Interview: A diplomat's prerogative

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is off to tell US Jews that even after the war with Hizbullah, things aren't so bad here.

tzipi livni 298 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tzipi livni 298 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni doesn't go in for small talk. She's agreed to an interview ahead of her trip to Los Angeles this weekend, where she'll address the opening session of the United Jewish Communities' annual "General Assembly." She smiles briefly in perfunctory welcome to her small office in the Knesset, waits for us to take our seats and then looks up expectantly for the first question. She has a couple of mobile phones on the desk, which ring off the hook. But though she looks down each time to see who's calling, the businesslike approach to the interview sees her reject all of the calls. That she is a serious interviewee does not mean, however, that she directly answers all of our questions. And there are a few things, as we go along, that she says she doesn't want to get into at all: the specifics of how Israel is grappling with Iran's nuclear ambitions, the nature of Hizbullah's rearmament, the intricacies of her government's stewardship of the summer's war. She mildly objects to continued questioning about Lebanon, Iran, the Palestinians - at the expense of what she thought we were going to talk about: Israel-Diaspora relations. But she readily acknowledges that issues of Israel's survival in the hostile Middle East are now heading the Diaspora agenda, too, and in truth she has more to say about these matters than about ties between the Jewish state and the worldwide Jewish nation. She is, unsurprisingly, robust in her defense of her government's diplomatic achievements in the context of the war with Hizbullah, and less voluble on the issue of military success. She apologizes for lecturing on the dangers posed, to Israel and far beyond, by the combination of the Iranian president's extremist motivation and his nuclear drive. She restates government policies and emphasizes familiar concerns. But on almost every subject, Livni is guarded - her manner confident enough, but her comments betraying a concern not to say anything controversial, nor much that is even original. Widely regarded as decent and scrupulously honest - not insignificant attributes in today's rather sordid leadership climate - Livni is hailed in some quarters as a great hope of Israeli politics. She is said to be particularly intelligent, thorough, a creative thinker, a potential leader. All of this may be true. The foreign minister we met was polite, well-informed, coherent and professional - which alone is an improvement on the attributes of some of her predecessors. You're about to fly out to address the GA in Los Angeles this weekend. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, UJC Israel director Nachman Shai said that North American Jewry is worried about Israel - worried about the conduct of the summer's war against Hizbullah, about the results of the war. He said that there is a sense that Israel appears weak and confused. Do you share this concern, and what are you going to tell the American Jewish audience? The fact that there is concern means they care. That there is concern and support is very important, as is the connection between Israel and the Jewish people worldwide. They [Jews in the Diaspora] are a crucial component in the very existence of Israel. Israel's existence is threatened not only because it is the only democratic nation in the Middle East, but also because it was established as a national home for the Jewish people. That struggle continues. Diaspora Jewry is worried about the same issues that Israel's citizens are grappling with. It's no secret that the war left wounds, some of which we have to heal. I believe strongly, however, that we have to stop licking our wounds for a moment, and look from a wider perspective at the bigger process. There is one wound that is open, and that must remain open until it is resolved - the issue of the kidnapped soldiers. But beyond that, I don't think there's a real fracture. It is a perceived fracture. At the start of this war, there was wall-to-wall support - in Israel, among the world Jewish community and in much of the rest of the world - that Israel could legitimately respond [to Hizbullah]. And the military operation began terrifically. It was very dramatic at first. Israel hit all its targets and surprised [Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah. And I think people got into a Six-Day War mood [of euphoria]. The government encouraged people to think like that. OK. The defense minister spoke of breaking Hizbullah in a week. I certainly didn't say that. But yes, there was a certain dynamic based on an erroneous conception that the army could do everything, that the army could achieve [dramatic] change - not in confrontation with a state, but with a militia, against terrorism. Israel was astounding in terms of its intelligence at the start, and in terms of the targets we attacked. Nasrallah was attacked; they were all attacked; and that was the right thing to do. But we should have understood - and I hope we understand today - that the result has to be examined not only from a military perspective, but from the point of view of the wider processes. I was at the last meeting that Ariel Sharon held as prime minister, on the day that he was hospitalized. It was in Ghajar, in the North. Hizbullah was right there; there was an opening, [giving Hizbullah access], facing