But Livni plans to use the situation to her advantage. In one of her first moves as opposition leader, she gathered together representatives of 40 civil society organizations active in a wide range of causes and invited them to join her new “emergency coalition,” as she terms it, to fight this law, which she believes jeopardizes Israel’s democratic character.
“These are organizations that disagree on many things,” she told Haaretz this week. “But when it comes to the nature of the State of Israel, what I discovered is that they are able to rise above their differences and unite. These are organizations that don’t usually work together, but on this issue they are willing to cooperate.”
At the meeting, Livni indicated that a new era had begun for her as well. From now on, she said, she would no longer use the term “centrist” to describe the Zionist Union – the Knesset list she co-heads.
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In other words, as opposition leader she would not accept further attempts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cohorts to besmirch and delegitimize the left.
Livni, who turned 60 last month, is arguably the most prominent woman in Israeli politics. In 2009, she came very close to becoming the country’s second female prime minister (after Golda Meir), when the party she headed won a plurality of seats in the Knesset. She failed to form a government, though, leaving the field open to Likud and its leader Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister ever since.
An outspoken advocate of the two-state solution, Livni has led numerous rounds of negotiations with the Palestinians on behalf of the Israeli government. Her cabinet posts have included stints as foreign minister, housing minister, immigrant absorption minister and, twice, justice minister. And in more than two decades of government service, she has moved increasingly toward the left.
The daughter of prominent right-wing Zionists (her parents were leaders of the pre-state Irgun underground organization, and her father later served as a Knesset member for the right-wing Herut party), she initially found a natural home in Likud – where, ironically, Netanyahu was one of her early mentors. In his first spell as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, he put Livni in charge of the government privatization program.
Livni broke with Likud in 2005 and, together with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and future Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, helped found the centrist Kadima party. After Kadima disintegrated, she started a new party, Hatnuah, which focused on promoting peace. It joined with the Labor Party before the 2015 national election to form the Zionist Union alliance. After Isaac Herzog left the Knesset earlier this month to assume his new position as chairman of the Jewish Agency, Livni was appointed opposition leader by Avi Gabbay, Labor’s new chairman. (Although he heads the party, Gabbay does not have a seat in the Knesset and, therefore, cannot serve as opposition leader.)
Livni steps into her new role at a time when Israel-Diaspora relations have also hit rock bottom: Progressive Jews – who account for the vast majority outside of Israel – have grown increasingly anxious about the direction the country is taking, both religiously and politically.
“I believe that being the nation-state of the Jewish people means representing World Jewry,” she tells Haaretz. “I know that many Jews living abroad today – especially young people – feel very alienated from the State of Israel because of certain trends. What I am setting out to do is to reverse these trends. In that way, I am serving them as well.”
Asked about the recent detention and interrogation of anti-occupation Jewish activists at Israel’s borders, Livni says: “More than anything else, this is idiotic. In this day and age, does somebody really believe that if you block people from entering the country, you’ll prevent the world from knowing what’s happening here? Besides, I don’t believe we have anything to hide.”
A lawyer by training, Livni grew up in Tel Aviv in a home she describes as “traditional.”
“My parents separated milk and meat, they drove on Shabbat and watched TV on Shabbat, but my mother wouldn’t cook on Shabbat,” she recounts. “That was because she had taken a vow that if my brother came out of the Yom Kippur War alive, she would never cook on Shabbat again.”
To indicate the important role religion played in her parents’ lives, she relays that when she first brought home her future husband, Naftali Spitzer, her father had two questions for him. “First, he wanted to know his name, and then he wanted to know if he kept kosher.”
A pescatarian for many years, Livni says that, in accordance with the rules of kashrut, she does not eat shellfish. She fasts on Yom Kippur and avoids bread on Passover, but does little beyond that in terms of Jewish observance. Although she doesn’t frequent synagogues often, she says, when she does – like on Yom Kippur or whenever tradition mandates that she recite the Yizkor service for her deceased parents – she attends an Orthodox synagogue.
Livni had her first exposure to non-Orthodox Judaism when the younger of her two sons was in grade school and befriended a child who had just moved to Israel from the United States. “That boy, his name was Jacob, persuaded my son to join Noam – a youth movement run by the Conservative movement,” she recounts. “I had never heard of it before. Suddenly my son would come home all excited about the Jewish holidays and the new songs he had learned, and I remember thinking to myself at the time that this was really nice, and maybe he liked it so much because it wasn’t being forced on him.”
