Surrounded by Islamist brutality, says Tzipi Livni, Israel can’t just ‘huddle into itself’
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Interview'With Islamic State, it's like we've returned to the religious wars of a thousand years ago'

Surrounded by Islamist brutality, says Tzipi Livni, Israel can’t just ‘huddle into itself’

She worries about rising anti-Semitism, has grievances with Abbas, says settlements have no place in Israel's security doctrine. But Israel's stymied peace negotiator won't give up hope

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Tzipi Livni (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Tzipi Livni (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s “not the flavor of the month” to be pushing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni observed with magnificent understatement in the course of a pre-Rosh Hashanah interview with The Times of Israel. “Neither in Israel nor in the Palestinian Authority.”

And yet, push Livni relentlessly does, adamant that a serious effort at peacemaking is vital to Israel’s security, to the partnerships Israel seeks elsewhere in the region, to the maintenance of a strong relationship with the United States, and to Israel’s very capacity to defend itself against the rising tide of brutal Islamic extremism.

Livni, 56, was a weightier political force five years ago, when the party she headed at the time, Kadima, outscored Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in general elections, 28 seats to 27. But she and Netanyahu failed to forge a coalition partnership, he built a government without her, Kadima withered in opposition and ousted her as its leader, and today Livni heads a minor, six-seat coalition faction called Hatnua. Yet the Livni of fall 2014, of Rosh Hashanah 5775, seems a little liberated by the contraction of her political fortunes. Unlike Kadima, into which the ex-Mossad agent, lawyer, and Likud minister followed Ariel Sharon, Hatnua was her party from the get-go, and having only six seats seems to leave her feeling she has not much to lose, lots to gain, and less need for wary caution.

In our conversation, conducted in her office in a government high-rise opposite the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, the justice minister was both nuanced and candid in tracing the collapse of the US-mediated peace effort she led on Israel’s behalf until this spring, outspoken in her criticism of Israel’s settlement policies, unsparing over her grievances with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and emphatic about the centrality of a credible, pro-peace policy to Israel’s capacity to retain international legitimacy.

She also revealed details of a sadly curtailed effort to foster “a culture of peace” among Palestinians and Israelis — a bid to change the tone and content of what goes out in the media, in the sermons of religious leaders, in the schools — in order to create a climate that would encourage compromise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni during a joint press conference announcing their coalition deal, Jerusalem, Tuesday, February 19, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni during a joint press conference announcing their coalition deal, Jerusalem, Tuesday, February 19, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

And in the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declarations this summer about the imperative to maintain Israeli security oversight in the West Bank, she carefully explained why there was no necessary contradiction between Israel’s security needs and Palestinian sovereignty. “They get the state and, by virtue of their independence, they take upon themselves certain limitations,” she said. “One goes with the other.”

Our interview was conducted in Hebrew. What follows is a lightly edited translated transcript:

The Times of Israel: Prime Minister Netanyahu said a few weeks ago that what happened in Gaza this summer — with Israel battered by a Hamas-run terror-state — underlines the need to maintain security oversight in the West Bank. He has indicated that he wants to separate from the Palestinians, but worries that granting them full sovereignty would create a situation that endangers Israel. It’s a powerful point, no?

Tzipi Livni: When something happens (like the Gaza conflict), each of us draws conclusions that bolster the stances we held before.

First, we need to ensure security in Judea and Samaria. What happened in Gaza was not the first conflict of its kind; it wasn’t surprising. It was the third round of conflict since the disengagement (Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005). We’ve been complaining about rockets on the south for years; residents of the Gaza envelope communities have been complaining for 14 years that they’re under rocket fire. It didn’t start in 2005 with the disengagement.

Our security doctrine certainly needs to take into account what happens in territory from which we withdraw. I never believed that we should just throw the key over the border and hope that Hamas won’t catch it.

But my security doctrine is comprehensive. We need to be sure we have our own capabilities, but we also need a regional, comprehensive doctrine. The narrow focus gives less security than a wider focus.

Every discussion about security is welcome and appropriate. Every agreement (with the Palestinians) will have to include the appropriate security arrangements. In the negotiations, we always spoke about “performance-based” (barometers) when we discussed the withdrawal of IDF forces. (In other words, that the IDF would withdraw dependent on Israel’s assessment of the capability of PA forces to ensure security after its departure — DH.)