Israel. I remember him banging on the table and telling the previous foreign minister that the Lebanese army had to send some kind of force down there instead of Hizbullah. Today, there are 15,000 Lebanese army forces in southern Lebanon. There are 8,000 troops in international forces. I want to stress that those international forces are not there to protect Israel. Israel will defend itself. This is not any kind of weakness. The international forces are intended to compensate for [Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad] Siniora's weakness, not Israel's. They are also supposed to prevent Hizbullah from rearming. Yes. But Israel has also been working, and you have to look at this as a process. I also looked at lots of what's been written in the Arab press. Usually Israel wins militarily and then catches it diplomatically. And when we get to the UN, we have to ask the US to issue vetoes. Suddenly now, at the end of a military operation, Israel initiates and works with the international community and gets unanimous backing for something in its interest. That's a change for the better. So Israel's position internationally, regarding Lebanon, is better than it was before the war. At the same time, flaws were exposed that have to be dealt with. I'm not ignoring them. What partly worries me is that our standing in the world and our deterrent capability are built on a combination of facts and on perception. And we as a society took this war so badly that what is emanating from us is a kind of defeat. Yes, because of those high expectations, but also because our vulnerability to the Katyushas and other issues was exposed. In the struggle with the Palestinians, Israel is perceived as strong and they are perceived as weak, right? Israel did not completely succeed in halting terrorism, yet Israel is still perceived as being strong. And it is strong, and if it wanted to, tomorrow, it could conquer all the territories. In the war in Lebanon, too, Israel took a decision to fight against terror and not to fight against Lebanon as a state. We were asked, in order not to harm the Lebanese government, not to make this a battle against Lebanon the country. Israel against Lebanon would have been a very short and easy war, relatively speaking. I agree 100 percent that the expectations created should have been appropriate to the circumstances and the reality. But the fact that a country - within the moral limitations that we set for ourselves, not because of international pressure - has more difficulty clearing out a nest of terrorism should have been plain. Are you saying among other things that international pressure precluded a full-scale ground assault? No, this has nothing to do with the use of ground forces. But I don't want to get into the practicalities of the war in Lebanon. I wanted to say only that from the point of view of the international community, there was complete justification for Israel to act against Hizbullah, not against Lebanon. Are you satisfied with the results of the war? I am satisfied with the diplomatic results. The principles of Resolution 1701 were born in the Foreign Ministry on the third day of the war. Could things have turned out differently? Certainly. If we can get past the "should haves" and the "could haves," overall, Israel's position is better today vis-a-vis Lebanon. And remember, this has repercussions for the Iranian issue. Suddenly, the fact that Iran has a long military arm called Hizbullah in Lebanon, acting for Iran not for Lebanon, is plain. Now, true, some of the results of the war are more problematic. Don't misunderstand me. The fact that Nasrallah has become a kind of popular leader in some additional Arab countries among the more extreme part of the populace is a problem, of course. And Hizbullah is rearming? The other issue that we still certainly need to work on and insist upon is the embargo. The embargo is an Israeli initiative. The embargo is not being enforced sufficiently in our view, and not only in our view. There is a recognition that the enforcement of the arms embargo must be bolstered. What specifically is Hizbullah getting? The working assumption of Israel and the international community is that the Syria-Lebanon border is being used to transfer weapons to Hizbullah, and therefore there's an understanding that greater enforcement of the embargo is needed. Is Israel going to have to go back into southern Lebanon at some stage? Our situation is better today, because there's a greater international commitment to enforce and to change the rules of the game in Lebanon. Truly. Now I live in the Middle East. I have two feet on the ground. There are positive signs at the moment, but Israel always says that "we reserve the right" if there is the need, wherever the need arises, to ensure our security. So if Lebanon doesn't do it... if Lebanon doesn't become a nation... What's the whole process here, really? We want Lebanon to become a normal state. Now, this isn't a state we have a peace treaty with. It's a nation that will always have Shi'ites in it. We want - and this is what the international community wants - states with governments that take responsibility for what happens in their territory. And the phenomenon of Lebanon - as, incidentally, with the Palestinian Authority - is problematic for us. The interest today is to create states with responsibility, in contrast to the process of collapsing states and extremist forces that are becoming an alternative [to sovereign governments] via terrorist and other powerful groups whose interest is not for the