting the conflict for their own cause. We need to do it anyway.

FP: You have now been in the opposition for a year. How do you assess your last year, and how do you think Kadima can distinguish itself in the future from the Netanyahu government?

TL: I’m not asking myself, "How I can be different from Netanyahu?," because I am different, and Kadima is different from Likud, by its own nature. When Netanyahu said the words "two states for two peoples," it was good to hear. I want most Israelis to understand, maybe for the first time, that this is the only option for a future peace treaty. You know something, I think that Netanyahu said the words because Kadima was not in the government. There were those who wanted us to be the fig leaf of the government, and to say nice words to the world. And they couldn’t get it. So Netanyahu and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman and all the others needed to face reality, and the international community. And for the first time, what they call the right wing in Israel needed to say that two states for two peoples is their own goal. Whether they’re serious or not is going to be tested.

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