For an opposition leader who believes Israel has a dreadful government under whose watch our very legitimacy is being increasingly questioned, Tzipi Livni is a reluctant interviewee. The conversation below took many months to arrange.

Once face-to-face across her desk high in a Tel Aviv skyscraper, however, and even though she claims credibly to be exhausted, Livni, 52, is energized and forthcoming. The Kadima leader may be commendably discreet on some of the specific positions she adopted during her aborted nine months of negotiations under prime minister Ehud Olmert with the Palestinians, but she readily sets out the principles that guided those talks. She fiercely defends her contention that Israel has a viable partner in Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. And she returns time and again to stress her sense of Israeli Jewish imperative in reviving those negotiations and trying to bring them to a successful conclusion.

“I know this is an ordeal for you,” I say to her about an hour into the interview, which at this point has focused entirely on the Palestinian process. “No,” she says. “These are actually the issues I like to talk about.”

Her candor extends to the detailing of her repeated conversations with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about the possibilities of a Likud-Kadima coalition. She not only sets out the arguments she put to him in favor of an equal partnership, complete with prime ministerial rotation, immediately after the elections in February 2009 – arguments he firmly rejected – but also talks through several subsequent meetings, including in recent months, on the subject. These were meetings she initiated, in which she again urged Netanyahu to ditch one or more of his “natural” partners, and bring in Kadima, this time without rotation, to push the diplomatic process.

Those overtures repeatedly rebuffed, Livni has now evidently concluded that, whatever his rhetoric, the prime minister is disinclined to advance any process of substance with the Palestinians – an assessment that will doubtless make for unhappy reading in Washington and many places beyond.

“An agreement will always constitute a position that is not the classical right-wing position,” she says. “I see his lack of willingness to advance, and I understand where he stands.”

The key question, she says, is whether the prime minister is prepared to pay the realistic price of an accord that protects our fundamental interests.

Well, I ask, is he? “I’m head of the opposition,” she shoots back. “That’s your answer.”

Our interview does range beyond the Palestinian issue. Livni speaks at some length about her conception of Israel’s Jewish character, though she says she’s still in the process of thinking through some of her positions. The synagogue she doesn’t go to very often is an Orthodox one, but the recent conversion controversies have brought her into deeper contact with the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and, as she puts it, her eyes are being opened.

“The more the haredim use their monopoly and impose their worldview on the national, liberal movement,” she says at one point – not as a threat, but as an assessment – “the more this will lead to a revolution.”

Excerpts:

From your experience leading the substantive, direct negotiations with the Palestinians in the last government, are they prepared to make a viable, permanent peace agreement with Israel? Despite things like Fatah’s rejectionist stance on Israel, the Palestinian leadership’s endorsement of a “study” that denies Jewish ties to the Western Wall, and that leadership’s efforts to secure international support for the unilateral establishment of statehood?


I believe that it is possible to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian national movement that puts an end to the conflict. I have no illusions about a “new Middle East.” I don’t believe that, the moment an agreement is signed, we’ll live in a fairy tale world of prosperity and happiness This is a harsh neighborhood. This is a highly complex conflict. There are religious factors involved here as well as the nationalist factors.

The capacity to reach an accord is dependent on the behavior of both sides. It would have been very easy for me to declare after each and every meeting with the Palestinians that “there is no partner.” Perhaps they could have said the same about me. I was tough, too, in the negotiations. But we managed in nine months to understand the mutual sensitivities, see what needed to be overcome, and to reach a mutual conclusion that an accord was possible. It wasn’t around the corner. Not a matter of 20 seconds. It would be very fragile. It might be accompanied by terrorism. We did not exhaust that process.

There are all the reasons in the world to give up, to despair – when you see their textbooks, when you hear some of the things they say, when you read some of the articles. And by the way, they could say the same about us.

