World

Tzipi Livni and the quest for peace in Israel and Palestine

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08/23/13
In the Magazine
Ariel Schalit/AP/Corbis

In early 2011, a disgruntled former employee of the Palestinian negotiating team handed Al Jazeera the biggest leak in the history of the Arab-Israeli peace process. The Palestine Papers—a collection of internal emails, working papers, and meeting minutes—contained shocking revelations about the compromises Palestinian leaders had made during the last serious negotiations with Israel, which began in late 2007 at Annapolis, Maryland, and continued into 2008.

But the documents also put a spotlight on the surprisingly cordial—even congenial—relationship Palestinian negotiators had enjoyed with their Israeli counterparts. And they left little doubt as to which member of the opposing team had been their favorite: Israel’s foreign minister and chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni.

birnbaum-fe0230-livni-tease-embed1. Abbas supporters in the West Bank. During negotiations, Livni says, Abbas would bring her cigarillos “so I could join the men smoking.” Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters

“I would vote for you,” chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei told Livni, according to the minutes of one 2008 meeting. Saeb Erekat, another top Palestinian, suggested to U.S. officials that he could appear alongside Livni “in public events to demonstrate [to the Israeli public] we have something since Annapolis.”

“What we had in Annapolis was trust,” Livni, 55, told Newsweek recently. “Even when we argue, we respect each other. And we respect the demands, even when we say no.” Livni quit smoking in 1998, but she recalled that, during those talks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would bring her cigarillos “so I could join the men smoking.”

It wasn’t just the Palestinians who were fond of Livni back in 2008. As foreign minister, she had become a beloved presence around the world. “She was well regarded by the Europeans as someone who wanted to end Israel’s isolation, so she was someone they could work with,” former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told me. “In Washington, she was seen as someone who was trustworthy, committed, and hardworking. The president personally liked her a lot.” Meanwhile, at home in Israel, where top politicians are generally assumed to be crooked, she had built a reputation for honesty. When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned in September 2008 amid mounting corruption allegations, Livni became head of Israel’s ruling Kadima Party and seemed on the verge of becoming Israel’s second female prime minister.

Then, almost overnight, things fell apart—for both Livni and the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Livni proved unable to form a coalition, forcing her to call early elections. Though Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party won one seat less than Livni’s Kadima in the February 2009 vote, the strength of other right-wing parties left him in a stronger position to form a government. Netanyahu became prime minister, Livni became opposition leader, and the peace process more or less froze.

In 2012, after three years of failing to bring down Netanyahu’s government, Livni was thrown out of the party leadership by Kadima voters in a landslide. She returned to politics eight months later to contest the January 2013 elections as the head of a new, peace-focused, center-left party. But with Israeli politics prioritizing domestic issues for the first time in decades, she found herself badly out of step with the national zeitgeist—and her party finished seventh with just 5 percent of the vote. Livni’s historical moment, it seemed, was over.

birnbaum-fe0230-livni-tease-embed2 Rice and Livni in 2007. Rice recalls Sharon telling them, “You two women will do some good things for the world.” David Silverman/Pool/Corbis

But something strange happened a few weeks after the election: Livni appeared at a joint press conference with Netanyahu to announce that her party would be the first to join his new government. Netanyahu, seeking to build a centrist coalition that would ease his tensions with the world, had given her the post of justice minister and—at her request—the chance to head any new peace talks with the Palestinians. Livni’s timing couldn’t have worked out better: after months of intense shuttle diplomacy by John Kerry, negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians have now resumed in earnest for the first time in five years—giving her a chance to complete what she long ago started.

Achieving a two-state solution, Livni said, is “the reason for me to be in politics.” It’s also a task that rests very much on her shoulders. Given her relationships with Palestinian officials, her credibility with the international community, and, these days at least, her rapport with Netanyahu, Livni may be the only person who can drag Israelis and Palestinians together and—after 65 years of conflict—broker an agreement both sides can live with. From the nadir of her career to the savior of her country in less than a year: it would be, as political redemption narratives go, a pretty spectacular story. What no one knows is whether it can actually be done.

ON SALAHEDDIN Street in the Bab al-Zahra neighborhood of East Jerusalem, across from the Rajab Abu Asab and Sons electrical-appliances store, sits a boxy, nondescript building protected by a stone wall and a gate manned by several security guards. After a future peace accord, in which Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem would likely come under Palestinian sovereignty, it could very well house government offices in the new Palestinian capital. But today, it is the home of Israel’s justice ministry and the office to which Livni commutes most mornings from Tel Aviv.

