Israel: Tzipi Livni’s Transformation

Eight months ago, Tzipi Livni left politics; now’s she returned in hopes of promoting peace. Amit Shabi / laif-Redux

Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former foreign minister, returned to politics last month for one thing: to help forge a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Among center-left parties competing in the country’s national election on Jan. 22, Livni’s is the only one to put the peace process at the top of the agenda. And yet, in an interview with Newsweek, she admitted that even she worries an accord may no longer be within reach. Her doubts stem mainly from changes that have taken place in Israel and the region since she last negotiated with the Palestinians four years ago. “I cannot say that an agreement is just around the corner,” she said at the Tel Aviv headquarters of her new party, Hatnua. “It’s very complicated.” On the Arab side, Livni said, popular uprisings that brought Islamic parties to power have raised fresh doubts about the region’s willingness to accept the Jewish state and strengthened the rejectionist camp in the West Bank and Gaza. In Israel, while most people are ready to abide a Palestinian state, ceding land has become synonymous with rocket attacks since the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. “The idea of giving territories to live in peace became in Israel a kind of, you know, the naïve thing of the left wing,” she said.

Livni did not start out as a peacenik. Both her parents were prominent members of the Irgun, a right-wing paramilitary group that staged attacks against both British administrators and Palestinian civilians before Israel’s founding in 1948. She began her career with Likud, the party of hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but tacked toward the center after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. As a top member of the centrist Kadima party in 2008, Livni took part in the most serious stab at peace with the Palestinians to date, but says the two sides simply ran out of time. Though Israeli-Palestinian relations have since hit a low point, she regularly talks to leaders on the other side. Livni says Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas assured her on the phone just last week that the uncompromising ideas of the Islamic Hamas group would not affect the Palestinian approach to peacemaking. “What he told me in this conversation is that any reconciliation between Fatah [Abbas’s party] and Hamas would be based on the ... [idea] that two states for two peoples is the basis for any future agreement,” she said. “And the way to achieve the Palestinian state goes through negotiations and peaceful means.”

Despite her international standing—Livni’s name appears on virtually every world’s-most-influential-figures list—her chances of replacing Netanyahu are slim to none. In person, she’s more magnetic than other politicians. But Livni developed a reputation as indecisive during the years she led the opposition. When she lost a leadership battle in Kadima earlier this year, Livni left politics, saying she wasn’t in it just for the job. Her return eight months later prompted suggestions that maybe she was. Now, polls predict her party will get just 10 seats in the 120-member Parliament, compared with 40 for Netanyahu’s Likud. “I left politics. I was not thinking about coming back,” she said, explaining her reversal. “But then it appeared that in what we call the center-left ... the other parties didn’t represent what I believe in.” In her small office, a cameraman was shooting video for her Facebook page. Her desktop was clear except for a plate of cookies. “I thought,” she said, “that I would not forgive myself if I didn’t try.”