I simply think that given the choice of options – and the Middle East generally creates bad options for us – giving up now on the effort to reach an accord would be bad for the Jewish state, physically and in every other way. Whoever doesn’t fully internalize the threat that is being posed to the existence of the State of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people in the absence of an accord, will find all the reasons [not to reach one]. And whoever believes that the option of two national states represents the Israeli interest, will find the ways to overcome the problems.

This “threat to our existence”: Are you talking demographics, international legitimacy...?

It’s everything. First of all, on the ideological level, we have to choose between two different visions. One vision speaks of Jewish sovereignty, or Jewish existence, on the entire Land of Israel, or let’s say between the river and the sea: the physical realization of the national historic right – a right in which I believe – on all those areas. For those who hold to this vision, every day that passes is a new victory. Another house. Another day that we’re here. New facts on the ground.

And in their vision, set against the delegitimization of Israel is the conviction that they have justice on their side, and that things will work out. This is generally a group of believers [in God] – who believe that things work out not only as a consequence of decisions we make. I respect this vision, but I disagree with it.

I myself come from a place where all of us shared this vision. This was the thinking after 1967 – the sense that we have returned to the places of our ancestors. The problem is that those who still share this vision never took a decision. The Right. They never passed, or tried to pass, a decision that annexed those territories to Israel. So we have remained in a sort of twilight zone since 1967, in a kind of limbo in which no decision has been taken. It’s time to make up our minds.

My vision, shared by most of the Israeli public, speaks of the existence of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, secure state, a state living in peace, in the Land of Israel. If I want all of the Land of Israel, I have to give up on either the Jewish or the democratic aspect. I don’t want to give up on either, and by the way, I think that Jewish values are democratic values. The only way to maintain those values is to relinquish part of the Land of Israel...

Presumably Olmert internalized these arguments, and yet, together with you, he couldn’t reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

Well it wasn’t together with me. I was authorized by Olmert to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians. The principles on which I ran those talks for nine months, in accordance with the Annapolis framework, were to negotiate with the Palestinian national movement [represented by Ahmed Qurei/Abu Ala] to reach an agreement on all the core issues – a detailed agreement, an agreement that could be implemented, with a stated commitment that this marked the end of the conflict via two national states, in which each state constitutes a solution for its people.

In November 2008, we gathered – Abu Mazen [Abbas], myself, representatives of the Quartet, the Arab League – in Sharm e- Sheikh. And we agreed that we hadn’t exhausted the process and that we wanted to continue. We hadn’t talked about Jerusalem and we hadn’t yet reached final decisions on all the issues. The negotiations weren’t finished. They hadn’t reached a dead end. We hadn’t yet put everything on the table.

Olmert, outside of that framework, decided at some stage toward the end of his time in office to place a certain proposal on the table. To the best of my knowledge, Abu Mazen did not even respond to it – for various reasons connected to the situation at the time: Operation Cast Lead, the end of the prime minister’s term, and other factors.

You know, Ehud Barak returned from Camp David [in 2000] and declared happily that we had “removed the mask” [from Yasser Arafat and exposed him as not genuinely seeking peace]. Removing the mask was not the aim here. It may be that we will reach a point at which we will not be able to reach an accord.

But Abu Mazen’s response, or lack of one, is not a barometer?

Absolutely not. I have no doubt. And I think Olmert feels the same.

Olmert has said that Israel should again present those same terms to Abbas – some of which, by the way, you wouldn’t offer...

I disagreed with him on some of the terms. I also think this idea, which also played out at Camp David, of saying “we’re issuing a proposal, take it or leave it,” is less good than proceeding through negotiations.

Nonetheless, Olmert’s was a very, very generous proposal. And it can be argued that had Abbas truly wanted an accord, he would have jumped on those terms, and signed as quickly as possible.

I hear that the Palestinians [recently] gave the Americans, and tried to give to Netanyahu, their own proposal for an accord. I assume this was some kind of opening position. I’d really like all the skeptics to look at this proposal, and see how far it is from a genuine accord. It may be that this will produce the understanding that a deal is possible, after all. Now, even when it seems the gaps are narrow, sometimes it can be like a pair of [polar opposite] magnets, where at the end they can’t be bridged; where the gaps are deal breakers.

But I think it is inaccurate to invoke Olmert [and his proposal], and say there is no partner because the Palestinians didn’t accept it.

The Palestinians “tried to give’ the current government a proposal, maps? Can you elaborate. If they tried to give Netanyahu something, why weren’t they able to?

Let me put it this way: They certainly gave the Americans a proposal of this kind, a map...

But you don’t know the details?

I do know. But I’m being discreet.

What specifics can you tell us about your positions in the negotiations?

It’s tactically wrong for Israel to go into the details, but I’ll tell you the principles. First, we’re talking about two national states. That means each state constitutes the solution for its people. The establishment of the state of Palestine ends the conflict. And just as the State of Israel gave refuge to those Jews who came after the Holocaust from Europe and from Arab states, just as the State of Israel is today a national home with a minister of absorption and the Law of Return, so with the state of Palestine: Its establishment should constitute the complete, full national answer for the Palestinians wherever they are. Therefore there will not be a return of refugees to Israel.

So the number is zero.

Of course. And the Palestinians know my position on this and so does the entire Arab world.

This national solution is also the solution for the Arabs of Israel, who are citizens with equal rights because of our values as a Jewish state and as a democratic state. Their national demands from Israel will cease. They are individuals with equal rights in a state that is the national home of the Jewish people.

The next principle relates to security. This is not about ideology, but about the obligation of every government to provide security. This too is an American and international interest. After all, another terrorist state, another failed state, another fundamentalist Islamic state – there are enough of those already.

The Palestinians have already said they agree to a demilitarized state. It is clear to them that Israeli security represents even their interests. The Palestinian national movement is not an Islamic religious movement.

And therefore the Hamas takeover of Gaza hurts them, just as a future Hamas takeover [in the West Bank] obviously would not represent their interests.

I don’t want to go into other security parameters. Israel has set out for itself its requirements.

Finally, demarcating the border, I’m not going to sketch it out. But I want to say something about the settlements. After 1967 I regarded the settlement enterprise as a part of the Israeli people’s return to its homeland. It seemed only natural to me, from a historic and national perspective. Others saw it as colonialism, contrary to international law. It really doesn’t matter anymore.

On the assumption that we are proceeding along the principle of two states, every prime minister will have to demarcate the border in such a way as to deal with the reality on the ground. After 40 years, hundreds of thousands of Israelis live today in areas that are a part of the negotiation process. The good news is most of them live in what we call the blocs. The settlement enterprise does indeed determine where the borderline runs. It determines this, because the aim is to leave as many Israelis as possible in their homes, which today are inside the settlement blocs. Otherwise, it will be impossible. The world understands this.

As for Jerusalem, it has been on the negotiating table since the Oslo accords. I didn’t discuss Jerusalem [in the negotiations with Abu Ala]. So I won’t go any further. But it’s obviously not just Jerusalem that will have to be negotiated. Every representative of every government that represents the Israeli national home will have to manage and to preserve those places that from a historic, national and religious perspective are so critical to us. I may have been born in Tel Aviv, but my umbilical cord emerges from the Temple Mount.

And on the basis of those principles, you say that it is possible to reach an accord?

Yes.

I came from the Right and I’m still on the Right in the national context. I didn’t go into politics out of concern for the Palestinians but out of concern for Israel.

What most troubles me about the prime minister’s actions, about this coalition, is that Netanyahu, via megaphone diplomacy, in order to preserve his base, is harming the national interests...

Netanyahu starts with the “no.” He always says what the deal breakers are, not the deal makers.

The prime minister, who sounds tough on the national issues and the security issues, is hurting us on those issues. After two years of this government, there are more question marks than there were before about the Jewish state, more question marks about the legitimacy of Israel, about the legitimacy of Israel’s security requirements. Things that were taken for granted in the past are no longer taken for granted because of all the rhetoric that sounds so tough domestically. Netanyahu won’t protect Israel’s interests in the negotiating room any better than me, if he ever gets there. He’s just eroding our positions.

Are you worried by the Abbas trend toward unilateralism?

Very. I conducted direct negotiations, the world didn’t intervene, we negotiated in a closed room and everyone supported this. That is the optimal situation. That kind of negotiation best serves Israel’s interests. You’re in control. You initiate. You act tactically correctly in the room.

Now we’re in the worst possible place. There are no talks, and as time passes, other proposals are being presented. The absence of negotiations, the delays in the process, are likely to place Israel in a worse position in terms of the capacity to end the conflict, in terms of Israel’s legitimacy, and so on.

I hope, by the way, that what is unfolding will prompt the Israeli Right to understand that there is no comfortable status quo. I’m sorry to have to say that. And I do see that happening.

Where do you see that?

This government has served for almost two years. A government comprising a prime minister who had refused to say “two national states.” A foreign minister [Avigdor Lieberman] who had left the Olmert government, by his account, because of Annapolis. And an interior minister [Eli Yishai] from Shas, the party that had refused to be in a government with me [after Olmert resigned and I tried to form a coalition] if we talked about Jerusalem. Talked about – not divided. And [Yishai] knew that I hadn’t talked about it.

The three of them, today, are calling on the Palestinians to enter the negotiating room, when it’s clear that the dialogue today is on terms much worse for Israel. When it’s clear that the talks will cover all the core issues, including Jerusalem.

It’s true that Lieberman takes care to add that there’s no chance for an accord anyway because the Palestinians are to blame, because we offered them everything. It amazes me that all of these people utilize the things that were offered in order to say there is no partner on the other side, without asking themselves whether they themselves are partners to those offers.

Netanyahu, who tried to market economic peace and security peace without diplomatic peace, nowadays talks of diplomatic peace. The gulf between those words and an agreement is vast. That’s why I’m not in this government. But as someone who was accused by that group, told that it was unthinkable to seek this, and wrong, and not representative of the Israeli interest... I’m not saying “I told you so.” I’m saying that this is a very important process. Any agreement will be very problematic. It will rend the people. It will be terrible. But at least there should be the recognition that there is no better option for Israel.

If we don’t get back to direct talks, where will the unilateral effort lead? Will the Americans stand against the world and veto...?

It’s absurd, what’s happening in the world today. What are [those countries that are recognizing “Palestine”] saying? They’re saying, “We’re not against Israel.” They’re saying, “The Israeli government also supports two states, also speaks of a Palestinian state. So we’re going a little faster.”

The absence of negotiations creates unilateral and international steps that this government evidently can’t handle. So long as there were direct talks, the world didn’t try to intervene.

I remember making a visit to Paris [as foreign minister], when France held the EU presidency, and they were about to issue a decision endorsing a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. Jerusalem as the capital. Everything. I had a very frank discussion with the French foreign minister. I said to him, “Look, we’re negotiating. The Palestinians say it’s serious. We want to reach a successful conclusion. We’re not trying to waste time. This announcement now won’t help.” It came off the agenda.

Now what’s happening? On the one hand, this government has recognized that there will be a Palestinian state. On the other hand, it is doing nothing to advance this. The prime minister is not prepared to take even a quarter of a political risk – even though he has a majority for every decision. Nothing would have happened to his coalition if he had approved a second settlement freeze.

Really?

No party would have bolted his government. Not Lieberman and not Shas. And he knew that. He tried to bargain, to get a better deal [from the US].

But would a second settlement freeze have produced anything substantive?

This is the real question: Does the current prime minister want to reach an accord? Plainly he wants to negotiate. But does he want to reach an accord? That’s the real test. There is a giant question mark over Israel.

Obviously he wants an accord. The question is what price he is prepared to pay.

Yes. Is he prepared to pay the realistic price of an accord that protects our fundamental interests?

And what’s your answer to that question?

I’m head of the opposition today. That’s your answer.

Head of the opposition, despite being asked to join the coalition?

I’ll give you the facts. From the time this government was established, on almost a daily basis, I asked myself, is there no substantive process because the prime minister doesn’t want to pay the price involved in an agreement or because he can’t move ahead for political reasons?
Immediately after the elections, I suggested a different coalition to him in a meeting we had. He said he already had commitments to what he called his natural partners, the haredim and Lieberman. His offer to me was to join that coalition. He said the right wing had won.

Everybody wants to live in peace. Netanyahu wants to live in peace. That’s clear. But I understood that there was a gulf between my and his internalization of the imperative for an agreement. He didn’t have the drive for it.

I said: You can interpret the election results [as a victory for the Right] or you can say that two parties won – Kadima and the Likud, putting aside the fact that we got one more seat. I suggested: Let’s agree between us that we’re going for an agreement [with the Palestinians] on the basis of principles we can agree on, two states. And let’s create partnerships. Kadima with, say, Labor, and the Likud with one partner that it would choose. A different translation of the election results. He didn’t want this.

With rotation of the prime ministership?

Absolutely. I thought that the way to create the partnership was by [governing] together, including with rotation. But we didn’t reach agreements, in any case, on content.

[Later] I saw him start to say those words “two states.” But without real intent, without the drive, without the [sense of imperative] that we have to reach an agreement and to pay those prices, because otherwise the option for the Jewish state will be worse. Rather, he saw and analyzed the processes, the American pressure for negotiations, the need to start speaking in those terms.

Still, I asked myself, is there some kind of opportunity whereby he does want to pay the price? So – and this was before the flotilla [in May] – I initiated another discussion with him on the issue.

I said to him, in order to stop the international trend against Israel, you have to decide for yourself first if you’re prepared to pay the price of an accord. If not, there’s no point in continuing this discussion. If yes, there has to be an accompanying political drama, whereby you exchange your coalition for a coalition in which there is a majority for an agreement. You’ll have to bid farewell to one of your partners, because I can’t [enter your coalition and] face an automatic majority of 61 against. I’ll be taking all the hope for peace, all the international credibility I have, and jumping into the pool with two weights around my ankles – Shas on one ankle and Lieberman on the other and no chance of making progress.

I initiated [these conversations] on more than one occasion – every time I thought there was a chance, maybe, but that he felt himself constrained politically. He didn’t want it.

And since then, I’ve come to understand that out of his lack of willingness to make a change politically, and the relentless preoccupation with the next elections – concern for his base, concern over whether Lieberman will outflank him from the right... If he fears that Lieberman will outflank him from the right before the next elections, he won’t advance any process [of substance with the Palestinians]. An agreement [with the Palestinians] will always constitute a position that is not the classical right-wing position. I see his lack of willingness to advance, and I understand where he stands.

Your later proposals also included a demand for rotation?

No.

But to be given authority to run the negotiations independently?

Agreements on content, on managing the negotiations and on a dependable majority in the government in order to move this forward. After the elections I did include rotation, subsequently no. I thought, if there is an opportunity and the world is pressing... But it’s not there.

I said something else to him. The Likud and Kadima are two national, liberal parties, or supposed to be. Yet the Likud gives the haredim a monopoly on the Jewishness of the state. In my view, the issue of a Jewish state has a national connotation, not a haredi connotation. I thought that together we could have written the first chapter in the constitution of Israel. We could have introduced national content, core curricula for all, an equalizing of the [military and social] burden, all of those things.

All the mistakes were Netanyahu’s, or did the Americans contribute with an exaggerated focus on settlements and the freeze as a precondition?
I don’t have an ideological attachment to the freeze. It’s no secret that when we were negotiating, we built a little. It was in the settlement blocs and we didn’t make a provocative issue of it. If Netanyahu hadn’t been able to freeze completely, I wouldn’t have attacked him.