There was always an argument. Abu Mazen (Abbas) would say, “I want to know the date” (of the withdrawal). And we’d say, “We want to know about the performance.” All of this is legitimate.

‘To the best of my knowledge, the prime minister does not share the Greater Israel ideology’

What is less legitimate is those who use security arguments in order to claim that we should invest in settlements. Settlements are not a security doctrine. When we left Gaza, the discussion about Gaza was a security discussion — on whether we should leave the IDF in place in Gaza, on whether to retain a military deployment on the Philadelphi Corridor (between Gaza and Egypt). Nobody in Israel who believes in two states for two peoples would replant the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza as part of Israel’s security doctrine.

You have to make that distinction. There is the worldview of Greater Israel, the worldview of settlements: to send citizens to live in those places. That’s not about security, that’s not about the army. That’s about an ideology that believes we need to stay in all of the Land of Israel. I don’t share that ideology. To the best of my knowledge, the prime minister does not share that ideology. And therefore the discussion over security is not an ideological discussion. Rather, it’s about the responsibility of every leader, myself included, to provide an answer to Israel’s security needs.

There are those who utilize the sense of fear that exists in Israel — about Hamas, IS (Islamic State), and all the crazies all around — and who say, “You see, it’s forbidden to have a diplomatic process now, because what will we do about all those crazies? We need to stay frozen in place and not do anything.” Some people are using that situation in order to build more in the settlements.

It’s important for me to stress that distinction. There was lots of confusion over this for years. I come from an ideological movement (the Likud) that gradually came to use security as a means to advance its ideology.

But those movements — Hamas, IS and so on — are out there. And we saw what Hamas did in building a war machine in Gaza. And we heard that it intended to topple Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Surely Abbas should be saying to Israel, specifically to the IDF, “Stay! Help me, until it’s safe enough for you to withdraw, so that I don’t get brought down by the Islamist radicals.” Instead, we hear him insisting that Israel speed up the pullout.

Let’s be accurate: We hear that he wants decisions that will deal with speeding up our withdrawal.

A man holds part of a rocket that exploded and fell inside the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip on August 20, 2014. (Photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)
A man holds part of a rocket that exploded and fell inside the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip on August 20, 2014. (Photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

I want to talk about what we learned from the latest conflict with Gaza with reference to our security doctrine. We know that Hamas took control of territories Israeli forces had left. We know that the terrorist groups and the extremist groups are often militarily and politically stronger, unfortunately, than the more moderate forces. But we also saw, and I also saw in our cabinet, ministers who until the operation (against Hamas) saw Abu Mazen as the enemy, but who, in our difficult neighborhood, began to internalize that the range of options isn’t great. In the course of the operation, these ministers made clear they wanted Abu Mazen, not Hamas, in Gaza.

I have grievances with him — over how the negotiations ended (last spring), over his turning to the UN, his joining up with Hamas (in the Palestinian unity government). But given the choice, (even these hawkish ministers) wanted to see a process that returns Abu Mazen to Gaza, and not to leave Gaza in the hands of Hamas. Nor to return Israel to Gaza. Israel made that choice, one more time, just now: Israel chose not to conquer Gaza. That’s a fact.

A second thing: We saw how cooperation between Israel and the more moderate forces in the region is critical to the success of everything we want to happen. The cooperation with Egypt was critical. The understanding that Hamas is a common enemy was critical to our capacity to create a discussion with Abu Mazen, with the legitimate PA. Our capacity to create such an axis with Egypt, Jordan and other nations (is vital). There’ll always be a linkage, whether I like it or not, between their relationship with us, their capacity to create a joint front against IS and others, and the existence of a process of some kind with Abu Mazen, sufficiently serious, with the hope of an end to the conflict.

‘Always, from the first day of the negotiations, it was clear that any agreement (on Palestinian statehood) would not include full and complete sovereignty’

As for Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, I said from the start, my entire desire is to reach an agreement whose implementation will be absolutely dependent on security arrangements, which is completely different from the disengagement from Gaza, when we simply withdrew unilaterally.