well-being of the nation. World jihad and the like threaten the existence of states, which can also be Muslim states. Are we going to sit back for another six years and do nothing while Hizbullah builds up? Look, I wasn't one of those who said, "Now we've shown them," or "We haven't shown them." Every government decision, at any point in time, is not only a function of what you can do, but also of the implications of acting or not acting. I am not one of those who says, "Look, they got armed and they attacked us, and that shows we should have attacked them first." If we had attacked them first, when the Syrians were still there and threatening a decline into regional war, then what would you have said? So today, also, I'm not going to give you a formulation that, on a certain date, if we see a certain quantity of weaponry, that's what I'll do. I reserve the right and obligation to make decisions in the light of the circumstances. And that's relevant in terms of war and in terms of peace: What is the appropriate thing to do at any given time? ... The test of government for me is for it, responsibly, with good intentions, to hold the debates, get deep into the issues, weigh the circumstances and take decisions. We knew we had no defensive answer to the Katyushas. We knew that, as the war continued, vulnerability would be exposed. Where did that known fact figure in the decision-making process on the stewardship of this war? Livni at this point notes that specifics of the war are being investigated by various committees, and that therefore she feels it would be improper to discuss such matters in detail. So let's move on to the issue of Iran. This subject matter [that you are focusing on] relates to Israel and the Diaspora? Isn't that why you're here? With respect, the entire program for the GA was altered specifically to deal with these very issues. So, yes, this relates to Israel and the Diaspora. They had been planning a Hollywood-focus GA in Los Angeles, until the war changed everything. [Laughs] So now I'm not going to see Hollywood stars? Okay, Iran. Is the world coming to regard a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli? The whole world, the Jewish community and Israel need to be aware of the following: First of all, without any connection to the nuclear issue, there is a leader of a state, a Holocaust denier who seeks the destruction of a legitimate state, ours. We have to ensure that the world deems this unacceptable. [The Iranian regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] cannot be a member of the family of nations. Iran should be thrown out of the UN? We've lodged a complaint with the UN and so on, but there is something that the free world must understand. The free world shares the same principles and values Israel struggles for. To the free world, [Ahmadinejad's verbal assaults on Israel] have to be unacceptable. The issue becomes even more problematic when this leader simultaneously tries to develop nuclear weapons. You don't need me to tell you what one plus one equals. The entire international community is speaking in terms of: "The world cannot afford a nuclear Iran." You hear it from the P5 nations, from the P5+1, from the EU three, from everyone. The trouble is that when it comes to the necessary actions - and, in my opinion, sanctions should have been imposed long ago - there is a need today to get everyone on board. And when you need everyone on board, economic interests start to intrude, and statements begin emerging like "It's already too late," or "Sanctions won't help" - very problematic texts. Israel, for its part, is making clear that the danger of a nuclear Iran is not only an Israeli danger. There is recognition on the part of many of Iran's neighbors, including Muslim-Arab nations, that they, too, are threatened. No one wants to see a nuclear Iran as the strongest regional player. Next, there's the danger of proliferation. States that previously never thought of any kind of nuclear program are now declaring that they are about to get into the act. When knowledge of this kind starts to spread, essentially the next morning it reaches terror groups. A state will think 10 times about using nuclear weapons. Iran, with its madness, is a different problem. But the moment terror groups [have nuclear capability], they'll use it the next morning. The entire "rules of war" would be changed at a stroke. Every war, every terror attack, is nuclearized. To date, control of the nuclear game was in the hands of the great powers. And there was oversight. I hope that they, too, realize what is at stake here. We're not just talking about Iran, as mad as it might be, but of a very problematic process [beyond that]. So I expect that the [key international players] will go for sanctions - and severe sanctions, not soft ones - for their own sake. Do you regard this, essentially, as a struggle for humanity? Yes, it would take us to a new phase. World jihad groups with nuclear weaponry would make it a different world. Is there still time and willingness to stop Iran? It's still possible. We've not passed the point of no return. Israel actually talks of a "critical point" - the point at which they control the knowledge, clear the technological hurdles. Ex-CIA director James Woolsey said to me recently that there was nothing to stop North Korea simply sending the Iranians a bomb. Hence the whole concern over proliferation - of knowledge, of materials. A ministerial colleague of yours told me in a private conversation that maybe we will have to reconcile to a nuclear Iran. That's not a text