Will There Be a Next Time?

With public opinion polls showing Kadima in free fall and its members in revolt against their leader, can Tzipi Livni still make another run for prime minister?

zipi Livni’s three years on the Knesset’s opposition benches have not only caused senior members of her party to rebel against her, they have also destroyed her public status. The woman who for several years was the political center’s most popular choice for prime minister became an object of ridicule on the satirical television show “A Wonderful Country.” She is competing with Shaul Mofaz, her rival for the Kadima leadership, as to which of them is more faded, boring or mediocre.

Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman easily beat her in public opinion polls regarding her suitability for the position of prime minister. The surveys show that large sections of the public are not satisfied with her work as opposition chair and demonstrate that Kadima under her leadership ‏(as under that of Mofaz‏) would win less than half the seats it received in the previous elections. MKs who were among her hard-core supporters then have deserted to Mofaz, who has been skinning her alive from the day she was elected to the position.

Livni - Daniel Bar On - 2009
Daniel Bar On

Tzipi Livni, how do you evaluate yourself?

“I was too statesmanlike. In hindsight, it was a mistake. This surfeit of statesmanlike behavior exacted a price that damaged the perception of my leadership, both internally and externally. At the start of my term there were attempts to split Kadima; [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu tried to tempt seven MKs to join his cabinet. I tried to keep Kadima together. I think that was a correct decision at the time, but for me it meant that I contained and swallowed things that ordinarily I wouldn’t accept − with the result that my leadership was undermined.”

Livni - Yani Yechiel
Yani Yechiel

You didn’t express firm objections to the draft bills, some of them antidemocratic, initiated by members of your party. Do you regret that?

“I should have been clearer about content. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have avoided an internal debate and I wouldn’t have allowed freedom of voting on issues to which I object, as I did at the time.” [Kadima members initiated the antiboycott law. During the vote on it and on the Nakba Law, the vast majority of Kadima members were absent from the plenum.] “In certain cases my voice should have been heard sooner. In some cases I waited until the last minute and then acted, thereby creating a lack of clarity regarding the party’s worldview.”

But what is Kadima’s worldview? Here in a nutshell is an example from the bitter story of Israel’s largest party, which was supposed to be the governing alternative to Likud. One of the glittering stars included by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his political initiative in 2006 was former Shin Bet security services chief Avi Dichter. In spite of his defense establishment background, Dichter was supposed to be the ace of a stable centrist party, neither right nor left.

But Dichter’s most significant contribution to the discourse as a member of the opposition and a senior Kadima MK is the Basic Law: Israel − the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which subordinates Israel’s democratic identity to its Jewish character. Dichter’s draft bill stated, among other things, that Arabic would no longer be defined as an official language in Israel, that it would be granted a “special status,” and that Jewish law would serve as an inspiration for new legislation. According to the proposal, the state will work to promote Jewish settlement within its borders and will not commit itself to build for other national groups. That was not the private whim of a wayward MK; a large majority of Kadima MKs signed the proposal. This week, Dichter declared that he will also stand as a candidate for the party leadership.

Livni, Mofaz - Alon Ron - 2008
Alon Ron

You were not a good opposition leader.

What is a good opposition?

You allowed these draft bills to gain momentum instead of nipping them in the bud.

“I made a decision that I would try to avoid an internal clash in the party, and would permit differences of opinion. The price was that people submitted draft bills that I can’t live with and can’t accept. That I made a decision and said ‘no more.’ That I convened a meeting of the faction and forced − no, I demanded! – factional discipline over Dichter’s draft bill. And it wasn’t only Dichter’s bill, it was also that of Shaul Mofaz and another 20 Kadima MKs who signed it.

“And I must say that it was not easy to tell people who signed this draft bill to withdraw from it. I consider it an anti-Zionist proposal. A distortion. I sat for a long time with Dichter; I hoped it was a misunderstanding and that he would withdraw it, and when I saw that that wasn’t the case, I convened the faction. And there were many among us who wanted to leave freedom of voting in place, or to refrain from the discussion, and I acquired many enemies within my party because of those issues.”

That story exemplifies precisely how this party is seen by the public: as a random collection of separate people without any ideological backbone.

