‘Netanyahu Delegitimized Me’

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni discusses the upcoming Israeli election and why she bowed out.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni speaks on the phone to constituents in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2015. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni speaks on the phone to constituents in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2015. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

For the first time since the start of Israel’s election campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu faces a serious challenge in his bid for a fifth term as prime minister.

With less than 50 days until the April 9 vote and a few hours before a deadline to finalize party slates, Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff, and Yair Lapid, a popular centrist politician, agreed to join forces on Thursday in an alliance led by Gantz.

The newly minted Kahol Lavan (“Blue and White”) party targets Israeli centrists and aims to lure right-wing swing voters. It includes two additional former army chiefs and two former aides to Netanyahu. A trio of television news polls on Thursday evening showed Kahol Lavan with a lead on Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Far from all the commotion, Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and Israeli peace negotiator, watched the unfolding from the empty Tel Aviv headquarters of her political party, called the Movement. Four years ago, Livni was the one generating buzz when she merged with the center-left Labor Party to run against Netanyahu. And a decade ago, she was one coalition deal away from becoming Israel’s second female prime minister.

But this week, Livni bowed out of the race. Polls showed her party was well short of the support required to make it into parliament, and she was unable to forge a new political alliance with another opposition party.

Livni is a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, who left and became a champion of peace talks with the Palestinians. Seated in front of a portrait of Likud’s ideological forefather, Zeev Jabotinsky, and books by Condoleezza Rice and Henry Kissinger in an otherwise bare office, Livni spoke to Foreign Policy about the election, peace with the Palestinians, and threats to Israel’s democracy.

Foreign Policy: With the merger of parties between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, how likely is the prospect that the person who forms the next government will be Gantz and not Netanyahu?

Tzipi Livni: I said the split in the center-left didn’t help because on the one hand you had the very strong Likud party and on the other you had many different parties. Therefore, I called on everybody to put their egos aside and to work together. And what we see now is partially what is needed, but I’m not sure that it will be enough.

FP: Some might say that this new merged party’s sole raison d’être is to replace Netanyahu and that it lacks any ideological coherence whatsoever about resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.

TL: I believe that the idea is not just to replace Netanyahu. It is to replace the path that he took Israel on. I believe that the choice is between a Jewish democratic Israel at peace with the Palestinians and annexation [of the occupied West Bank] and less democracy. I believe in substance—not only merger. And I hope that the new merger will represent this.

FP: Do you believe that this new merged party could be the vehicle to get to peace?

TL: I don’t know. It’s something for them to decide and to speak about—and to say it loudly. In a way, I paid the price of speaking up clearly in a loud voice about the need to achieve peace, about the need to keep Israel as a democracy. It was part of what Netanyahu did during all these years of calling those that are preaching for peace “the left wing cooperating with the enemy.” He delegitimized my views. Netanyahu delegitimized me. Therefore, there are other leaders who are not willing to speak up loudly about what I believe in.

FP: What does it say about the state of Israeli politics that a politician with your views can’t find a place within the parties running for parliament?

TL: This was my decision. If there is any chance of replacing Netanyahu, I didn’t want to waste my votes [by failing to clear the minimum electoral threshold of 3.25 percent].

FP: Today, there is no peace process at all with the Palestinians. What measures would you recommend to renew a sense of hope and to restart Arab-Israeli negotiations?

TL: For now, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not on the agenda of the Israeli elections, but it is clear that the day after the elections and even before the formation of the next government, we will face U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan and it’s going to be on the agenda. The unfortunate situation for now is that the Palestinians decided to disconnect and that the current Israeli government is working with Hamas and against the legitimate Palestinian Authority, which I believe is a mistake. I believe that we should do exactly the opposite.

FP: Do you have any optimism about Trump’s peace plan?

TL: I hope it will represent what Trump said at the beginning—he used to speak about this as the ultimate deal. To reach a deal, you need two sides. The sides are Israel and the Palestinians. So if the plan represents these interests, the assumption is that this can relaunch negotiations and create new hope. Of course, I hope it will represent the Israeli interest, not just the political interest of Netanyahu.

FP: Do you think the Trump administration made mistakes in its relations with the Palestinians—cutting off funding, closing the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington, and downgrading the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem—making it more difficult for the Palestinian Authority to continue with business as usual with the United States?

TL: We need to work with those that are operating and cooperating with us on Israeli security. And that is the legitimate Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, which is a terrorist organization. Therefore, weakening those that are cooperating with us is a mistake.

 FP: Do you ever question your commitment to the two-state solution? At what point should Israel begin to consider other paradigms?

TL: I’m not against thinking outside of the box as long as we can end the conflict while keeping Israel as a Jewish democratic state. This is the idea: two states for two peoples. This outcome is the way that I believe gives an answer to national aspirations of different peoples. If somebody finds another solution where we can live happily ever after and keep Israel a Jewish democratic state, fine by me. But I’m not familiar with anything like this.

FP: How does the U.S. pullback from Syria and other areas in the Middle East affect Israel’s strategic position vis-à-vis Iran?

TL: Iran is a threat not only to Israel but to the Middle East. And when it comes to Iran, we need to focus not only on its aspiration to achieve a nuclear weapon but also on what it does in supporting terrorism. And I think that the role of the United States is crucial on this. Because otherwise, we get Russia, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, and Iran. I’ve been saying that the superpowers need to discuss the day after in Syria politically. Now, it’s the day after without any real vision.

FP: What are your thoughts about the recent merger, promoted by Netanyahu, of national-religious parties with the Jewish Power party, whose politicians consider themselves disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane.

TL: I remember the old days when Meir Kahane was elected to parliament. Likud members left the room when he spoke. And our Supreme Court said that part of being a democracy is that a racist party can’t be elected. It’s a new world now. The fact is, you always have extremists. This happens in every society. The real question is what the leadership is doing with it. And when the leadership that should be basically the mainstream is embracing these extremists, this is what worries me the most.

This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick