Anger and Hope: A Conversation with Tzipi Livni

Foreign Affairs, July/August 2016 | Go to article overview

Anger and Hope: A Conversation with Tzipi Livni


Tzipi Livni has been called the most powerful woman in Israel since Golda Meir. Born to a prominent right-wing family, Livni spent several years working for the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, before entering politics. In the decades since, she has held eight different cabinet posts-including minister of justice and minister of foreign affairs-and undergone a dramatic ideological evolution. First elected to the Knesset as a member of Likud, in 2005 she joined Kadima, a new centrist party founded by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. A staunch supporter of the peace process, Livni created her own party, Hatnua, in 2012 and then joined forces with Labor to form the Zionist Union before the 2015 election. Now a leading member of the opposition, Livni recently spoke to Foreign Affairs' managing editor, Jonathan Tepperman, in Tel Aviv.

When you speaks to Israelis today, you're apt to hear one of two competing narratives. According to the first, things are better than ever: the economy is thriving, most of Israel's enemies are in disarray, and the current government reflects the will of the people.

The other narrative is the complete opposite: the region is more dangerous than ever, Israel faces growing interna- tional isolation, and the current government is steadily reducing civil liberties and freedoms. What's your version?

It's very clear that here in Israel there are now not only two different states of mind but also two different views about what Israel needs and what Israel is. And your view of reality depends on which of these two views of Israel you hold.

Does that mean Israel is now more polarized than ever before?

Yes, yes. It started before the last election, but the election crystallized the idea-quoting Netanyahu-that there's a gap between these two camps. He was right then. And the things that he and his government have done since then have made this gap grow wider. Those that are not in the government feel that what is happening is completely against our understanding of what Israel is, what its values are, what Judaism is, what democracy is.

Is Israeli democracy in decline?

We are fighting to keep Israel a democracy-not just in terms of its electoral system but also in terms of its values. A lot of those on the other side see democracy only as a question of who is the majority. This is why they are trying to weaken the role of the Supreme Court. And this is why Netanyahu wants to control the press.

In a democracy, you need to have a strong judicial system. You need freedom of speech, you need art, and you need a free press. And all these things are under threat right now. We in the opposition need to fight for these values. We need to push the idea that democracy is a matter of values, and not just the rule of the majority.

Do you think you can win this battle? The right has controlled Israeli politics for years now. The current government is the most hard-line in Israel's history. Netanyahu seems to have very few plausible challengers. Given all of that, plus the country's changing demographics, plus the public's frustration with the peace process, plus the chaos in the region, can the left or the center really make a comeback?

The good thing about having a government like this one is that it makes everything very clear. The more bluntly they speak, the easier it becomes to rally the support of our own camp.

What we need to do now is to go to our base and say, "Listen, it's now clear what this government represents. If they continue, they will take us to the point of no return in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They will change the nature of Israeli democracy."

And is your own camp big enough to win an election?

It's 50-50-for now. You are right: Israel is changing in terms of demographics. But when [the government] says that the majority rules, they're wrong, because Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett represent a minority in Israel. …

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