I visited Livni days after she had returned from Washington, where, standing at a podium alongside Kerry and Erekat, she had announced the resumption of peace talks. She seemed tired but upbeat. Sitting at her desk wearing a taut black outfit, her hair in a ponytail, and a small golden Star of David around her neck, Livni spoke at length about Israel’s pursuit of peace. “Something that truly frustrates me is the impression in Israel that when you are talking about security, you are bold, you are tough, this is what we need against all the enemies that we have,” she said, banging the desk. “And when someone is talking about peace, you know, it’s the naive left wing, soft.”

birnbaum-fe0230-livni-tease-embed3-wide Abbas and Livni meet at the 2006 World Economic Forum on the Middle East in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt. Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/Corbis

Livni’s journey to the role of Israel’s leading peace advocate was an unlikely one, born as she was to one of the most prominent right-wing power couples in the fledgling Jewish state. Her father Eitan’s family had fled anti-Semitism in Poland when he was 6, moving to Palestine to pursue the Zionist dream. As a young man, he joined the Irgun, the right-wing guerrilla organization seeking to drive the British out, and rose to become the group’s chief operations officer, a role that got him arrested in 1946 (he later escaped in a famed prison break). Earlier that year, during a raid on a train transporting salaries for British generals, he had met and become enamored with fellow Irgun member Sara Rosenberg. On May 15, 1948, the two became the first couple to marry in the new state of Israel. Tzipi, the youngest of their three children, was born 10 years later.

The young Livni grew up in an Israel dominated by the left-wing Labor Party, which led every government for the state’s first three decades. The Irgun—and its political successor, the Herut Party—had differentiated itself from the ruling establishment not only by its tactics, which included blowing up British installations, but by its uncompromising support for establishing Jewish sovereignty over all of biblical Israel (which comprised not only modern-day Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, but Jordan as well). The movement had ardently opposed the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, which divided Palestine into Jewish and Arab states—and which David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, had accepted.

“I lived between two different worlds since I grew up in Tel Aviv,” Livni said, recounting her childhood in Israel’s largest and most left-wing city. Unlike her friends, who joined the socialist Scouts and marched with red flags on May Day, Livni joined the smaller, right-wing Beitar youth movement, where she was schooled in the ideas of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the ideological father of right-wing Zionism. She felt marginalized, believing that the establishment had minimized her parents’ contribution to Israel’s founding. “I was furious when I read in school that my parents represented war, that there was a glorification of blood, that they wore fascist clothes,” she said. “I was quite a young fighter then. I don’t envy my teachers. I used to preach to them.”

To this day, Livni insists that her parents “were freedom fighters, not terrorists.” She said that unlike some of Israel’s leading right-wing firebrands today, who have thrived electorally on anti-Arab sentiment, they “respected the Arabs.” Livni recalled urging her reticent father—who served in the Knesset for both Herut and Likud—to campaign for himself during the 1984 Likud primaries, only to watch him pick up the phone and ask party members instead to support a Druze candidate because he thought it important for Likud to have Arab representation.

In 1967 Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the Six-Day War. Eitan Livni subsequently brought his young daughter to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and other biblical sites that had fallen into Israeli hands. When religious Jews later established a heavily fortified settlement community in Hebron, her mother sent money to support it.

birnbaum-fe0230-livni-tease-embed4 “I’m not a person of mentors,” Livni says. “The only mentor I can speak of as such is Jabotinsky, who died in 1940.” Alexandra Boulat/VII/Corbis

“I was 9 years old, so I was not thinking about whether we could keep it,” Livni said. “I remember people dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv when we freed Jerusalem—and I used the word ‘freed’ because it was coming back home. It was the kind of enthusiasm that was not against somebody. It was something that united us back then—left and right.”

That fleeting unity soon evaporated over disputes about whether to settle the land, as her father and other Likudniks were urging, or to keep it as a bargaining chip for a future peace deal. Initially, Labor governments consented to a handful of settlements in areas of strategic and biblical significance. But after Likud leader (and former Irgun chief) Menachem Begin won the 1977 election, ending Labor’s 29-year rule, he lifted all restrictions on settlements and even established incentives for Israelis to move to them.

