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A Note on Tzipi Livni

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine piece on Israel's Foreign Minister appears to have generated real interest.  In virtually every meeting and event I have had this week, Tzipi Livni's name has come up.  It is the kind of interest she would love to still be generating back home.  In Israel, Livni went from being the great hope to replace Olmert to just another jaded politician when she decided not to resign from the government and to challenge Prime Minister following the publication of the Winograd Committee's Interim Report into last summer's Lebanon war.  Akiva Eldar devoted a recent op-ed to describing Livni as the "Paper Tigress.

I view these judgments to be both premature and a little harsh.  Livni continues to be a potential future leader and an intriguing political phenomenon.  Her story and thinking -- coming from deep within the Likud to the political center and sensing the urgency of realizing a two-state solution -- is indicative of the direction Israel is belatedly moving in.  That's why it's worth taking a closer look at that NYT magazine story on Livni.

The author of the piece, Roger Cohoen, manages to convey the "can do" positive personality of Livni ("you feel her presence in a room") and recounts the fascinating story of her background.  We are reminded of her closeness to Secretary Rice and of her promotion of a political horizon between Israel and the Palestinians: "'Stagnation works against those who believe in a two-state solution,' Livni said in our first conversation."

As Cohen moves on to describing the regional reality and the policy options, he quickly gets to the heart of the distance that Livni still has to tread in her own political journey before she can become a real vehicle for advancing a stable, realistic peace.  Cohen describes the scene in the occupied territories: "Palestine is remote and riven and receding... If you are looking for a primer on colonialism, this is not a bad place to start."

Livni's insistence on the preconditions regarding Hamas, her framing of the conflict within Bush's "war on terror" paradigm, and her seeming push-back against basing the future border on the '67 lines all lead Cohen to suggest that "at times I wondered to what degree Livni had really moved from her hard line, Likudnik beginnings."  And worse, "What I was not sure about after our first meeting was her grasp on reality."

He quotes Palestinian PLC member and former Unity Government Minister Mustafa Barghouti as saying: "What Livni wants us to do is give up before we start negotiations... I feel sorry for her.  She wants to remove all risk, all fears, before engaging in discussion."

Livni comes across in the article, and from my own experience in meeting her and following her career, as someone who is still grappling with the policy consequences and implications of what she now understands to be an Israeli imperative: divide the land, leave most of the West Bank, deliver the two-state solution and quick.  And the elements of the remaining visceral Livni rejectionism may actually give some clues as to the way forward.

  • Livni is uncompromising on any Palestinian refugee right of return -- she now needs to match this understandable position with a willingness to accept that the '67 line is the point of departure on territory and that any modifications to that line will be mutual and equitable.
  • Livni seems stuck on imposing a Zionist narrative on Israel's neighbors -- Livni has to ask herself, "is Israel's goal a viable, stable, secure two-state solution whereby Israel is accepted and recognized in the region, or is this an argument over narratives and principles and Israel's 'right to exist'?"  The latter is unwinnable and unnecessary (Israel never demanded it from Egypt or Jordan), the former is imperative.

At the very end of the interview Livni seems to almost answer this question for herself:

Each of us can live with our narrative, so long as we are pragmatic when it comes to the land.  I still believe in our right to the whole land, but felt it was more important to make a compromise. We cannot solve who was right or wrong in 1948 or decide who is more just. The Palestinians can feel justice is on their side, and I can feel it is on my side. What we have to decide about is not history but the future.

In saying this, Livni, I imagine, inadvertently is actually suggesting a framing and a platform which begins to approximate that of the Hamas.  Hamas has not (yet) explicitly advocated two states, but has implicitly done so in recognizing the reality of Israel.  Hamas and Fatah, too, believe in "the right to the whole land," as does Livni.  Fatah is clear on its willingness to compromise in practice, while Hamas equivocates.  The way to test this further is not via preconditions and demands for recognizing the other side's rights -- it is via engagement, direct or indirect.

Can Livni continue her personal journey and help complete Israel's journey to agreed secure borders?  Listening to her own words would be a useful starting point.

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Daniel Levy

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 13, 2007 12:45 PM.

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