Saturday, October 01, 2022


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.

Abbas supporters in the West Bank. During negotiations, Livni says, Abbas would bring her cigarillos “so I could join the men smoking.”

“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.

Rice and Livni in 2007. Rice recalls Sharon telling them, “You two women will do some good things for the world.”

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.”

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.

“I’m not a person of mentors,” Livni says. “The only mentor I can speak of as such is Jabotinsky, who died in 1940.”

“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.”

(To be continued.)

By Ben Birnbaum (With permission from The Washington Post)

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