“That’s part of my conclusion regarding the future. Look, today I’m conducting an internal battle, and my energies are naturally directed inward. But during my meetings with party members and in my thoughts I’m planning for the day after. Because this entire battle is not for the purpose of continuing with more of the same. Not only because of the public perception, but also because I believe it’s important to create something else. My excess of statesmanlike behavior is also reflected in my decision not to intervene in the slate of MKs in the primaries. That’s a mistake I won’t repeat.”

Fear of the opposition

At present Tzipi Livni is conducting a battle over the leadership of the badly weakened political initiative of Sharon six years ago. Her main rival in the March primaries is Mofaz − a systematic, organized, diligent and ambitious rival, who nonetheless lacks political awareness. A few years ago, when Mofaz retired as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and joined the Likud government as defense minister, I talked with him in an effort to understand whether he had any solid ideological or sentimental reason for joining the movement originally established by Menachem Begin.

“How did you feel in ’77?” I asked him, referring to the first political upheaval, when Likud removed Mapai ‏(Labor’s predecessor‏) from government.

“What happened in ’77?” was Mofaz’s surprised reaction. “There was a political upheaval,” I replied. “Nu, there were many upheavals,” said Mofaz calmly.

“It was an earthquake,” I persisted.

“Do you want to know what happened to me in ’77?” replied Mofaz. “When was the Entebbe operation? In ’76?”

Livni does remember the upheaval of 1977. She was born in 1958 to a highly politicized family. Her father, Eitan Livni, had been the operations officer of the pre-state right-wing paramilitary organization Etzel, also known as the Irgun, and a Likud MK. Her mother, Sarah, also served in Etzel. She remembers childhood trips with her parents to the occupied territories, her father speaking Arabic with the locals. Her mother would tell him that he was being patronizing and he would reply that that was his way of showing respect for the Arabs.

Her father, who collected stamps, sent her a stamp from the opening of the post office in Ramallah.

Livni began her political career in Likud. She received her first public position, director general of the Government Corporations Authority, in 1996, from Netanyahu and Lieberman, the two bosses of the government now as well. In 2006 she left Likud for Kadima, together with Sharon and Ehud Olmert.

The years as foreign minister alongside Prime Minister Olmert were good for her image: She broadcast moderation and her name was never linked to stories of corruption. After the report of the Winograd Committee, whose mandate was to examine the decision-making process and the events of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, she called on Olmert to resign, but to the astonishment of many, remained at his side in the cabinet. That was the first crack in her image. When Olmert resigned, she was unable to form a government. Kadima won 29 seats in the election, more than any other party, but in the end she remained in opposition. Her bitter rival Mofaz thought that was a lethal mistake. Other members of the party born to rule were also furious at leaving the position of power.

Did they think it was so terrible to sit in the opposition? Is it an island to which people are exiled?

“For some MKs, the opposition is a traumatic experience, for which I’m paying a price.”

What are they saying to you now? Promise us to be in the government and don’t dare to repeat this hallucination called the opposition?

“Yes. That’s part of the discussion. Both with MKs and former ministers.”

Were they really angry at you for these three years in the opposition?

“Of course. For some of them, life in the opposition was intolerable and some of them told me so. In other words: ‘We want to be there in the government.’”

You didn’t identify and you didn’t lead the strong sentiment against Netanyahu because of the extreme social gaps. I don’t think you would describe yourself as a social democrat, would you?

“I’m not.”

Are you a capitalist?

“No. My ideology in the socioeconomic sphere is also centrist. I support the free market economy, but with government intervention in case of a market failure. I’m in favor of privatization, but not of everything. Netanyahu represents the extreme version of the ‘invisible hand,’ that the government shouldn’t intervene. He’s really pleased with the macro figures, but ignores what’s happening in real life. I believe that growth has to be translated into quality of life, and Shelly Yachimovich is raising the red flag again.”

What red flag?

“The flag of the party − we’ve been there, and I think we shouldn’t go back there. Those were the days when the party controlled all the public assets, and I say the party, because it was Mapai at that time, through the government, the Histadrut labor federation, the large trade unions, and let’s not forget that in the final analysis I came from a family that did not have a red membership booklet, and those who received it at the time were those close to the plate. I’m opposed to raising the socialist flag again. My viewpoint doesn’t include creating surplus power now for the Histadrut or the trade unions.”

In your years as a minister in the Sharon government you didn’t oppose Netanyahu’s terrible edicts as finance minister.