The young Livni supported the right-wing line. As a high-school student, she joined her mother at a protest of one of Henry Kissinger’s visits because he was pushing Begin to accept the idea of land for peace. “It was quite a violent demonstration,” Livni recalled. “They beat us, the policemen.” Still, she had no plans at the time to follow her father into politics. Like most Israeli high-school graduates, she joined the Army; a few years later, she signed on with Israel’s hallowed Mossad intelligence agency. “Had she not left, I’m sure she would have been able to reach very high echelons there,” says childhood friend Mirla Gal, who served with her in the Mossad. Livni’s time as a spy remains shrouded in secrecy, though she is known to have been based in Paris and is believed to have played a role in Operation Wrath of God—the mission to hunt down and kill Palestinian terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. “Whatever she did,” Gal says, “she did very well.”

BY THE time Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat had their famous handshake on the White House lawn in 1993, Livni had begun to move toward the center. She remained, to be sure, skeptical of her liberal Tel Aviv friends’ reveries about a “new Middle East.” And, working as a high-powered attorney at the time, she thought the Oslo accords to be poorly constructed. But she had also come to believe that Israel could not forever rule over a hostile population, particularly a fast-expanding one that, combined with Israel’s own Arab minority, threatened to one day make Jews a minority in Israeli-held territory and put the country on the same moral plane as apartheid South Africa. “I was caught in between,” Livni recalled. “My voice was not heard.”

birnbaum-fe0230-livni-tease-embed5 At the helm of Likud after the 1999 elections, Sharon took Livni under his wing. Ariel Schalit/AP

Livni said she decided to enter politics on Yom Kippur 1995, a few weeks before Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing extremist. After getting the OK from her husband and her two young children, she called her mother, Sara, to share the news (her father had passed away five years earlier). “Her first answer was, ‘What about your children?’” Livni recalled. “But when I said my husband supports me on this, she said OK. She used to cook chicken soup for my children because she said they were starving because I decided to go into politics.” Livni narrowly missed getting into the Knesset in the 1996 elections, but shortly thereafter she received a call from Avigdor Lieberman—Israel’s recently deposed foreign minister, who at the time was new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff—about an interesting opportunity. Netanyahu was planning to privatize several government-owned entities and was looking for someone to oversee the program as general manager of the Government Companies Authority. Livni accepted the job.

I asked her if Netanyahu became a mentor to her during that period. She replied that her interaction with the boss was confined largely to the two of them posing together for “photos of the big check.” “I’m not a person of mentors. The only mentor I can speak of as such is Jabotinsky, who died in 1940,” she says. “I’m still quoting his views.” (Livni argues that Jabotinsky, who is widely associated with the most right-wing strain of Zionism, in fact held liberal views on minority rights and other issues, and was “different from the way he is being perceived.”)

In the 1999 elections, Livni finally won a place in the Knesset, but Netanyahu lost the premiership to Labor’s Ehud Barak, who had campaigned on ending the conflict with the Palestinians. Netanyahu was replaced at Likud’s helm by Ariel Sharon, a hardline former general who promptly took Livni under his wing. Condoleezza Rice, at the time a foreign-policy adviser to then–governor George W. Bush, recalls visiting Israel that year and meeting Livni for the first time. “It was a very hot day, and we were on the third floor of this building,” Rice remembers. “Sharon, as he often did, pulled out all his maps to show us Israel’s security dilemma. He said, ‘Now, I want you to meet this young colleague of mine’—it was Tzipi—and he said, ‘You two women will do some good things for the world.’ We always took that as a kind of charge.”

When Sharon was elected prime minister two years later, following the failure of Barak’s peace offer at Camp David and the launch of the Second Intifada, Livni became a minister in the new Likud government, serving in a panoply of portfolios over the coming years: agriculture, regional cooperation, immigrant absorption, housing, and then justice. Israel in those years was engaged in all-out war with Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups—a war whose high civilian casualties frequently left the government having to explain itself to the international community. Even as a junior minister, Livni became one of the country’s most effective diplomats.

birnbaum-fe0230-livni-tease-embed6 The Israeli Army detonates a bomb destroying the home of Palestinian militant Mahmoud Salah in 2002. Brennan Linsley/AP

“I think, frankly, the fact that she was a woman who was taking these hardline positions helped Sharon with Condi and the president,” says Elliott Abrams, a senior Bush official and the author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. According to Abrams, Livni almost singlehandedly convinced Bush, Rice, and other senior U.S. officials to support the controversial barrier Israel was building to keep out suicide bombers. (Before Livni’s entreaties, Bush had said that it would be “very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank.”) Later, Abrams recalls, she persuaded Bush to come out foursquare against the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees—a position enshrined in Bush’s famous letter of assurances to Sharon that Israel still cites today. Abrams says the view of Livni as soft in some Israeli quarters doesn’t comport with his experience. “She could be quite tough,” he says.

