Going into an hourlong interview with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni these days, it’s hard not to be pessimistic and wish the interview had been scheduled for less time.
After all, the Americans have sworn her to secrecy about the talks she is leading with the Palestinians. Livni is a firm believer that any leaks, at all, undermine the cause of achieving peace. That is the reason she returned to politics and agreed to join Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government.
Over the years she has gained a reputation as a tough interviewee, who cannot be coerced into saying anything she did not intend to say.
But Livni was surprisingly candid to The Jerusalem Post, eager to set straight misplaced perceptions about the talks that had been spread by her right-wing colleagues in Netanyahu’s coalition. And on other issues unrelated to the negotiations, Livni appeared to enjoy revealing her worldview.
When you spoke at last year’s ‘Post’ Diplomatic Conference, you had recently returned to politics, and no one was expecting you to join Netanyahu’s government. Are you happy about those choices in retrospect?
I came back to politics because I felt there was unfinished business that I had to take care of for the country and for myself. The diplomatic process I led with the Palestinians stopped, but had not ended. There are those who say we made an offer and they refused. That is the approach of the Ehuds [former prime ministers Barak and Olmert]: Take it or leave it. But that was not the situation with me. The process has to be done right. [The diplomatic process that began in] Annapolis [Maryland] did not end with a dead end. It faded but we did not exhaust it. I don’t want to feel personally like I could have done something critically important but didn’t.
Are you satisfied with your two jobs as justice minister and chief negotiator?
Yes, because both jobs advance Israel’s values as a Jewish-democratic state. That’s why I asked for these two jobs. In both, I’m doing what I want to do. It’s not bereft of difficulties but it is still satisfying.
Polls have shown that Israelis are very pessimistic about the negotiations. Is there hope you can convey to the world via the diplomats at the conference?
In the campaign my party talked about hope. If there wasn’t hope I wouldn’t be doing this. I don’t want to raise false expectations. There has been a lack of confidence in the process for years.
Because people don’t think it’s more serious, they’re not coming out in favor. The more serious it gets, the more support it will receive and the more faith and confidence.
But expectations that are too high are also problematic. So having low expectations can be advantageous. I see we are generating a fair amount of hope and people are crossing their fingers for us.
What did you think of Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations in September?
Speeches are not so important to me. I speak to the prime minister personally. I don’t want to grade speeches of the prime minister. I am working together with him on a mission. In the end, what matters will be the results.
People told me when I entered the government that there won’t be talks. There are, after a serious concession Netanyahu made on releasing Palestinian prisoners. The tests come every day.
Are you still negotiating on the basis of Annapolis, that there is not a deal on anything until there is a deal on everything?
Yes, completely. Our goal is an end of claims and conflict on all. My goal is an agreement that will end the conflict and all claims for both sides.
But [Likud deputy ministers Danny] Danon and [Ze’ev] Elkin keep saying you will negotiate an interim agreement on a Palestinian state with temporary borders.
I have never used the term interim agreement. In the negotiations, both sides are trying to get what they want. For instance, the Palestinians want a border. We want security. There are tactics of negotiations, of give and take. They can’t concede on one thing if they don’t think they’ll get what they want. These tactics maintain our interests in the negotiating room.
Peace and two states for two peoples is not only an imperative to avoid the statistical demographic issue of Palestinians outnumbering Israelis. Rather, it is necessary to preserve the Jewishness of Israel’s Jewish and democratic state model. To maintain a Jewish-democratic state, we need negotiations on two states for two peoples with each state a solution for its people.
What is the status of your initiative led by Prof. Ruth Gavison to propose a new Basic Law to define the Jewish and democratic state balance, and how much is the prime minister behind it?
There is no disagreement with Netanyahu. I have been working on this issue my entire public life. It has been in the platform of all of the parties I have been involved in. Israel is the place for the Jewish nation to preserve its system, history and culture and to live in peace and in a democracy. Equality is also part of Jewish values, and I don’t accept injecting Jewish law or beating down people’s rights.
How do your views on a Jewish and democratic state and your personal religious views work into your position on civil marriage?
I support civil marriage but my views have been through many stages. I grew up in an Orthodox home that was not so observant. We would not cook on Shabbat. We would smoke, but not in public. We would drive, but not near the synagogue. I made a choice to continue with it. I attend synagogue on Yom Kippur and on days where there is Yizkor [commemorating one’s deceased relatives]. I fast on Yom Kippur. I have a Passover Seder.
I am a vegetarian so I do not have the problem of nonkosher meat. When I started trying to find compromises on religious issues with ultra- Orthodox leaders, I tried to find solutions in accordance with Jewish law. But I found that even if everything else was agreed to, the issues of conversion, marriage and divorce would block any grand resolution and compromise.
The religious leaders were very stubborn.
Bnei Brak will always be the same Bnei Brak, but I do not want those representing [it] to impose their views on the rest of the country, which is struggling with dynamic issues.
What did you think of the High Court of Justice’s landmark ruling on the African migrants issue, and how should the state handle the issue going forward?
I refer to them as illegal infiltrators because that is what they are, period. The fence on the Egyptian border has been effective in stopping any new, illegal border crossings by Africans. A very limited number meet the definition of a refugee under international law. States have a right to make rules about whom they let into their country.
But I back the High Court’s ruling. Sending the Africans to a third country has failed in the past and is very difficult.
Since we can’t send them back to their countries of origin, the state must undertake a humanitarian solution which recognizes their rights even if they came here illegally.