I entered Tzipi Livni’s Knesset office Tuesday in the hope for some encouraging words ahead of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which is traditionally a time for deep introspection and lofty aspirations for the future.
I didn’t get any.
Rather, the ex-minister and current opposition lawmaker, who a few years ago almost became prime minister, painted a devastating picture of Israel. “We took a huge step backwards,” she said resolutely when I asked her to look back at the year 5775.
Livni described a country saturated with hate and fear, whose political leadership spews out racism, harms its own strategic interests and gets Jewish communities worldwide into trouble.
“Israel needs to change direction, and this is not just political,” she said. “We’re becoming more closed-in, more isolated, more scared. Those who talk tough are making the State of Israel very weak, very isolated — very Jewish, in the Diaspora-sense, in that ‘everyone is against us.’ We need to get out of this.”
Looking at the rapid downward turn Livni’s career took recently, maybe her pessimism is somewhat understandable. Indeed, Livni’s political fortunes deteriorated drastically over the last 12 months. In December, she was unceremoniously fired from her post as justice minister. In the subsequent Knesset elections her Zionist Union faction failed to dethrone Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite commanding a sizable lead in the polls until a few days before Election Day. Now she finds herself relegated to a rank-and-file MK, without any power or real influence.
“This was a very difficult year in my view. A very difficult year,” she said.
For one, the March 17 election brought up “a lot of poison,” she elaborated. It saw a prime minister speaking about citizens of his country and political rivals as enemies. As Netanyahu’s fourth government got going, “it became clear that whoever thinks differently is an enemy: not Jewish enough, damaging the Jewish state,” she accused.
On July 31, Jewish terrorists set ablaze the home of the Dawabsha family in the West Bank village of Duma, killing three-year-old Ali, his father Sa’ad and his mother Riham, and severely injuring his four-year-old brother Ahmed. Shocked by the sheer unfathomable cruelty of the deed, some Israelis thought rock bottom had been reached, that from this low point it could only get better.
But Livni seems skeptical. “When the murder of [16-year-old Mohammed] Abu Khdeir occurred [on July 2, 2014], I was sure that that’s it, that now everyone will wake up. A year later we saw this event,” she said, referring to the firebombing in Duma.
“At the end of the day, Israeli citizens are patriotic, they want to ensure Israel remains a Jewish state, and that’s a sentiment that I fully share. I only think the State of Israel is strong enough, and a strong enough democracy, to deal differently even with a difficult reality,” she said. “A deep change is also needed in policy, in education, in a whole host of things.”
Is there no silver lining in all of this, I asked? Is there anything she could say to give us some hope?
“Well, sometimes there is a pendulum effect,” she replied. It gets so bad that eventually it will need to get better again. Clearly, it’s possible for things to get even worse, “but I hope we won’t get to it.” Actually, here and there signs of minor improvements can be made out, she said after thinking about it for a few seconds. Netanyahu apologized for warning of Arabs coming out “in droves” to the polling stations, small changes in problematic legislation were promised, and so on.
“It doesn’t change the general tendency, but at least some of the rhetoric starts to change,” Livni said, only to immediately return to assert that Israel is still in a very bad place. “We need a dramatic change, a totally different direction.”
Is that the best she can do? Journalists usually like bad news, they make for better headlines, but ahead of Rosh Hashana I was looking for a more uplifting message.
“The positive note is that in the end, [tragic] events that occur here do function as a wake-up call,” she offered. The murder of Shira Banki, for example, who was stabbed to death last month during the Jerusalem Pride Parade, led many opinion makers to think about they way they speak. There is also the “beginning of a correctional process” regarding anti-Arab racism, she posited. “People are more aware. I therefore think that our Jewish values and the values enshrined in the Scroll of Independence will win in the end. First they need to win in the elections, but they will win overall.”