And can we reach a deal with Abbas? Publicly I can understand him calling for the IDF to leave. But privately in the negotiations, in the closed rooms, he ought to be worried by Hamas, he ought not to want the IDF to leave rapidly.

The last thing I’m going to do is to speak on Abu Mazen’s behalf in this interview. Those are certainly questions worth asking him.

But you seem to be saying that Israel won’t give the Palestinians full sovereignty during the next few years?

Always, from the first day of the negotiations, it was clear that any agreement (on Palestinian statehood) would not include full and complete sovereignty. We are speaking in terms of a sovereign Palestinian state, but it’s clear that the sovereign Palestinian state must accept limitations. Certainly demilitarization. By the way, that’s also what we’re demanding now for Gaza. Limitations and arrangements that will ensure, in the long term, that no threat is created of the kind we have been witnessing.

That sounds exactly like what Netanyahu is saying, if I understand you correctly — something less than full sovereignty.

‘The idea that there is a necessary contradiction between Israel’s security and Palestinian sovereignty is incorrect’

The question is, what conclusion you draw. I’m talking about any agreement — this is not related to this summer. It was clear from the first day, including (the 2007) Annapolis (process helmed by former prime minister Ehud Olmert): We conducted a dialogue over the question, does a sovereign state mean that there are no limitations upon it? And my answer was no. Germany also took upon itself military restrictions after World War II. To this day, there’s a British military base in Cyprus. Sinai is demilitarized in accordance with the Israel-Egypt peace agreement. Therefore the idea that there is a necessary contradiction between Israel’s security and Palestinian sovereignty is incorrect. They get the state and, by virtue of their independence, they take upon themselves certain limitations. One goes with the other.

And Abbas has accepted demilitarization?

Yes, though there’s an argument about what demilitarization entails, whether it’s “non-militarization” or “limited arms.” That’s why you negotiate. This all has operational expression on the ground: How is it overseen? Who’s at the border crossings? Who deploys along the border?

Then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, September, 2008 (photo credit: AP Photo /Keystone/Alessandro della Valle)
Then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, September, 2008 (photo credit: AP Photo /Keystone/Alessandro della Valle)

Today, because of Egypt’s behavior, because of (President) el-Sissi’s stance against Hamas, weapons do not cross the Egypt-Gaza border. When you look at the Lebanon-Syria border, you see a porous border, despite the fact that you have a UN Security Council decision that speaks of an embargo on weapons transfers to Hezbollah.

Future developments also have to be taken into account. Real security answers have to be found. The difference is whether you say, “Okay, there’s a security problem now, and therefore I’m not negotiating,” or if you say, “There’s a security problem, and so we need input for appropriate security answers as part of the negotiations.”

The American security proposals to ostensibly facilitate an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, which Defense Minister Ya’alon derided and Netanyahu did not accept, do you consider them to be realistic or not, especially in light of this summer’s conflict with Hamas?

Let me say again, nothing that happened this summer surprised me.

Nothing surprised you? Not that two-thirds of airlines abandoned Israel?

You want me to get into the details of the American proposal? I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to get into what may happen at the borders. Physical security answers will have to be found everywhere that the IDF leaves. The army’s departure will be linked to performance-based (barometers) for those who are gaining the territory we leave.

My security doctrine extends beyond the army security aspect. It’s a doctrine of regional partnerships, creating axes with those moderate regimes in the area, enabling cooperation in facing challenges and threats beyond Hamas, including IS. And the capacity to do all that depends, among other factors, upon the existence of a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, with the hope of reaching an agreement.

All of which depends, for instance, on there being moderate regimes in places like Jordan and Egypt. In Egypt it was sheer coincidence that the president was el-Sissi and not the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. And who knows what will be there a year from now.

Listen, Menachem Begin signed a peace agreement with Egypt 35 years ago.

And the region is even less stable now than it was then.

I’m not saying it’s more or less stable. I am saying that everybody who opposed the return of the Sinai to Egypt (under the peace treaty) should ask themselves whether they prefer a peace treaty and not to have Sinai, or to have Sinai and no peace agreement. I think the vast majority prefers to have a peace agreement even if there are dangers. or the possibility of things changing for the worse. There are no guarantees in any direction.