“No, I didn’t lead an internal opposition within the government. Many people tell me, you were a partner in governments that ... It’s true, but some of my desire to be prime minister comes from the realization that it’s the only seat from which you can implement your worldview. When I was absorption minister, I conducted a debate with Finance Minister Netanyahu over the question of how I could get more money for the new immigrants. I didn’t conduct street battles in the cabinet over other economic issues.

You have never been identified with social issues; you didn’t promote overtly practical issues related to the middle class, the growing power of the tycoons, the exploitation of contract workers. Your voice wasn’t heard on those issues until the protest.

“Check out my speech in the Knesset in February, before the protest. I read the letter written by Tal from Be’er Sheva. The reactions of the Likudniks were shocking. This is a girl from an educated family, she works, and she and her husband can’t support their family. I read the letter; Bibi [Netanyahu] laughed hysterically. She wrote there: ‘I don’t want to leave the country.’ [Knesset Speaker] Ruby Rivlin reacted: ‘Don’t do us any favors.’ After the fuel prices were raised, I was at a gas station at Pi Glilot to distribute stickers, because my spokesman Gil said: ‘If you don’t hand out the stickers the media won’t come, even if there are other MKs from Kadima.’

“And I’m telling the truth about myself: In the final analysis a person is active in politics based on her motivations for entering this playing field. I admit that my main interest was the diplomatic sphere, not contract workers. Today I have tremendous motivation on the issues of the democratic Jewish state, extremism in society and the inequality in bearing the burden; that can also focus the anger of the group that participated in the protest, a group to which I belong. In the end I’m part of it, I know what it means to live in [a house measuring] 40 meters, to pay a mortgage.”

To which class do you really belong? Yachimovich once said: “It’s not only Barak; Netanyahu and Livni don’t live in a ramshackle hut either.”

“I built my house on the ruins of the 40 meters in which I lived for years. It’s an old Jewish Agency house we bought because Naftali ‏[her husband], who came from Afula, wanted land and I wanted Tel Aviv. That was the compromise, in the context of our abilities as a young couple with a mortgage. And I remember that my father, who died before we completed the construction, came to make sure that there was nothing ostentatious about it.”

Would you like to see Daphni Leef on the Kadima Knesset slate?

“Don’t bother me with names; I’m too serious to talk in terms of celebrities.”
She led a sweeping protest here ...

“I have a lot of admiration for the protest. I spoke to Daphni Leef on the Friday when she went out with the tent. To my regret, they all asked us not to come, because they didn’t want it to be political. That was a mistake, in my opinion, and I admit that I also ask myself whether despite the fact that they told us not to come, we should have been there more, to listen.”

Opposition to the Shalit deal

You thought there should have been no deal with Hamas regarding Gilad Shalit, but you expressed your opinion after his release. That wasn’t seen as a courageous step.

“My view on the Shalit issue was known. There was no discussion of Gilad Shalit that I didn’t begin with the words: ‘I was a senior member of the government that decided not to release him.’ Before the deal, they brought the Shalit family to the Kadima faction so we would all sign a manifesto to the government to release him, and I said: ‘I’m not signing this manifesto.’ Gilad’s grandfather later said: ‘Anyone who doesn’t support us is not worthy of leading.’ My position was known, I didn’t keep it inside and speak only after the deal.”

You didn’t conduct a clear-cut public campaign on the issue.

“It’s not a matter of conducting a campaign. At the faction meeting, the Shalit family tried to say that ‘Anyone who doesn’t support at all costs is opposed at all costs.’ I wasn’t opposed to the deal at all costs, but to the cost of this deal. And mainly, my criticism was aimed at the future. In recent years there has been a reversal of roles in Israeli society. I saw it in the Second Lebanon War. On one of the days eight civilians were killed at the train station in Haifa, and later in the week soldiers were killed in Bint Jbeil. Someone in the government said at the time: ‘The public can’t tolerate harm to soldiers.’

“And I remember that situation, because I said to myself: ‘Something very problematic is happening to us.’ That’s reflected in the texts of news reports too: civilians are murdered in terror operations; soldiers fall or are killed. It’s not only a semantic difference. And the example of Gilad Shalit was part of this process. I wanted to open this discussion, which is connected to the image of this young man, and I say young man, because we often refer to soldiers as children.”

What are you actually saying? That Israeli society can’t face additional losses of soldiers?