Before Netanyahu had decided whether or not to extend the freeze, I didn’t publicly demand that he extend it, until I realized that he was going to say no to the United States. No to a request for another two months, which seemed to me to be a mistaken decision from every point of view. Two months or three months at the request of the president of the United States, honestly! I thought it was a mistake of the first order for Netanyahu not to agree, and never mind whether or not it was important to seek that freeze or not.

Additional building in the settlements, certainly beyond the security barrier, does not serve the vision of a Jewish, democratic, secure Israel in the Land of Israel. I’ve asked Netanyahu from the Knesset podium, how can you send a young couple to start to build their lives in a settlement when you know deep inside, assuming you are honest when you say “two states,” that you are apparently going to have to evict them in a year, two years, five?
When I meet with Council of Jewish Settlements members, as I do sometimes, some of them say, “We need interim arrangements, some kind of modus vivendi.” I ask them, “When you talk about those kinds of agreements, are you saying, ‘Ok, we won’t build anymore, we’re trying to stabilize the existing situation?’ Or are you intending to carry on building in order to realize your vision [of a Jewish presence throughout Judea and Samaria], which conflicts with our vision?’” And they say, “The latter.”

Knowing exactly where I want to get to in the end, the decisions are so clear. But we’re living in an illusory world. People are speaking with a mishmash of words, without taking decisions on the real matters. For our own sakes, we have to make up our minds. Then we’ll interact with the Americans and the Palestinians and the rest of the world.

If Netanyahu had truly embraced this vision, he’d have separated the wheat from the chaff. The way he’s operating, a man who can’t distinguish between the settlement blocs and isolated settlements, he gives the settlement blocs the exact same status as other settlements instead of strengthening them.

I want to ask you some questions about the Jewish nature of our Jewish state. Do you, for instance, believe that Reform rabbis should be allowed to perform authorized wedding ceremonies here? Do you support gay marriage? Do you consider a child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother to be Jewish?

I’ll answer you more on the level of principles than specifics. I see myself as a Jewish Israeli – as a Jew who lives in Israel, not as an Israeli who is Jewish. In my eyes, the issue of Jewishness is a deep national feeling. I certainly don’t keep the 613 commandments. I keep some. I don’t often go to synagogue, but when I do I go to an Orthodox synagogue and I sit in the women’s section.

I see the Jewish issue as something I choose out of a sense of connection to the history, the culture, the heritage, the tradition, something very emotional that links me to the Jewish melody. Everyone can make their choice. There was a period when you could not light a fire but you could watch television; not cook but smoke; drive, but not near the synagogue. Those were very Israeli kinds of choices and very Jewish in the national sense. I certainly didn’t want a separation between religion and state because then we become Jews who live in the State of Israel just like Jews who live in any other country.

But as minister of immigrant absorption, I understood that 300,000 people [who were not halachically Jewish] had come here under the Law of Return, which enables entrance to Israel for anyone from a Jewish family, and which to me emblemizes the fact of Israel as a Jewish state. Yet in practice, we don’t connect them to that Jewish aspect. That brought me up against all the issues of conversion procedures.

I came from a place where it was entirely natural that the Orthodox rabbinate be fully responsible for conversions, but suddenly I found, when I wanted to enable those processes, that people were saying to me, “What do you care if they’re Jewish? They’ll learn Hebrew, they’ll serve in the army. They’re combat soldiers, wonderful soldiers.”

I said being Jewish is deeper than serving in the army. And those are two elements – serving in the army and speaking Hebrew – that we do not have in common with the Jews in the Diaspora. If being Jewish is comprised of those two components, it’s very Israeli, and a very particular kind of Israeli-ness, at that. It certainly doesn’t connect them with the haredim.