The question is whether the state of Israel huddles into itself and says, “This is a small country surrounded by enemies and so I must maintain this situation,” which is a situation that is causing us international isolation and bringing pressures from every direction. It is a situation that enables Abu Mazen, instead of negotiating, to go to the UN and to create decisions whose content we do not influence and which are imposed upon us.

American journalist James Foley, kneeling in orange, in a video released by the Islamic State, which apparently showed him being beheaded by his captor, August 19, 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/News of the World)
American journalist James Foley, kneeling in orange, in a video released by the Islamic State, which apparently showed him being beheaded by his captor, August 19, 2014. (screen capture: YouTube/News of the World)

I don’t think there’s going to be a “new Middle East” here. But I do think that with diplomatic processes not only with the Palestinians, but with the Arab world, we can prevent or at least work to prevent an “IS Middle East”. (This is a play on words in Hebrew: The Hebrew word for new, hadash, is similar to the Hebrew acronym for IS, Da’ish.) To prevent a Middle East of extremists.

Israel’s security doctrine is not that Israel must invade every place from which a threat to Israel emanates. There’s a threat to Israel from Lebanon. There’s Hezbollah. There’s missiles. But we achieved deterrence in the military operation in the Second Lebanon War. We reached agreements with the international community, which set the rules regarding Hezbollah. And when it’s necessary, we take action alongside the deterrence that has been achieved.

This neighborhood is not likely to become any more pleasant in the near future. The question is how we face up to the reality, with a security doctrine for an Israel that, thank God and thank the United States, is also a militarily strong country.

You believe that continued building in the settlements makes things more complicated for Israel?

Yes, I do. I think it harms our security.

But that’s not the only reason for the hostility to Israel in this region.

Of course not.

We saw a nine-month American-led effort to reach an agreement, and it didn’t work. It seems to me that we ousted Netanyahu in 1999 because the public felt he was missing opportunities with Yasser Arafat, and we wanted someone who would try to reach a compromise. Whereas on the Palestinian side, the pressure is not to compromise. In the Arab world, there is such hostility to Jews, and to the very fact of Israel’s existence.

I don’t think that’s the reason why Netanyahu was ousted in 1999 but that’s not for this interview. And remember, on our side, they killed a prime minister (Yitzhak Rabin) who signed an agreement.

But I believe there is a consensus in Israel that favors an agreement of some kind, with lots of wariness about the other side.

‘With Islamic State, it’s like we’ve returned to the religious wars of a thousand years ago’

(There’s a consensus that) wants some kind of agreement, but the less an agreement is perceived to be possible, and the more the dangers are seen as greater, and the more the public is persuaded that there is no hope, the less people battle for it. And that’s very sad.

I worry that a state with no hope of a better future becomes untenable. If parents believe they have no future but to send their children to fight every year…

When I entered politics my children were 8 and 5. Today they are 28 and 25. Wow. I entered politics not so that they would or wouldn’t go to the army. But rather, so that come the day that I leave this world, I leave them something of value, safe…

At least to try…

Absolutely not. Trying is necessary but not sufficient.

Let’s look first at IS, at the Islamist radicals. Their ideology is not connected to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. And if we solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, their ideology will not change. They cut off heads. It’s like we’ve returned to the religious wars of a thousand years ago. This kind of cruelty. In those days, they beheaded people in the town square; now they do it on TV and social media. It goes much further. It spreads horror and fear far beyond the region. They fight against all non-believers, whether it’s Muslims who don’t share their interpretation, Jews, or Christians. It has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Our conflict is a national conflict, between two national movements, the Zionist movement and the Palestinian nationalist movement. The Islamist extremist religious ideology does not stem from this conflict; it utilizes it. It uses it among peoples in the region. This could also be in Egypt, by the way.

An Egyptian protester holds an anti-Israel slogan near the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
An Egyptian protester holds an anti-Israel slogan near the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

There are wide gulfs between the more pragmatic leaderships, on the one hand — that understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a small part of all the threats in the area, and that Israel can be a partner in the war against the threats — and their publics, on the other. The (Egyptian and other Arab) publics have lived all those years with the perception of Israel as the enemy, (a perception fueled) by Al-Jazeera. So the Islamist radical groups certainly use this to foster hatred toward all non-believers in general and Israel in particular. That has to be dealt with.