Israel’s initial response to the Second Intifada had been a lurch to the right. But as the country began to gain the upper hand against terrorism, Sharon and other right-wingers in the government started to come around to Livni’s view that Israel had no choice but to separate from the Palestinians, even if it meant giving up land. Sharon endorsed the two-state solution and in 2005 unilaterally withdrew all settlers and soldiers from Gaza. The pullout split the Likud between moderate ministers like Livni and more hardline elements like Netanyahu. Eventually, Sharon, facing a leadership challenge from Netanyahu, bolted Likud and started a new centrist party, Kadima (Forward), taking with him Livni and other Likud moderates, as well as some centrist Labor members.

Sharon had a stroke months before the election, but when his deputy Olmert nonetheless led Kadima to victory, Livni was promoted to foreign minister, where she quickly became a favorite of the international community. (When she was replaced by the brash hardliner Avigdor Lieberman in 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was reported to have begged Netanyahu to bring her back.) And when peace talks with the Palestinians resumed at the end of 2007, Livni was named chief negotiator. The death of Arafat in 2004, whom Livni and most Israelis believed was not serious about ending the conflict, had convinced her that peace was possible. Arafat’s replacement, Mahmoud Abbas (or Abu Mazen, as he’s commonly known), had been the leading Palestinian voice for peace with Israel and now seemed intent on striking a deal. As the negotiations began, Livni became friendly with Saeb Erekat and other Palestinian officials. “The interactions that I saw—and I was in a lot of them with Saeb and Tzipi—they were tough negotiations, but they were negotiations in good faith,” says Rice. “I thought everyone was doing their best.”

birnbaum-fe0230-livni-tease-embed7 Today, Livni is critical of the way Olmert handled the talks. Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/Corbis

In Israel, meanwhile, Livni had built a reputation for honesty. Most Israelis saw her as the rare politician who would stand up for her principles even at the expense of her political career. Meir Sheetrit, one of the lawmakers in Livni’s new party, suggests that at times Livni was too idealistic for her own good. He notes that in 2008, following Olmert’s resignation, Livni could have avoided elections and become prime minister had she accepted the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party’s demand that Jerusalem be taken off the table for peace discussions.

“If I were in her shoes, no doubt in my mind that, to be prime minister, I would pay anything and say anything and maybe not keep it afterwards, and then I can send them to hell,” Sheetrit says. “But she didn’t want to do so.”

The move cost Livni the prime ministership, but earned her respect across the political spectrum. Dani Dayan, a longtime settler leader who knew Livni from her days in the Beitar youth movement, calls her a “mensch.” During last year’s Kadima primary fight, which Livni would go on to lose, Dayan says he sent her a text message. “I told her, ‘Tzipi, I don’t know if it’s good for us, for my ideology, if you win that primary, and maybe it’s bad, but I think it’s good for Israeli political hygiene.’”

Of course, being respected and succeeding in the dog-eat-dog world of the Knesset are two different things. “She has very good character,” says Sheetrit. “But in Israeli politics, good character doesn’t always help.”

AS LIVNI returns to the negotiating table, she faces no shortage of skeptics who doubt this round of talks will succeed and hardliners who actively hope it will not. “We are marking 20 years from Oslo this coming September, and we have seen a lot of photo ops and a lot of meetings,” says Israeli Deputy Defense Minister and Likud central committee chair Danny Danon, who argues that Livni’s two-state vision is dead on arrival. “I think it will fail either in the negotiations, as it did in the past, when Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert offered it to the Palestinians and they refused to accept, or it will fail when the Israeli public will not support it.”

birnbaum-fe0230-livni-tease-embed8-wide One Netanyahu adviser says the relationship works well now “because it’s clear one of them is prime minister and the other is justice minister.” Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

Most Israelis, meanwhile, have long since moved on from the conflict with the Palestinians. Livni recalled meeting some of the leaders of the left-wing, youth-driven economic protests that shook Israel in the summer of 2011 and encouraging them to speak out for peace as well. “They said, ‘This is old stuff,’” she remembered.