I started looking still deeper into this and I’m no expert on Halacha, but there are places where the rabbinical establishment can be lenient and isn’t. For example, children under 13, who in any case aren’t obligated to fulfill all the commandments, why must they go to Orthodox schools? That makes life harder for the parents. And why do those who want to go through conversion have to prove that they’ll fulfill the commandments after their conversion? Arik Sharon said once that he wouldn’t be approved for conversion, and nor would I.

So since then I’ve been looking for areas where one can be lenient, if possible without confrontations but certainly with respect to the other streams of Judaism.

Within the contours of Halacha?

When they proposed the conversion law with the idea of concretizing the rabbinic, halachic monopoly in law, [Diaspora] representatives of all the streams of Judaism came to Israel. They opened my eyes to a certain extent to the fact that we’re outlawing a great proportion of the Jewish people. The rabbinate is so strict. The halachic Orthodox establishment has regarded joining the Jewish people as something to prevent.

I come from a Jabotinsky world. He felt that the stringent approach to Judaism had preserved the Jewish people in exile. But the idea was that when you come to the Land of Israel, and create Jewish sovereignty here, we can lighten up a little and create a renewed national Judaism in the birthplace of the Jewish people, without the need for this hard skin that safeguarded the people in exile.

I’m not talking about destroying something, I’m talking about finding common ground. I’m grappling with some of these issues now. I work with the [modern Orthodox, Zionist] Tzohar rabbis and others.

You asked me about the son of a Jewish father. Look, I sit with Haim Amsalem [the maverick Shas Knesset member and rabbi, who encourages a lenient halachic approach to conversions in Israel]. I believe there is the possibility to ease up more.

I’m in the process of thinking, beyond respecting the various streams and recognizing their conversions. I’m also in touch with Conservatives and Reform in Israel. I don’t yet have a practical platform for how this should be reflected in the constitution on the matter of marriages. Thus far we [in Kadima] have supported the civil marriage bill. It’ll come up for a vote again. Thus far we have found solutions within the halachic framework. But the more the haredim use their monopoly and impose their worldview on the national, liberal movement, the more this will lead to a revolution.

I should add that Kadima invites representatives of all streams of Judaism to its conferences and activities.

It seemed unfair of you to demand the prime minister’s resignation after the Carmel fire. You didn’t resign after the Second Lebanon War.

I didn’t have to. First of all, in my opinion, Netanyahu shouldn’t be prime minister for a thousand and one reasons. The Carmel fire is just one of them. He turned a disaster into some kind of big show. He took one correct decision, to call for international assistance, but now what? Now what? While we sit here talking, nothing has been sorted out. The fire services haven’t been sorted out.

The Lebanon War was a result partly of failures that had been there before, landing upon a serving prime minister, and I called on him to resign too.

You don’t feel responsible for the failure of [Security Council] Resolution 1701, after which Hizbullah rearmed?

Absolutely not. Let’s talk about Resolution 1701. 1701 was the most appropriate and best option to end that war. I’m pretty sick of the superficiality with which this is treated, including by Netanyahu. There are three options when you face a threat from a certain area. One is to hold on to it, and we held onto south Lebanon for many years and that did not bring the desired result. The second is to get out of there under cover of darkness, as Ehud Barak did [in 2000, dismantling the security zone], which didn’t bring the desired result. And the third is to get out with some kind of agreement – with commitments and some kind of international recognition.

Given the choice of remaining in Lebanon in a situation where the missiles were not only coming from south Lebanon, but from further north, was Israel supposed to conquer all of Lebanon? This was not war between states where there would be a defining result. Israel was fighting Hizbullah in a Lebanon that had a legitimate government. In the UN we could work on the basis of Israel and the state of Lebanon, and create a lack of legitimacy for Hizbullah.