Our capacity to stand alongside the states with the more pragmatic leaderships, and their capacity to handle their own public opinion, depends among other factors on finding an answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That would remove the problem they have facing their public when they say, “Yes, we’re working with Israel (to counter Islamic extremism).”

‘What we’ve seen in the Arab world, where public opinion is anti-Israel and it is very hard for the leaderships to deal with, is also happening now in Europe’

The second part: There’s certainly anti-Semitism in the world. There are people whose worldview is not (formed) because of our policy but because of what we are. The idea of a Jewish state is apparently not in first place in public opinion. But it’s not everybody. And we have to distinguish between those who criticize us over decisions we take and those who (attack us) because of hatred like the Islamist groups or the anti-Semites.

I can win over the world and explain Israel’s situation, or at least be on the same wavelength, when we’re talking about security. We absolutely have to work to ensure that the world always backs our right to self-defense.

The problem is that what we’ve seen in the Arab world, where public opinion is anti-Israel and it is very hard for the leaderships to deal with, is also happening now in Europe. I have discussions with world leaders. It’s very hard for them. They say, “We understand why you have to hit Hamas. We’re with you. But the issue of the settlements renders Israel incomprehensible and shorn of credibility when it says it wants peace.” In the eyes of Europe, the European street, the settlement enterprise is a kind of old-style colonialism. Not self-defense, which would be acceptable.

That mix is not good for Israel. I’m not looking for them to love me. That would be nice, but it’s not the goal. I seek to ensure that we retain the legitimacy to defend ourselves against those extremist terrorist forces. And Israel’s policy as regards what it wants in these areas (of peacemaking and settlements) is not clear. And ultimately that harms Israel’s security. So we have to deal with all of that.

Obviously, Israel is very problematic in this region with those extremist Islamist forces. Israel is the Jewish state and it has common interests and common challenges with the Jewish world against anti-Semitism, which is flaring all over the world. And Israel is part of the free world, headed by the United States. We are part of that same struggle against the crazy, Islamist radicals. We’re part of that whole network that has to work together.

Coming back to hostility to Israel in this region: You mentioned Al-Jazeera. It seems to me that what is said in the mosques, what goes out in the media, what gets taught in the schools, is central to the perpetration of that hostile ideology. If I had grown up in the West Bank or Gaza, exposed only to that narrative of hatred, I imagine I would hate Israel. Surely the challenge is to change that? To create an atmosphere in which there is public pressure on the leadership to compromise with Israel, not the opposite.

We have to reach a compromise with the Palestinian leadership, which is part of the Arab world. Their capacity to reach a compromise agreement depends on their getting support from the wider pragmatic Arab world. The leaderships have to lead their people, and not the other way around, even though in democracies, people choose their leaderships. The leadership still has to lead.

We’re currently in a situation where there’s not much hope on either side. No trust in the other side, no hope of peace. It’s not the flavor of the month, not in Israel and not in the Palestinian Authority, to run a process and reach an agreement.

‘If an Arab leader is seen with an Israeli leader, there is something in the normalcy of the meeting that creates an understanding that Israel is not those people with horns’

For a Palestinian leader to reach an agreement, he needs that outside circle of support from the Arab world. Everybody needs to take a side. Sorry for the simplistic approach, but our region is divided between the good and the bad. The bad include IS, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. The good is all the rest. I’m talking about leaderships, not the public. We need to take into account that IS is not something state-ish. It sees no borders. It doesn’t want to take over states. It wants to take over the region.

The trap, the vicious circle we’re in, is that there really are vast gulfs between public opinion and leaderships [in the Arab world]. This is partly because of imams in the mosques, partly al-Jazeera, and it creates a whole circle which we have to break.

I tried at one point to conduct a process, including with the Arab League, in which they would give more public support (for normalization with Israel), take a step forward, possibly ahead of the Palestinian leadership. The Arab League (peace) initiative talks of normalization with Israel after we reach an agreement, but why wait? Once we reach an agreement, normalization will be obvious.