‘Israel needs to take immediate steps to restart a credible peace process’
Of course we also discussed politics. In the year 5776, Israel will have to deal with many foreign policy challenges, chiefly among them Iran and the Palestinian issue. After a bitter dispute between Jerusalem and the US administration it emerges that the Iran nuclear agreement is a done deal, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly planning to annul the Oslo Accords and declare Palestine a state under occupation.
Livni, who led the Israeli delegation to the most recent peace talks with the Palestinians, believes Jerusalem should tackle these two key challenges together, by making serious headway on the Palestinian front and then teaming up with Washington and Sunni Arab world against Tehran.
“There are pragmatic and moderate states in the region that see in Iran their enemy,” she declared. “They consider Israel a country that could be a partner for both the fight against terror. What Israel needs to do now is, together with the US, start a new initiative. Before the Sunni Arab nations are willing to join this “new alliance,” as Livni called it, they need to see “a genuine, effective process relating to Israeli-Palestinians relations,” she acknowledged.
A comprehensive final-status agreement with the Palestinians might be out of reach for now, she allowed. “But without a certain minimum, the entire theory of a regional alliance could not work.” The world no longer suffices with the mere existence of peace talks. Rather, she added, “they need to be accompanied by immediate steps that Israel would take. Israel can and must take such steps as long as they don’t harm our security.”
There are many areas in which Israel could be forthcoming to demonstrate its seriousness in reaching an agreement, she suggested. Such steps would not entail major concessions on the core issues at the heart of the conflict. Rather, she is talking about halting or slowing settlement construction or easing freedom of movement in the West Bank — moves that “only people who don’t want to reach an agreement under any circumstances would oppose.”
The Palestinians currently say there’s no peace process and therefore opt for unilateral steps at the UN; the Europeans say there’s no peace process and get ready to label settlement goods and enact similar sanctions, Livni lamented. “Therefore this is an initiative that will bring solutions,” she promised. “If we don’t do that, we’ll get to a situation where the separation in the region will not be between moderates and extremists, but only between Sunnis and Shiites,” she warned. “Hamas would get closer to some of the moderate [Sunni] countries, and then we’d lose an opportunity.”
Livni says she’s unfazed by Abbas’ threats to step down. “The Israeli preoccupation with who’s on the other side, and whether he’s a partner or not, or whether he likes us or not, what he wants to achieve — these are secondary questions. Leaders needs to think about what we need to do at any given situation.”
Jerusalem and Washington share the same values and regional interests, but like any interpersonal relationship, this alliance cannot be taken for granted, Livni warns. She started worrying already a few years ago when someone told here that Israel was becoming “just another state” in American eyes, she recalls.
“This would be absolutely terrible. But now something even more problematic is occurring: We’re not just another state. We’ve turned from a state enjoying bipartisan support to one that’s very much identified with one side of the political map in the US.”
Netanyahu’s fight with the administration also weakened AIPAC and emboldens Israel’s enemies in the region, who see that Jerusalem and Washington are no longer on the same page, she adds. Worse yet, she anticipates America’s future military aid to Israel to turn out smaller than it would’ve been without the prime minister’s vehement attacks against the administration’s Iran policy. “Relations between countries are built on values and interests and many other things, but at the end of the day leaders are also only human beings.”
Netanyahu’s vehement lobbying against the Iran deal put American Jews in a difficult position, she charged, adding that he has done the same with French Jewry (when he called on them to move to Israel) and to Italians (when he appointed former Italian lawmaker Fiamma Nierenstein as Israel’s new ambassador to Rome). “He puts world Jewry in a sort of position that may create the perception [of dual loyalty]. That’s not really the case but the perception alone is damaging enough,” she says.
At the conclusion of our interview, after I switched off my recording device, Livni realized that she might have come across as a little too bleak. Trying to say something positive, something that could give Israelis hope, she offered that the last elections were relatively close, and that the nation is split 50-50 between the center-right and center-left camps. As soon as Israel replaces the current prime minister with someone else — she refused to say whether she intends to run for the top job in the next elections — things would immediately start to improve, she promised.
“Everything is open,” she concluded.