Tzipi Livni at NYU — Dovish Centrist

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni speaks during a press conference after her talks with her Austrian counterpart Ursula Plassnik, on Wednesday, March 1, 2006, at the foreign ministry in Vienna. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

New York University’s Taub Center for Israel Studies sponsored a talk by Tzipi Livni on September 21.  A former minister of both justice and foreign affairs in Kadima and Likud-led governments, Livni almost became prime minister in 2009 but could not pull together a governing coalition after actually winning more votes than Bibi Netanyahu.  She is currently a co-leader of the “Zionist Union” Knesset faction headed by the Labor Party’s Yitzhak Herzog.

Curiously perhaps for a top figure in the official opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu, her speech was more about defending Israel than criticizing Netanyahu (although she did that too) — but I understand where she’s coming from.  Her family background is deeply rooted in the Revisionist (rightwing) movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which first came to power under the banner of Menachem Begin’s Likud party in 1977.  She was a major figure in Ariel Sharon’s government when he broke with Likud to form the centrist Kadima party in 2005, and she emerged as Ehud Olmert’s #2 when he succeeded Sharon after the latter’s stroke.  She succeeded Olmert as Kadima’s leader when his legal troubles forced him out of government.

After being defeated as leader of Kadima in 2012 by former defense minister Shaul Mofaz, her political odyssey continued with establishing a small centrist party (HaTenua — the movement).   Kadima lost 90% of its voter support in the 2013 election and has since disappeared entirely, while Livni’s HaTenua has survived first as a coalition partner to Netanyahu (where she nominally spearheaded negotiations with the Palestinians) and now in partnership with Labor in the opposition.

Basically, Livni argued for a two-state solution with the Palestinians and that Israel not be defamed in international discourse.  Her battlecry, as it were, is for “moderates of the world to unite.”  Her national goal is for Israel to be recognized as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” with equal rights for all its citizens.

In this connection, Livni emphasized the need for Israel to preserve its Jewish majority, otherwise precipitating a contradiction between a “Jewish state” and democracy.  Consequently, the formula of “two states for two peoples” is essential in her vision of a two-state solution.

She commented on the common security interests of Israel with most states in the Middle East in defending against terrorism and countering Iran, but cited the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict as forming a “glass ceiling” over expanding relations with moderate states in the region.  This is one more reason that Livni urges Israel to “take steps toward the Palestinians,” so that an historic opportunity for regional peace is not missed.  She emphasized the urgency of our time by explaining that “a national conflict is soluble while a religious one is not, and this can turn religious in a moment.”

Elaborating on her approach, she stated that settlements undermine security and similarly erode US support for Israel.  Good diplomacy, she said, is essential for security.  In this vein, she advocated “strengthening Abu Mazen” (Palestinian Pres. Mahmoud Abbas) but also argued against negotiating with Hamas.

I agree only partially with this last point.  It’s hard to see Hamas as an interlocutor in a final agreement, but it is important to allow buy-in for Hamas (or for such elements of Hamas that can be coaxed).  The so-called unity government between the PLO and Hamas did that, but this coalition was stillborn, underscoring how difficult it is to officially cooperate with this extremist movement.  Still, one must understand that ceasefires and temporary strategic arrangements have been negotiated in the past, with Hamas being more reliable in maintaining them than many people realize.

Her most pointed dig at the Netanyahu government was in closing.  Acknowledging that dealing with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority can also be a challenge, she closed by warning that if Israel cannot reach an agreement with the PA, “let’s not go to the point of no return” — by expanding settlements to the extent that a two-state solution is rendered impossible.



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