And without normalization we won’t reach an agreement.

So let’s take steps related to their publics. If an Arab leader is seen with an Israeli leader, there is something in the normalcy of the meeting that creates an understanding that Israel is not those people with horns and not the little devil or the big devil or anything else. But the (Arab leaders) won’t do this if they’re not convinced that we’re serious about the diplomatic process. And the Palestinian leadership won’t do it unless it has that wider support. So we have to break this circle somehow. We can, and we have done in the past.

‘I want Israel to have borders. For that, I need a map. I need a map on which our borders are specified. It’s not only Abu Mazen who needs that’

Today, it’s very clear that there are shared threats, so we all need to stand together. But in order to stand together, we also have to take the opportunity (of advancing the diplomatic process), which advances Israel’s interests in any case.

I want to keep Israel Zionist, Jewish, democratic. In order to do that, we need an agreement with the Palestinians. I want Israel to have borders. For that, I need a map. I need a map on which our borders are specified. It’s not only Abu Mazen who needs that. For that to be achieved, all the security questions are absolutely legitimate and I will present them and insist upon them in the negotiations. And that’s why I won’t agree to say that within a specified number of years, we won’t be there (in the West Bank). But we have to get back to those discussions.

But to return to my point, Abu Mazen does not have the support of his people for a compromise agreement. You say a leader has to lead. But if Palestinian media, education and religious leaders in the mosques create daily hostility to Israel, there never will be such support.

I said before that I don’t intend to represent Abu Mazen in this interview.

That’s not my point. What I’m asking is why you haven’t focused on the centrality of the need to put an end to the incitement against Israel, and to create a more honest narrative?

You’re wrong. I suggested at the start of the negotiations (in 2013) that we finalize the clause relating to the so-called “Culture of Peace” in the future agreement. First of all, implementing that clause need not wait for a full agreement. Let me see if I can find you the text. (Livni searches in her i-Pad.) It has been a while. I’m not talking here about the bilateral committees on incitement, where each side ran to complain about the other. This is something (we worked on) with Abu Mazen, which did not get implemented but which I really think has to be done.

We also need to look at ourselves. I’m Israeli. I want to protect Israel. That’s my chief interest. But to say that our texts…

… and our maps that don’t show the West Bank. No, we’re not perfect.

Or describing the Palestinians as “shrapnel in the butt” (a reference to Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s likening of the Palestinian conflict last year to shrapnel in the rear end — DH).

So, I’m very much in favor of the Palestinians being okay, but we should be too. And one doesn’t contradict the other. Both sides have to be okay. (Livni finds a document and shows it to me on her i-Pad.) This was a text on civil society and the culture of peace. It was meant to be part of any agreement. Here we set out…

Can I have a copy of this?

No, there’s a limit. (She laughs.) But you can look. You can see there are clauses against “supporting incitement.” A whole section… (The section of the document Livni shows me deals with preventing racism and discrimination, and features language highlighting the imperative to “promote mutual understanding, tolerance and respect.”)

If you implement steps like these, it might be gradually possible to help create a different atmosphere.

I wanted to do it simultaneously. Not to halt everything. I thought it could be implemented. That didn’t happen.

Again, surely he should have an interest in implementing this.

Who do you mean by “he”?

The leader you’re not representing in this interview.

(Livni laughs.) And you’re assuming that he’s the one who refused? Look, it didn’t happen. You know what, it didn’t happen. We immediately also got into the core issues. I suggested it to the Americans.

This “Culture of Peace” proposal also included clauses relating to incitement by religious leaders, media…?

‘The Americans had prepared a framework document which provided answers on all the core issues. It was very fair’

Everything. Everything. Actually, I think we had an agreed text. I’ll check again. Had we extended the talks (last spring), I think we were going to implement it during the extended negotiations. But we didn’t reach an agreement to extend the negotiations.

I think it’s something that should be implemented anyway. I’m telling you, I suggested it at the very beginning.

Can the diplomatic process be restarted?

