May 19, 2024
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The final installment

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.”

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.

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.

For Netanyahu, breaking the stalemate will require breaking with his past and—as was the case for Livni—with his parents.

“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 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.

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.

At the Tel Aviv nursing home where Livni’s mother lived, other former Irgun fighters had called her “the mother of the traitor.”

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.”

The End.

By Ben Birnbaum (With permission from The Washington Post)

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