An interview with the leader of Israel's largest opposition party
Tzipi Livni, the leader of Israel's Kadima Party, the largest opposition party in the Knesset -- and the largest party in the entire Knesset, in fact -- sat down last month with James Bennet, the editor of The Atlantic (and a former Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times) and with Goldblog for an extended conversation about the tense relations between the Obama Administration and the Netanyahu government, and about Israel's sinking image. She was tough on Netanyahu -- stating that he wants to turn Israel into a "Jewish ghetto." Though she warned us against turning our meeting into an "oy vey conversation," she did express her worries about how Israel's reputation in the world is hurting it even among American Jews. And most notably, she endorsed the idea that pressure from President Obama on Prime Minister Netanyahu is a service to Israel, saying that it is pressure from the American Administration that caused Netanyahu to endorse a two-state solution to the Middle East crisis."When Obama pushed Bibi, Bibi made some steps forward," she said.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
QUESTION: The relationship between American Jews and Israel seems to be under stress, particularly after Prime Minister Netanyahu's contentious visit to Washington a couple of months ago, in which he seemed to be chastising President Obama. Do you think the Prime Minister understands what's happening in the American Jewish community?
TZIPI LIVNI: The prime minister, deliberately or not, puts American Jews in a very complicated situation. I heard this from some of those I have met with in the past few days -- for them to see this clash between an Israeli prime minister and an American president, this puts them in a situation in which they need to choose a side, and they don't want to be in this situation.
Q: Well, it's not that difficult for many people. Remember that almost 80 percent of American Jews voted for President Obama, so it's not so complicated for some of them.
TL: Even if you voted for President Obama, I think the situation is complicated for you when you have the Israeli prime minister on one side and the American president on the other. It's a nightmare, because we are actually on the same side. It's not Israel vs. the U.S. and vice-versa. We cannot afford this. This is something new. It forced American Jews to take sides.
Q: How do you understand the prime minister's strategy?
TL: Netanyahu believes in hasbara (a Hebrew word that is a cross between "explanation" and "propaganda.") Hasbara is explaining, it is not policymaking. Hasbara is not everything. Hasbara is just making great speeches. And it's not enough. There is an intimacy and trust that is needed between leaders, between their assistants and advisers. Usually you have the real substance behind closed doors, and the press conferences, you have niceties, nice photo ops. But here everything is reversed.
Q: What is your view of how young American Jews relate to Israel and to Zionism today?
TL: Something happened to the State of Israel. What was morally obvious in 1948 is not so obvious anymore. When the State of Israel was established, it was, for the parents and grandparents of these young Jews, a miracle. It was David and Goliath. We were the just cause. It was about values. We were small, but we were the good guys in the world! And we needed to fight for our existence and we succeeded in doing so, so we were both beautiful in terms of the values we represented, and strong enough to confront our enemies.
This was great, but time passes and now we have different trends. One is that there is now in the world of images and perception the reversal of the story, where Israel is the Goliath. And the conflict is usually the picture of Israeli soldiers and the Palestinian child, the tank versus the stone.
So young Jewish people have some difficulties in explaining this and advocating for this. Now, Israel didn't make the decisions that we needed to make. On the one hand, we talk about our aspirations for peace, but on the other hand, we didn't make the decisions necessary to divide the land with the Palestinians. We didn't talk about two states for two peoples. Our leaders are fighting for the right of Israel to build and expand settlements. So without real vision, what is Zionism today? Whether it is about a homeland for the Jewish people, a democracy in the Land of Israel, or is it about Jewish sovereignty over the entire land of Israel? We didn't make this choice internally, so it's difficult for Jews outside Israel to be advocates. On top of this, you have the trend in Israel in which the ultra-Orthodox have the monopoly on Jewishness of the State.
Q: Do you mean how Judaism is defined?
TL: It's about everything. You have American Jews, Reform or Conservative, and they feel that Israel is becoming different, it is more difficult for them to feel connected to something that tells them they are not Jewish enough. I mean, we heard this during the conversion bill controversy, when you had these rabbis saying that people who convert outside of Israel can't make aliyah (move to Israel). And now you have the Ministry of the Interior rewriting the IDs, the nationality line in IDs, whether you are Jewish or not, and they exclude anyone who is not Jewish.
I'll tell you a story. When I became foreign minister I had a meeting with one of the foreign ministers of Europe, I don't want to say who. I was told he's anti-Israel. Even Shimon Peres gave up on him. But I wanted to meet him. We had a private conversation, and I said, 'Listen, this is a personal meeting, I want to tell you about myself. I was born in Israel, my parents came in 1925. I told him this because I wanted to remove for him the impression that exists in Europe that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. I told him I remember 1967, the war, that we came back to places that are part of our history. We didn't want the war, we didn't want to be there, we didn't initiate the war, but we were forced to defend ourselves. And now we are making the decision to have two states. I did all this. Then he looked at me and said, `You know why I am so angry at Israel? Because I volunteered on a kibbutz. You were such a great country. I was proud to be there. I loved you. But what has become of you?'
And I think, in a way, this is something that happens in some parts of the Jewish community.
Q: Is it possible that what we're seeing is the beginning of a break-up between American Jewry and Israel?
TL: I hope not. I really hope this isn't going to be an "oy vey" conversation.
Q: We're basically an oy vey magazine. This is actually a national security question. Can Israel afford to lose the active support of much of American Jewry?