The way it ended was certainly very disappointing. The Americans had prepared a framework document which provided answers on all the core issues. It was very fair. It gave expression to both sides. The way you would write the basis of an accord. We wanted to advance the negotiations on that basis. Israel essentially accepted this framework. We said we had reservations but that they could be discussed later.

US President Barack Obama, right, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, Monday, March 17, 2014 (photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP)
US President Barack Obama, right, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, Monday, March 17, 2014 (photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP)

Abu Mazen did not give Obama an answer. They met on March 17. He insisted (instead) on turning to the UN. We were really dealing with technical issues (that were obstructing ongoing talks) in order to release (a final group of) their prisoners and (for spy-for-Israel Jonathan) Pollard to (be released by the US to) us. Israel never breached any of its obligations.

My understanding was that it all collapsed over a misunderstanding on who was to be released (with Israel saying it had never agreed to free Israeli-Arab security prisoners, and Abbas insisting that Secretary Kerry had told him they would be freed).

‘When you go to the UN, you can get everything you want. But it won’t give you a state’

From the start it was clear that we could not release Israeli Arabs — Israeli citizens whose president at the time was Shimon Peres, not Abu Mazen. It was clear that the only way to get over this (obstacle) was something related to Israel and the US, and that’s Pollard. Israel never promised one thing and then did another. While we were working on a solution, Abu Mazen ran to the UN, which was a mistake — a mistake for him too, in my opinion.

There was a document on the table that represented his interests. He should have said yes. So it’s unfortunate. I could understand his choice to go to the UN and forego negotiations, because in negotiations you have to pay a price and concede things, whereas when you go to the UN, you can get everything you want. But it won’t give you a state. There’s no state via the UN.

He’s no fool. He knows that.

It’s not about stupidity. It’s about what’s easier and what’s harder. And sometimes the political choice is to take the easier path even if the benefit is immediate, and not to take the harder path even when that’s better in the long term. Lots of other leaders have done the same.

We had reached a framework document that was good and important. I’m sorry the Americans didn’t put it (publicly) on the table because if they had I think it would have created an historic change. If both sides had accepted it, we would’ve entered negotiations on substantive issues.

‘I hope the world will make clear to Abu Mazen that the way to gain a state in a fair manner is via the diplomatic arena. We achieved a lot in those nine months’

If the Palestinians had rejected it, then Abu Mazen would have had to give answers to an international community that has always seemed convinced that he would say yes if he was offered something logical. And I hope he would have said yes.

If the Israeli leadership had said no to something fair and realistic like this, meeting Israel’s security needs and national interests, the Israeli public would have shifted its state of mind. It would have moved from indifference and despair to hope — that here is something, and if the other side accepts it and the US is in favor, and relations with the US are also important… Whoever had rejected it would at the very least have had to explain why and if not, would not be elected again.

We didn’t get to any of that. And it makes me sad that it didn’t end the way I think it should have ended. And it’s still not too late.

Except that in a few days Abbas is going to the UN.

It’s still not too late. He’s going to the UN. I understand. That won’t give him a state. I don’t know what else will happen at the UN. I hope this will end with a UN Security Council decision. This is a Security Council that also recognizes the need to fight Hamas and to return to the negotiations. I hope the world will make clear to Abu Mazen that the way to gain a state in a fair manner – and to his credit, he’s not acting violently or in a terrorist fashion — is via the diplomatic arena.

US Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief negotiator (left), and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, after the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, July 30, 2013, at the State Department in Washington. (photo credit: US State Department)
US Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator (left), and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, after the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, July 30, 2013, at the State Department in Washington. (photo credit: US State Department)

We achieved a lot in those nine months. In the US estimation as well. And it’s of great sorrow to me that it didn’t go the extra mile — not as regards the content of that document, but that it didn’t become public. Everyone should know what happened here. I don’t want the Israeli public to believe that there was nothing, that there’s no chance. No, we made progress.

But you don’t want to publicize the US framework document?

I’m a loyal person and I’m obligated by the understandings we have with the Americans. Again, it’s not too late.

What do you have to say about the American performance this summer?

Don’t take me there. Let’s be clear. If it wan’t for the US secretary of state, we wouldn’t have reached a situation where negotiations resumed and we got into very sensitive issues to both sides. That’s absolutely to his credit. He deserves all appreciation for that.