Livni welcomes the pessimism. “From a pragmatic point of view, when we created great hopes and nothing came out of it, it led to violence,” she said. “So this situation, in which we entered the negotiating room and there are not high expectations, it’s OK. All I wanted is to just be there and negotiate.”

Much of the Israeli skepticism stems from the failure of the 2008 talks, which culminated with Abbas walking away from a far-reaching peace proposal by Olmert. But Livni argues that the situation was more complicated than the Israeli caricature of yet another Palestinian leader missing yet another historic opportunity. The talks that Livni led had succeeded in narrowing the gaps between the sides considerably and had even led to understandings on some issues. “They were making a lot of progress,” Rice says. According to American and Palestinian officials involved at the time, Abbas and other Palestinian leaders balked at Olmert’s offer less because they rejected the terms—though they certainly hoped for improvements—than because they feared that Olmert, who had already announced his intention to resign, couldn’t deliver. “We were not certain how much validity anything that could be reached with him would have,” Maen Rashid Areikat, the chief Palestinian representative to the United States, told me earlier this year. “At that time, he was considered to be a lame duck.” Instead, they hoped to secure a deal with Livni, whom they mistakenly calculated would win the election.

Today, Livni is critical of the way Olmert handled the talks. “After eight months—it was November 2008—we met all together,” Livni said. “I was there. Abu Mazen was there. The Arab League was there. And the Quartet. All the ministers. And we all agreed that it’s going OK. Abu Mazen and me, we basically made the same speeches, saying that it is working for us, that we need more time, that it is discreet, but we built trust, and we agreed on some issues, and we don’t want the world to be involved in this—we need to do it as a bilateral process—and this was the mutual message. This was the reality for me. And then I discovered that one day Olmert gave Abu Mazen a map saying, ‘You need to sign here and there because this is a unique opportunity. Take it or leave it’ ... The idea of Ehud Barak or Olmert, to put something on the table—you know, I still remember Barak pushing Yasir Arafat to the cabin at Camp David in 2000. ‘Put something here.’ ‘You need to decide now.’ ‘It’s take it or leave it.’ It’s not. This is not the way we should negotiate.”

Five years later, the success of new negotiations will likely hinge on the ability of Netanyahu and the Palestinian leadership to overcome their mutual suspicion. And it may fall to Livni, who has the trust of both, to bridge that gulf.

birnbaum-fe0230-livni-tease-embed9 For Netanyahu, breaking the stalemate will require breaking with his past and—as was the case for Livni—with his parents. Jim Hollander/EPA/AP

“I know that on the Palestinian side, we have a group that there is no hope for peace with them, and this is Hamas,” she said. “This is an ideological group. They see the conflict from a religious point of view, not from a national point of view. They are not fighting in order to create a state. They cannot even say that Israel has a right to exist. OK, so they are out.” Abbas and his allies, she argues, are a completely different story. “People say, ‘They are not willing to end the conflict.’ I know that they are willing to do so, but they are willing to do so if they get what they want.”

Based on reports, leaks, and public statements, what Palestinian leaders want—and what they are willing to give for it—is more or less clear. Should there be an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, it will almost certainly entail a Palestinian state on the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank (and Gaza), with modest land swaps to accommodate some Israeli settlements; a division of Jerusalem along ethnic lines, with an international regime for the sensitive Holy Basin area; strong demilitarization provisions for the new state; and large-scale compensation and resettlement for the descendants of Palestinian refugees (with only perhaps a token number returning to Israel).

Of course, whether Palestinian leaders could bring their more hardline public to support such compromises remains to be seen. On the Israeli side, meanwhile, the situation is basically reversed. With his right-wing credentials, Netanyahu stands uniquely positioned to sell a deal to an Israeli public that most polls show is primed to support one. But whether he is prepared to make the necessary compromises is less clear and, to many Palestinians, doubtful. “I know very well that Livni as a person wants peace,” senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath told the Associated Press back in February. “But at the end the decision is not hers. The decision is up to Netanyahu and his inner cabinet.”

The prospects for peace may rest, then, on whether Livni can persuade Netanyahu to accept the terms that most everyone agrees are likely. I had been told repeatedly in advance of our interview that Livni would not speak about the core issues in detail, so I asked questions in code instead. I cited an interview she had given during her time as opposition leader in which, explaining her decision not to join his government, she had said that Netanyahu was not willing to “pay the price” of an agreement. Did she believe he was prepared to do so now?