“I have difficulty with this conversation on a personal level, because I’m the mother of a soldier. My eldest son was drafted shortly after Shalit. And when he was discharged I thought, now he’s here and Gilad is there. It’s a parental experience and it can’t predominate when making government decisions. You can’t see only the story of the individual, but that of the nation. I met with heads of state. With [U.S. Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. We talked at the time about [captive soldiers Eldad] Regev and [Ehud] Goldwasser and about Shalit, and she said to me: ‘We’re fighting terror everywhere in the world, they’re kidnapping our soldiers, we don’t conduct negotiations.’ The international viewpoint was that what we perceive as strength is also perceived as weakness. And that is of significance in the neighborhood where we live.”

A cigarette from Mahmoud Abbas

On May 20, 1998, Livni stopped smoking. Until then she used to smoke two and a half packs on a calm day. She was then the director general of the Government Corporations Authority and she flew a lot as part of her job. “Those were the days when they discontinued smoking on El Al. I couldn’t smoke in the bathroom, sneak a cigarette, and I found myself on a four-hour flight to London. I had economic meetings and there they no longer smoked, and I realized how problematic this addiction actually was, and I’m a person who has to win, even when it’s in a contest with myself.”

Since quitting the habit, she smokes small cigarillos from time to time. During one of our meetings, in her home in the Ramat Hahayal neighborhood in Tel Aviv, she went to one of the rooms and removed a thin cigar from a box. She received the box from Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

“He’s a partner,” she says, releasing a cloud of smoke in the living room. They met a few months ago in Jordan, and Livni took Haim Ramon, Tzachi Hanegbi and Roni Bar-On with her. They talked for three hours. “Tzachi and Roni emerged with the realization that we’re missing a historic opportunity here,” she says.

That was Livni’s first meeting with Abbas since becoming leader of the opposition. “I thought it was undemocratic to meet with him. A government was elected and I won’t conduct parallel negotiations,” she says.

So why now?

“There have been no negotiations for a long time, and he’s accused of not wanting them. I wanted to see for myself what the real situation was, because it’s possible that a few months from now it will already be impossible to solve the conflict. Before the meeting I informed Netanyahu and I contacted him afterward too. I told him that if he would release the people imprisoned before the Oslo Accords, Abu Mazen [Abbas] would return to the negotiating table. Netanyahu refused.”

Does Abbas want to reach an agreement?

“I think so.”

Had you been elected prime minister in March 2009, what would you have done about the diplomatic issue? What have we lost in these three years?

“An agreement.”

A final status agreement?

“A final status agreement. I believe it would have been possible.”

And if not?

“We would at least have taken full advantage of the process. Not in order to prove that there’s no partner. The proof that there’s no partner is a boomerang. Had we not reached an agreement, we would have had to think about our fallback position from the moment we decided on the principle of two states. The questions relate to security − the army is supposed to provide security for the citizens, not the settlements. Even when people talk to me today about the disengagement from Gaza and tell me, but there’s terror there, I ask them a simple question: Would you have reestablished Gush Katif, or only left the army there? They say: We would only have left the army.”

What did you think of the agreement reached by Olmert and Abbas?

“The negotiations I was authorized to conduct were discussions of a final status agreement on all the core issues, in detail. Olmert at some point made an offer of principles to Abu Mazen, and that was not part of the same process that I was conducting. In other words, I was not familiar with the details of that proposal in real time. I was opposed to two things in Olmert’s proposal: that the decision on the future of Jerusalem would be referred to a committee composed of three Arabs, one Israeli and one American, and of course the return of refugees.

“I’m very firm on the issue of the refugees. As far as I’m concerned, refugees don’t enter the State of Israel. Not even one. The agreement to bring back a certain number of refugees was a historic mistake that Ehud Barak began and Olmert continued. I convinced the world that the refugees would not enter Israel in this way: I told them that just as Israel as a Jewish state absorbed refugees after the Holocaust, in the same way the Palestinian state is the national solution for the entire Palestinian people, including the refugees. That’s how I in effect convinced the world, not only Condi [Rice] and [U.S. President George W.] Bush, but also [French President Nicholas] Sarkozy, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and the Italians.”

In that case, the Livni who turned “two states for two nations” into her main slogan stands to the right of Olmert. Nor is she willing, perhaps because of her extremely cautious nature, to make firm statements related to the history of the occupation, of the kind made even by the founding father of Kadima, Ariel ‏(“the occupation is bad for Israel”‏) Sharon.