Now, she says – and probably for the same reason – many of her sons’ friends are choosing to wed outside of the Chief Rabbinate. “It’s their way of rebelling against something they feel is being forced on them,” says Livni.
Livni herself officiated at one such ceremony in 2014, in which two men were wed. “If you would have asked me 10 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined doing something like this,” she says. “But now I feel the time has come.”
She won’t go so far as to say the institution of the Rabbinate needs to be eradicated, but believes its monopoly over many aspects of Jewish life in Israel must be broken. “We need to start being more open,” she says.
As an Israeli born to two Jewish parents, she never had her Judaism called into question. So it was only after she assumed her position as immigrant absorption minister 15 years ago that she began to comprehend how powerful the Rabbinate was or the impact it had on the lives of many Israeli citizens – particularly Russian-speaking immigrants not recognized as Jewish in the country.
“There’s one story I’ll never forget,” she says. “I had gone to meet with a group of combat soldiers who were going through a conversion course offered by the army. They were all immigrants from the former Soviet Union. I asked one of them why he was doing this. He told me he was converting because he wanted to make sure that if he was killed in battle, he would be buried together with his friends, and that if he survived, he would be able to get married like them. And this really broke my heart. Since then, I’ve felt very strongly that something has to be changed in the system.”
Livni says she understands why Diaspora Jews were so angry and offended by Netanyahu’s decision to call off the Western Wall deal – which was meant to provide Reform and Conservative Jews with full recognition at a new and upgraded prayer plaza at the Jewish holy site. But she doesn’t think most Israeli Jews get it.
“These streams of Judaism are just not as popular in Israel, and that’s why I encourage Diaspora Jews, whenever they get the opportunity, to speak with Israelis, to try to make them aware of why this is important to them,” she says. “I think that most Israelis – not the Orthodox, obviously – would support the idea that Jews should be able to express their faith however they wish.”
Netanyahu has insisted he had no choice but to withdraw from the Western Wall deal, because otherwise the ultra-Orthodox parties would have collapsed his government. Livni doesn’t buy it. “These are all excuses! He could have had a government with the center-left parties and no problems at all in this regard,” she says. “But he chose to fire us and to form a government instead with the ultra-Orthodox. He said they were his natural partners. Well, if they are his natural partners, then his beliefs must be close to theirs.”
Moshe Gafni, a veteran ultra-Orthodox lawmaker, dropped a political bombshell about a year ago when he said his party, United Torah Judaism, would be willing to join a left-wing government if that government were willing to break ties with the Reform movement.
Would Livni, for the sake of peace, agree to such an ultimatum? “I think this type of demand is unacceptable,” she says. “I don’t understand why somebody would want us to cut our ties with our brothers and sisters who are not living in Israel.” She points out that she lost an opportunity to serve as prime minister because she was unwilling to accept certain demands from the ultra-Orthodox parties.
As far as Livni is concerned, the upcoming elections, whenever they are, will be a referendum on Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Asked if she has come up with a campaign slogan yet, she pulls a scroll of the 1948 declaration from her desk and proceeds to unroll it. “This is the gist of it all,” she says. “Who is for the Declaration of Independence and who is against it? If you’re for it, you’re with us. And I believe that the vast majority of Israelis are for it.”
Not long after he was appointed head of the Labor Party, Gabbay ruled out the possibility of forming a governing coalition with any Arab parties. Livni doesn’t want to rule it out entirely, but under her partnership terms it’s not a likely scenario.
“I represent Zionism as I believe it is represented in the Declaration of Independence,” she says. “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, but there must be equality for all citizens. Some Arabs in Israel, as well as some of their representatives in parliament, are not willing to accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. As leader of the opposition, I will continue to fight for their rights to live as citizens with equal rights, but I cannot identify with their demand to fulfill their national aspirations as Palestinians in Israel.”
That is why she won’t be attending the second demonstration against the nation-state law, scheduled for this Saturday night and organized by the country’s Arab leadership (she did attend last Saturday night’s in support of the Druze community). “I will stand with them on equality, but I can’t stand with them on the issue of national identity,” she says.