‘Israel Needs Borders—and Peace’

An interview with the Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni on the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin, 20 years after his assassination

Tzipi Livni at a rally in memory of Yitzhak Rabin (Baz Ratner / Reuters)

Speaking at a rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday, former U.S. President Bill Clinton paid tribute to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated this week in 1995.

“He refused to do the easy thing, which is to deny evident facts,” Clinton told the crowd of 100,000 at Rabin Square. “He wanted to solve problems, not turn away from them or deny them.”

The problem Rabin meant to solve was a still-elusive peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and a political solution to the decades-long conflict. The closest he got, before he was gunned down after a peace rally by a far-right Jewish extremist, was the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn in 1993. Oslo was not so much a comprehensive peace deal as a framework for a future agreement. Progress would theoretically happen in phases. The major issues that fueled the conflict would eventually be sorted out. That day never came.

As Clinton told The Atlantic’s James Bennet last year, the two sides are “no less interdependent than they were when Yitzhak Rabin was alive and handed over the first big chunk of the West Bank to the Palestinians, [which] cost him his life.”

Each year, around the anniversary of Rabin’s killing, a set of tributes and counterfactuals lament what might have been. With a new wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence now underway, and yet another war and another round of failed peace talks just passed, the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s death has proven a particularly poignant moment to ask if Rabin might have brought peace had he lived—and what, if any, elements of his legacy live on.

Ahead of the anniversary, I spoke with Tzipi Livni, who is currently one of the leaders of the opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In many ways, Livni’s political journey—from a critic of the Oslo Accords and a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party to a two-time negotiator in peace talks with the Palestinians and opponent of Netanyahu—reflects the divisions that have surfaced in post-Rabin Israel.

My conversation with Livni began, unexpectedly, with a discussion of Seinfeld. When I offered her a black-and-white cookie as a way of welcoming her to New York, she referenced the episode of the sitcom where Jerry waxes poetic about the pastry as an emblem of racial harmony.
“I have this episode of Seinfeld on disc,” she told me. “He’s coming to Israel, by the way.” At this point, her assistant remarked that Jerry Seinfeld’s first show in Israel had sold out and that another show had been added. “In Israel, he is very, very popular,” Livni said. “I don’t know what it tells about us.”
Come to think of it: Jerry’s vision of peace—“two races of flavor living side by side in harmony”—does echo the preferred language of political reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians: “two states for two peoples.” The episode of Seinfeld aired in February of 1994, six months after the signing of the Oslo Accords.
At that time, Livni was just starting her political career. Only weeks before Rabin’s death, Livni decided to leave her job as a real-estate lawyer. The daughter of prominent right-wing Israeli parents, she joined Netanyahu’s Likud Party and stood in opposition to Oslo.
“The Oslo agreement was basically more of a memorandum of understanding,” she told me. “They postponed all the core issues to the end—they were talking about steps and stages. I thought that the best thing to do was to have the entire deal and then both leaders can come to their own people and say, ‘OK, we get something, but also we gave something, which is very difficult for us to do, but also we get something in return.’ It’s not just a vague idea of peace.”
The momentum of Israel’s peace camp quickly faded in the wake of the Rabin assassination. Shimon Peres, Rabin’s successor, waged a failed military campaign in Lebanon and Hamas launched a series of terror attacks that weakened support for the Oslo effort. Six months after Rabin’s death, Peres was narrowly defeated by Netanyahu, who opposed the peace agreement.
In 1999, Livni entered the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Later, as justice minister, she raised her national profile by delivering a widely praised speech on the 10th anniversary of Rabin’s death in 2005.
“I said, ‘I didn’t vote for Rabin, but he was also my prime minister,’” she recalled. “And the meaning was basically that the grief and the shock is something that we all share.”
In 2006, Livni left Likud to form the centrist Kadima Party with former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who led Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. During that time, she served as foreign minister and led a failed effort to broker a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the eventual leader of Kadima, her party won the most seats in the Knesset in Israel’s 2009 elections. But with right-wing parties scoring a larger share of seats overall, Netanyahu was asked to lead the government. He has been in charge ever since. Meanwhile, Livni has been in and out of the opposition; serving again as justice minister, she led another round of unsuccessful peace talks between 2013 and 2014.

Israel in 2015 is nothing if not a country bedeviled by competing sets of what Bill Clinton calls “evident facts.” If the country maintains its control over the West Bank and its growing Palestinian population, some projections suggest that it will cease to be a democratic, Jewish state by 2020. Meanwhile, the longer the occupation of Palestinian territory carries on, the more Israel’s standing abroad suffers as it struggles to defend the positions it takes in the conflict.

“There is a huge gap between the way we feel or the way we understand the region and the way that the international community is looking at that,” Livni said.

“When we are looking at the region, we are looking from a satellite position. We are the Davids of the region, we are surrounded by all of these enemies and these lunatics—ISIS cutting heads off and all these terrorist organizations. And the world is looking from a Google Earth point of view, and what they see is the Israeli soldier and the Palestinian kid with a stone, or a tank and a stone. It’s a reverse narrative in understanding what we are facing, and Israel needs to bridge this gap. Not an easy task.”

Like many others, Livni argued that the latest surge of Israeli-Palestinian violence, much of which has emanated from East Jerusalem, is a preview of what will happen if Israel fails to institute a peace deal with or a separation from the Palestinians. “Binationalism is going to be ugly, it’s going to be violent,” she warned, referring to the de-facto political reality of a single state for Israelis and Palestinians that could soon have an Arab majority.

At the same time, Israel has now fought three wars with Hamas in Gaza, which has mostly controlled the territory since Israel withdrew from the strip in 2005. (Israeli disengagement from southern Lebanon in 2000 similarly led to war with Hezbollah.) On the Israeli side, a lack of confidence in Palestinian leaders, the ongoing violence, and what Livni calls “the historical conclusion from the disengagement from Gaza” have made a two-state solution less popular on both sides and, increasingly, a political impossibility.

“It’s choosing between bad options in a way,” Livni told me. “I believe that the leaders who would sign an agreement—and maybe this is where Rabin was in the past—are those who understand that not signing an agreement is the worst scenario because this can lead to a binational Arab state, [which is] something we cannot afford.”
“The image in Israel is that those like me who are thinking about the State of Israel and the nature of the State of Israel and the values of the State of Israel, if we want to negotiate with the Palestinians, the meaning is that we want to give to the Palestinians,” she continued.
“What I am trying to say to Israel is, ‘Listen, borders is something that we need and hopefully peace is something that we need.’ People are asking me, ‘Do you trust the Palestinians?’ and I say, ‘I trust us.’ It’s not about trust, it’s about doing something that we need to.”
“There are risks in signing an agreement or also doing some unilateral steps [as with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza], but they are calculated risks,” she added.

Nevertheless, binationalism isn’t immediate and violence is. Seinfeld aficionados, who apparently comprise a significant bloc in Israel, may recall what happened after Jerry spoke quixotically about the harmonious coexistence embodied by the black-and-white cookie: The cookie made him sick, and he threw it up.