Has the occupation corrupted us as a society?

“It hasn’t corrupted us. It’s not corruption, but a certain insensitivity. My entire perception of the conflict and of what should be done comes from being right-wing to some extent.”

Was there a moral defect in the settlements?

“No. They were a mistake in the concept of two states. They were not a mistake in the concept of one state between the sea and Jordan River in which we would live in wealth and abundance − as Ze’ev Jabotinsky said − Arabs, Christians and Jews, which is an impossible concept. But that was the vision. In other words, that’s why it was not a mistake at the time.”

So is it a mistake or not? Weren’t your parents mistaken when they passionately supported Greater Israel and the establishment of settlements in the territories?

“The settlement blocs were not a mistake, because the fact is that in the end they are determining where the border will be set. The only way to implement my parents’ values is by choosing between one state between the sea and the Jordan − in which case you are implementing the values of equality that I grew up on − or, in order to implement these values, you have a secure Jewish democratic state on part of the Land of Israel. I reached the conclusion that the way to implement those values is by means of two nation-states.”

But if you believe wholeheartedly in the two-state vision, why is it hard for you to admit that the settlement project was a mistake? It’s a logical conclusion.

“The settlements were right for the vision of that time, and as a rule I don’t like the wisdom of hindsight.”

Are we in the area of apartheid?


You meet with Benjamin Netanyahu regularly for personal updates. Is his comparison between [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler, between the Holocaust and Iran, a manipulation for public relations purposes?


Does he really believe that Hitler is sitting there in Tehran and planning another Holocaust? Is it profound and authentic for him?

“I think so. Absurdly, Netanyahu and another group that’s with him are turning the State of Israel into a collective, larger ghetto, out of a Jewish fear of a Holocaust. Netanyahu’s perception of the threats is that of a small country surrounded by enemies, and that’s become an ideology that may be politically advantageous. One day as he stood on the dais he made a statement that really made me angry: “What is happening to us, the isolation of the State of Israel, is not because of what we say or do, but because of what we are.”

Classic victimhood.

“Exactly. It makes no difference what I do, the only thing left to us is to gather together, preferably in a shelter, and wait until the danger subsides. What I consider dangerous is that it leads to fear of the ‘other’ among us, draft bills that undermine equality and minority rights, that silence people. He recently said that the newspaper you write for is an existential threat to the State of Israel. Haaretz and The New York Times. Haaretz and its six readers. The problem is that those six readers are English-speaking readers, and that’s why it bothers Netanyahu. Israel is now ruled by the most right-wing and weakest government in its history, because we have no legitimacy to act. The Churchillian thing to do would be to try to reach an agreement related to the Israeli concept of security. Netanyahu sees that as something Chamberlain would do, an act of surrender. He sees an agreement as surrender.”

What do you think of the Netanyahus’ attempt to control the media?

“He believed that his downfall during his first round as prime minister was related not to his actions or his character, but to media criticism. That’s why he came to power with the intention of controlling the media. And that was done in several ways: One is Israel Hayom. The same person [Sheldon Adelson] who now distributes the freebie newspaper that reflects the prime minister’s agenda and exalts his name, is also trying to ensure that the person Netanyahu thinks he can get along with [Newt Gingrich] will be elected president of the United States.”

Do you consider Israel Hayom an invalid phenomenon?

“Absolutely. It’s a cheapening of democracy. I admit that I don’t read the paper. Netanyahu is deliberately taking over the media. His perspective was ‘they’re afraid,’ and that’s why now they really have to be afraid. The candidates for the chairmanship of the Israel Broadcasting Authority were examined, among other things, as to whether they have a connection with me.”

Is it true that in private conversations you’re saying that you will lose to Mofaz? Are you planning to leave politics?

“No. They’re trying to say that about me. Mofaz, in the knowledge that Kadima under his leadership would collapse, is trying to get people to vote for him, and he’s trying to feed them Acamol [a mild analgesic], which is me. ‘I’ll be elected and she’ll be a senior minister in my government,’ and he also keeps saying: ‘Let her promise that she’s staying.’ He wants me to be the one to get those who are sitting on the fence to return to Kadima. He did that the last time too. Now, the fact is that the one who left twice was him, not me.”