Livni paused for a few seconds to consider her answer. “I believe that we are entering serious negotiations in order to end the conflict,” she said. “Everybody who enters the negotiation room—whether on the Israeli side or the Palestinian side—knows basically, in general terms, what’s going to be the price and what we need to get to pay this price.”

birnbaum-fe0230-livni-tease-embed10 Standing alongside Kerry and Erekat on July 30, Livni announces the resumption of peace talks. Mike Theiler/EPA/Corbis

It sounded, I said, like she thought people were underestimating Netanyahu’s flexibility. Livni pointed to the government’s recent release of Palestinian prisoners who had been held (mostly on murder charges) since before the 1993 Oslo accords, which was intended as a confidence-building measure. “If at the beginning of all these discussions, if you would have asked somebody whether Netanyahu is willing to release the pre-Oslo prisoners,” she said, “the answer would have been no. When he made the decision, it was clear he was going to pay a political price, particularly in his own political base.”

It wasn’t the first time Netanyahu had enraged the right. His appointment of Livni had done that months earlier. At the same time, many of Livni’s left-wing supporters have questioned her decision to ally with Netanyahu, with some accusing her of doing so simply to save her political career. “Tzipi Livni is no less trustworthy or cynical than other politicians who broke their word, bent over backwards, put away their slogans and election speeches and galloped into the arms of the one they had described as the mother of all sin,” wrote Haaretz’s Yossi Verter, one of Israel’s most respected political columnists, when Livni joined the government.

But for the time being, this team of rivals seems to be working well. “She’s in and out of the office very regularly,” says a Netanyahu adviser, estimating that if Livni isn’t the minister to have the most face time with the boss, “she’s definitely at the top of the list.” “He’s very glad she’s in the government,” this person says, arguing tongue in cheek that Livni’s diminished political stature has enabled the new bonhomie. “The relationship works well because it’s clear one of them is prime minister and the other is justice minister.”

Livni, too, seems at peace with the new reality. “We are working together—hours and hours of discussions about what is the best next step,” she told me. “He truly understands that we need to break the stalemate.”

FOR NETANYAHU, breaking the stalemate will require breaking with his past and—as was the case for Livni—with his parents. Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, who died last year at age 102, was a famous Jewish historian who inculcated in his son a belief in the sanctity of the biblical land of Israel. When, in June, Netanyahu visited a West Bank settlement to dedicate a school that had been named for his father, he parried questions about whether it would be around forever. “Keep trying,” he reportedly told journalists as he scurried into his car.

birnbaum-fe0230-livni-tease-embed11 At the Tel Aviv nursing home where Livni’s mother lived, other former Irgun fighters had called her “the mother of the traitor.” Kevin Frayer/AP

I asked Livni whether she saw a parallel between Netanyahu’s family background and her own. She thought about the question for a moment, then demurred. “I don’t want to speak about others,” she said. For her, she explained, the two-state solution was not about throwing away the values of her parents, but reconciling them—balancing their territorial ambitions with their hopes for a Jewish democratic state.

Not everyone, of course, saw it this way. In 2007 Livni’s mother died and was laid to rest beside her husband below twin gravestones bearing the Irgun emblem of a rifle guarding Greater Israel. During the shiva, the seven-day Jewish mourning period when visitors comfort the bereaved, Livni learned that at the Tel Aviv nursing home where she had lived out her final years, other former Irgun fighters had called her “the mother of the traitor.”

She recalled how, when she began to speak in support of Palestinian statehood in the early 2000s, she would hope her mother wasn’t listening. But one Friday, after an interview with her was broadcast, her mother called. “She said, ‘Listen, I heard you. It hurts me. But you know something? We fought for the establishment of the state of Israel. And I see young people, they are leaving for America. And we didn’t fight just to have a state for us old people. So it’s your decision now.’”

At one point during our conversation, Livni’s iPhone buzzed with a message. She picked it up and smiled. A few moments of silence passed. “Is it John Kerry?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “it is someone who is more important.” It was her son Yuval, who is in his early 20s. He had messaged from a backpacking tour in Peru to inform his mother of his impressive scores on Israel’s college-entrance exams. “Excuse me,” she said, looking down to reply. She placed the phone back on the desk and regained her train of thought. “Maybe I’m trying to make it easier on me by saying that I believe that what I’m doing is part of the values I got from my parents,” she suggested. “I don’t know, maybe it’s not. Maybe they would completely object.” To Tzipi Livni, it’s no longer relevant. “When I make decisions,” she said, “I’m not thinking about my parents. I’m thinking about my children.”

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