By contrast, when we were fighting Hamas [in Gaza two years ago], I didn’t want to reach an agreement with Hamas, because Hamas is not legitimate and I think that any dialogue with them, except regarding Gilad Schalit, is a terrible mistake. Ehud Barak wanted to reach an agreement with them in Operation Cast Lead. Sometimes people fight the previous war. They say in Lebanon we wanted to reach an agreement. Absolutely, because there was a legitimate government.

Under 1701, the Lebanese Army deployed in the south. International forces arrived. There’s no 100 percent. Yes, there has been rearming by Hizbullah. There would have been rearming under any other option as well. But we for the first time created a situation in which that rearmament was not legitimate, with the natural consequent options if we need to use them.

According to the surveys, Kadima leads the Likud, but does not seem to have the chance of building a coalition. How are you going to improve that?

I don’t deal too much with surveys because they change. But in all the surveys, Kadima is strong today. Partly that is because this is a lousy government, and partly because we have maintained Kadima as an alternative to this government – by staying in opposition, and being a responsible opposition. Just as I think it was foolish to manage Operation Cast Lead according to the conclusions of the Second Lebanon War, so I advise people not to interpret the results of the next election according to the results of the last election. We don’t know yet who all the players will be. They can completely change the political blocs.

Certainly if I am given the mandate to form a government, I would invite the Likud to be my partner, but on a path that I would set out – both as regards an accord with the Palestinians and as regards national content. Today’s Likud understands the political price it is paying for the historic partnership with the haredim.

I don’t know what Lieberman’s considerations will be. I don’t know what the other players’ considerations will be. In opposition, you have to find the balance, the appropriate ways to advance your agenda. I intend to submit bills on issues of conversion, legislation on sharing the burden, on national service and other issues. I don’t want to be a constant voice of criticism. But when it’s needed, the criticism is harsh. They’re not giving me the opportunity, but if this government follows correct processes, I’ll voice my support.

I think the public is looking at us less as a ferocious opposition and more as a potential alternative government. It’s asking how I would be as prime minister. Kadima’s lead over the Likud is substantial and in the last month or two, people are switching from the Likud to us. We’re not strengthening just because Labor is collapsing. There’s a soft right which is not happy with the current situation.

Two final questions. Going back to the talks, you said you were authorized by Olmert to conduct negotiations for an accord that could be implemented. How could anything be implemented with Hamas in Gaza?

We negotiated with the Palestinian national movement on the assumption that there is no chance for peace with Hamas and that no agreement can be reached with them. We managed to bring the entire international community on board not to give legitimacy to Hamas until they announce that the State of Israel has the right to exist and renounce violence and terrorism. We agreed with the Palestinians that an accord would be implemented only after there were changes on the ground and a legitimate Palestinian government throughout the territory That was the solution.

To my sorrow, while this government speaks out very strongly against terrorism, in practice Hamas is becoming more and more legitimate because one element of the equation we had is missing. We managed to get everyone on board against Hamas because it was clear that Israel was serious in its intentions with respect to the moderate Palestinian players.

And now you see a fracturing of the international consensus against Hamas?

Israel has already been forced to lift the closure on Gaza.

Exports from Gaza are permitted now. This government is taking decisions that strengthen the process [of Hamas legitimacy]. Bibi, who spoke a lot about the state of Hamastan, in practice is becoming a partner in its establishment, to my sorrow. The flotillas are also part of this. It’s all beginning to create legitimacy for Hamas.

And finally, your thoughts on the rabbis’ letter, outlawing home sales or rentals to Arabs?

There is a struggle not only over the vision of a secure, Jewish, democratic state in the Land of Israel, but also over the nature of a Jewish state. Is the source of authority the law or the Torah? Is the interpreter the judge or the rabbi? The sense of threat maybe, or of fear, in parts of the Israeli society is being turned against the minorities or the foreigners.

The task of leadership today is to prevent this ill wind. In my opinion it does not represent the Jewish values of the State of Israel. This is not the Judaism I know.

And if we’re talking about Israel and the Diaspora, it certainly makes it harder for those who want to represent Israel and its values outward.

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