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(Frustrated) Reporter's notebook: Where's Tzipi?

The escapist

How Livni spent a morning talking about religion but thinking about negotiations, and the rest of the day succesfully avoiding reporters

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni speaks during a swearing ceremony at the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem, on August 14, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni speaks during a swearing ceremony at the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem, on August 14, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A few hours before Tzipi Livni embarked on a nine-month journey designed to alter the course of history, she attended an event honoring two men who wouldn’t even shake her hand. In fact, the majority of people present would refuse to shake a woman’s hand, for reasons of modesty.

Since Israel’s incoming chief rabbis — Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau — also serve as the heads of the Rabbinical Grand Court, the justice minister is usually present at their swearing-in ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. And so it came to pass that Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator in the peace talks with the Palestinians that began in earnest later Wednesday, found herself starting the possibly fateful day speaking about the country’s religious problems as opposed to the diplomatic issues at the front of her mind.

Dressed in appropriately modest attire, Livni was evidently preoccupied less by the dignitaries’ speeches than by the upcoming first substantial round of negotiations with her Palestinian interlocutors, constantly checking her iPad, occasionally typing in short bursts, and busily scrolling between incoming messages. At least Saeb Erekat shakes hands with her.

Wednesday’s round of negotiations was to focus mostly on technical issues — where to meet and which issues to discuss when — but Livni would go into the talks following a stormy few days that saw Israel first announce new settlement construction and then release 26 Palestinians terrorists as a controversial gesture to Ramallah, a less than encouraging context.

Most of her own morning speech was dedicated to issues of religion and state, exhorting Lau and Yosef to be the chief rabbis of the entire people of Israel as opposed to only their ultra-Orthodox constituencies. The peace talks were absent from the ceremony until, concluding her 10-minute remarks, Livni briefly suggested that her struggle for a more pluralistic and open-minded Chief Rabbinate is actually linked to the negotiations: she needs to emerge victorious from both fights to ensure Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state.

“It’s not enough to live in peace with our neighbors if we don’t have peace among ourselves,” she told the crowd, mostly men in black hats. “May we have the wisdom to take the right decisions and may we have the strength to execute them,” she implored, “with unity among the entire people of Israel.”

President Shimon Peres raises a toast with incoming chief rabbis, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau (R) and Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, during their swearing in ceremony at the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem, on August 14, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Shimon Peres raises a toast with incoming chief rabbis, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau (R) and Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, during their swearing in ceremony (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Asked by reporters after the ceremony whether this Israeli government is capable of delivering a peace agreement, despite the opposition of its far-right flank, Livni broadcast a message of moderate optimism. “We are committed to making the effort, for the sake of the people of Israel state of Israel and it’s values. It’s going to be complex and complicated, but I don’t intend to give up,” she said, and disappeared.

Where to, nobody knew. To avoid excessive media attention disturbing Wednesday’s talks, the sides had agreed to keep both time and place a secret. Israeli officials usually can’t keep mum for very long, but this time nobody leaked, and so reporters hoping to see Livni and her co-negotiator, Isaac Molcho, walk into the room with their Palestinian counterparts, Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh, had some guesswork to do.

A camera waiting for Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat to arrive in front of the King David Hotel (photo credit: Times of Israel)
A camera waiting for Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat to arrive in front of the King David Hotel (photo credit: Times of Israel)

In the hours after Livni’s appearance at the President’s Residence, rumors abounded. Half a dozen journalists prowled in and around the nearby King David Hotel, suspecting the talks would be held there, as had been suggested by some. A handful of reporters had been there since the early morning. But perhaps the King David location was leaked to mislead the press?

And even if the King David was indeed the venue, would our peacemakers enter via the main lobby or sneak in through the back door, from the parking lot? Or maybe they were meeting in the David Citadel, the Inbal, or another hotel in the area? The American Colony? Surely not. Tel Aviv?

“Somehow, everyone heard the rumor that it’s here, everyone but us,” said a security guard at the Inbal. A few reporters had come and gone during the day, he added.

Nobody really knew anything, not even the reporters who usually know such things, and so I decided my best bet was to stick with the venerable KD.

Hotel staff had told me they were “not allowed” to say anything about peace negotiations, which seemingly confirmed my hunch. Reporters from Reuters, the Associated Press, Al-Jazeera and other news outlets had also bet the historic hotel was the obvious choice, and had cameras across the street from the main entrance… and aimed at the parking lot.

Isaac Molcho, left, Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat meeting Wednesday. (Screenshot/ Channel 2)
Isaac Molcho, left, Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat meeting Wednesday. (Screenshot/ Channel 2)

Israeli television stations, also left in the dark, struck a deal beforehand: since no one know where the talks would be, each would send a camera team to a likely location, and whoever won the jackpot would share the spoils with the others. Israel’s Russian-language Channel 9 was assigned to the King David, and its diplomatic correspondent thought she understood from conversations with hotel staff that the meeting would start there around 4 p.m.

In fact, the talks began only about three hours later. In the event, not one reporter caught Livni and Erekat entering the room together. While the talks were ongoing, the Government Press Office sent some footage from the beginning of the meeting to the main television stations, so they could run a few seconds during the evening news. And still no one knew where Livni and Erekat were hunkering down.

Secrecy, Secretary Kerry had assured us two weeks ago, is one of the pillars of this extraordinarily ambitious new peace bid. No photo-ops, no press conferences, and not one morsel of hard information — unless or until the secretary deems it fit to speak out.

“Why? To allow the teams to work together, and not think about the media waiting outside,” Livni’s spokesperson, Mia Bengel, tweeted once the talks had gotten underway.

Conducting serious final-status negotiations far away from the media — and thus the scrutiny of all-knowing pundits, and the pressures of public opinion — is designed to allow the would-be peacemakers to focus on substance rather than soundbites.

Even a frustrated journalist might grudgingly admit this could be a good thing. If, that is, a rather unlikely hush-hush approach enables the justice minister and her Palestinian interlocutor to attain an utterly improbable result: a nine-month blitz to the promised end-of-conflict accord.

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