I’m thinking of the general US administration attitude this summer, this grudging acceptance of our right to defend ourselves…

I look at it differently. Of course we have a moral and legal right to defend ourselves, and I say this as the minister of justice. The question is not what the US gives Israel. As I said before, there are the good guys and the bad guys and the US is the chairperson of the good guys, the head of that camp. And Israel, by definition, is part of that camp. And Abu Mazen is one of the good guys. And Egypt and Jordan and others. So support for the battle against Hamas is not a case of support for Israel against the Palestinians. It’s support for the good guys against the bad guys.

That cooperation has led to a decision that says Gaza must be demilitarized, that the border crossings have to be supervised and the entry of materials overseen. And that Hamas must be prevented from rearming. All this with the goal of a Gaza run by the legitimate Palestinian Authority, accepting the Quartet principles — that is, without violence and terrorism, accepting previous agreements, and recognizing the State of Israel. And that too, is still practicable.

Are the Americans as the leaders of the free world doing enough to advance and preserve free world interests in this region? Now they’re starting to deal with IS, having previously not internalized the threat. They didn’t intervene in Syria where Assad has killed 200,000 of his own people.

I think the US president has enough advisers.

But a strong America in this region is critical to Israel.

The relationship between Israel and America is also critical to us.

And how is it?

Just fine.

But not as good as it could be.

(Livni laughs.) I say that about all relationships.

This summer’s conflict: I think Israeli propaganda wasn’t bad. And yet the world did not, broadly speaking, buy it.

‘We see ourselves, satellite view, as a tiny state surrounded by enemies. The world looks from the Google Earth perspective, and sees a soldier with his weapon and a Palestinian boy or girl… It’s a skewed picture of the conflict’

I’ve been through no shortage of wars, and battles, and arrangements, and decisions. Israel will fight justly in its wars. It will observe international law. It will seek to avoid civilian casualties. It will “knock on the roof” before it drops bombs. It will endanger its soldiers to prevent harming civilians. But in the end, because the terrorists use their civilians, because they prevent them from evacuating, they then use those pictures in order to prevent Israel from making progress militarily, and in order to act against Israel. The world shows natural empathy to those who are perceived as the victims.

I found myself being interviewed by the BBC, and they asked (as though it was a criticism): “You have Iron Dome.” Well, thank God we have Iron Dome. We were in a situation with the airport being attacked, people forced to run to the bomb shelters. I was on a call with Netanyahu and the president of the United States, in Tel Aviv, and we had to suspend the call (because of a rocket attack).

I don’t expect the world not to judge us. It should judge us — but on the same basis as it judges itself or any democracy. Fatalities on the Palestinian side are accidental, after we have made every effort to prevent them. By contrast, the terrorists are deliberately aiming at civilians. And I expect the world to make that distinction.

But it doesn’t. Despite the best efforts…

They forget after the first two days.

And there’ll be more rounds of conflict, and Israel’s reputation will continue to fall. Despite the best efforts.

William Schabas (screen capture: YouTube)
William Schabas (screen capture: YouTube)

This (UN investigative) committee with (William) Schabas: Would I as justice minister appoint someone to judge who has already said what his position is? There is a problem, and we have to deal with it.

Why this unfairness to Israel?

As time passes since the establishment of Israel, what was taken for granted in 1948 is no longer taken for granted. We see ourselves, satellite view, as a tiny state surrounded by enemies. The world looks from the Google Earth perspective, and sees a soldier with his weapon and a Palestinian boy or girl. And that viewpoint is deepening. It is a skewed picture of the conflict. The sorrow over seeing civilians killed, a sorrow that I share, skews the judicial perspective of the reality.

There’s instinctive humane empathy for those fatalities. How do you grapple with that, when your enemies use this with such efficiency and cynicism?

The more we focus on security, and on the need and imperative for us to defend ourselves, and narrow the points of dispute in the conflict with the Palestinians, (the better). The clearer it is that Israel needs to defend itself, and has no desire to reconquer territory or to harm Palestinians, the easier it is to obtain international legitimacy.

But in some cases you really are dealing with a world that judges us unfairly. Well, we have to deal with that.

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