Q&A: Tzipi Livni

By Samuels, David | Tablet Magazine, October 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

Q&A: Tzipi Livni


Samuels, David, Tablet Magazine


When Tzipi Livni is uncomfortable with a question, she shifts in her chair. When she is called upon to lie or evade, she blushes. If something strikes her as funny, she laughs. She is not naturally inclined toward paradox or irony. Her patent lack of interest in deception makes politics seem like an odd career choice.

In a country and a region led by men with outsize egos and florid personality disorders, the leader of Israel's opposition Kadima party is an anomaly because she seems so resolutely normalthe hard-working child of ideologues who devoted their lives to building the state. Along with President Shimon Peres, she is the acceptable face of Israeli democracy in world capitals that feel little affection for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A protegee of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Livni served as foreign minister under Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert. She was the official lead Israeli negotiator during the 2007 Annapolis peace conference (while the real negotiating was done in secret by Olmert) and explained Israel's wars to the world.

She began her career in an elite Mossad unit in Paris between 1980 and 1984, after being recruited into the agency at the age of 22 by a childhood friend named Mira Gal, who later became her chief of staff. "The risks were tangible," Gal has said of those years, when the Jewish community in Paris was targeted by Palestinian bombs and machine-gun attacks and Israeli agents were said to have assassinated a key figure in the Iraqi nuclear program, an Egyptian physicist named Yehia el-Mashad, who was found in his hotel room with his throat slashed open and multiple stab wounds.

While it is assumed that Livni's role as a young Mossad officer involved her formidable analytical skills and fluency in French, it is also worth noting that her father, Eitan Livni, served as chief operations officer for the Irgun during the Jewish underground's bloody revolt against British rule in mandate Palestine.

I spoke to Livni in a modest room in an Upper East Side hotel. She was accompanied by a handler and a lone security man.

After Sept. 11, many in the American Jewish community had a renewed sense of a shared fate with Israel, especially in New York City. We were looking around nervously on buses and subways and being checked for weapons and bombs. Do you think that feeling of mutual understanding has dissolved?

Sept. 11 was a shock to the whole world. But I don't think we should define ourselves through shared threats, because in doing so, we allow our enemies to define us. We need to define ourselves through a common vision that helps Israel put some meaning into the words "Jewish State."

Many American Jews were shocked when the Rotem bill got wide publicity here. They felt that the State of Israel asks them to support the state and consider themselves partners in a shared vision, and here the State of Israel is saying that we, our children, our marriages, our rabbis, our customs, are not really Jewish.

I think that it's a combination of a problematic system of election with very weak politicians. The problem is that a party like Likud, which is not ultra-Orthodox, gives the monopoly on the substance of the words "Jewish State" to the ultra-Orthodox. And this is something that affects not only our relationship with world Jewry but also my life in Israel. Together we need to change this bill. Kadima voted against it, and we hope the coalition will change it as well.

I was recently at a very nice dinner at the Plaza Hotel with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, the former national security adviser, and assorted luminaries of the American Jewish community, hosted by Danny Abraham to honor President Mahmoud Abbas. Do you think these kinds of events are helpful in promoting peace, or do they simply give the Palestinian leadership a propaganda card they can play here?

In order to understand the others, we need to sit and speak with them. …

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