you'll hear from me. Do you share the sense that Ahmadinejad, with his relentless delegitimization of Israel, has halted the momentum which saw the Arab world grudgingly but gradually accepting the fact of Israel's existence? Has he reversed that process, so that the momentum is now with those who believe and argue that Israel can yet be wiped out? I don't think he's causing that kind of damage. The Iranian threat has meant that nations, some of them not friendly to Israel, see Iran, not the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as the [prime] regional danger. There is also a basic understanding that the kinds of things [Ahmadinejad says] sound not dangerous, but insane, and not serious. Ahmadinejad's talk of wiping out Israel is not creating a process wherein more and more people think quietly, "Maybe that's good." On the contrary, there's an understanding that Israel is here, and there's an understanding that Israel is a positive element. Look at the history of Zionism. We used to talk of the Jewish-Arab disputes. Then, after we reached peace agreements with some [Arab states], it was reduced to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute (even though the essence of the dispute is that Israel is a Jewish state). And the Arab world sees its interest as identifying with the Palestinians. That hasn't changed, and Israel is the problem in that context. But now you can see a different identity of interests. If we talk in terms of extremists and moderates - and of course there are differences in the Islamic world between Sunnis and Shi'ites - you can find common interests between Israel and moderate Islamic forces. Let's take the war in Lebanon. Israel's interest is similar to that of the moderate Lebanese. You can also identify common interests and shared goals between Israel and moderate Palestinians - not that they have the power to do anything. Israel's interests are those of some of the Arab regimes that don't want to see extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood gathering strength. Does any of that mean there isn't going to be a war here in the near future, even next summer? It means nothing of the sort. You're asking about talk of a war this summer? Look, two weeks in the Middle East is like an eternity anywhere else. Even though I'm supposed to fly [to the US] this weekend, my mother always taught me to say, "God willing." Look what's happened in the last year: A year ago, I was in the Likud, Arik Sharon was an active chairman of the Likud, Shimon Peres was chairman of the Labor Party. We were after disengagement and before elections in the PA. Look what's happened since: Kadima was set up, Arik Sharon moved to Kadima, Shimon Peres joined Kadima, Amir Peretz was elected head of the Labor Party, Hamas was elected to head the PA and we went to a war with Lebanon. So, I'm not going to give you any [predictions]. The Syrians should think twice before thinking there's an opportunity? Anyone who thinks they can do anything against Israel should think more than twice. Woe betide them! Israel genuinely is not weaker. I genuinely believe in the strength of Israel. That doesn't mean we don't have flaws to fix. But Israel has the power to protect itself. Two weeks ago, after you'd held a joint press conference with him, I had a short interview with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and he was insistent in telling me that Hamas does not want to destroy Israel, and that religion couldn't conceivably serve as an imperative for the destruction of another country. How is it for you to be dealing with so prominent an official who apparently cannot internalize the realities here? I don't often praise the international community, but when we started the process of three conditions [the requirement that any PA government recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements] 11 months ago, you wouldn't have bet a shekel that the Europeans and the international community would hold firm to those demands and to the maintenance of the definition of Hamas as a terror organization. And on this we have succeeded. I don't need to bring proof [of Hamas intentions]. The Hamas charter, from 1988, is pretty new. It's not ancient history.... The simple fact is that Hamas is not prepared to utter the simple sentence recognizing Israel... Part of my job is preserve that international position [on the three conditions]. How do you see the idea of a Palestinian unity government affecting that stance? The demand is from any future Palestinian government. The need to meet these requirements is of any Palestinian government. The decision was adopted before the establishment of the first Palestinian government [after the Hamas election victory]. Maybe we are facing a new Palestinian government. I don't know. What if the prime minister is not from Hamas? It makes no difference. What matters to me is the guiding principles of the [Palestinian] government. Any Palestinian government has to meet these three conditions. It doesn't matter who is in it, what their names are. And that's the position of the international community; I hope we won't see an erosion in it. So what is going to be your message to North American Jewry? That we are engaged in the same struggle - for the existence of Israel, for the Jewish homeland. That war is not over. It is not only a physical war. Israel is strong. There is a process of delegitimizing Israel as the national home for the Jewish people. It is taking place beneath the surface, especially in Europe. There is a struggle to be waged against anti-Semitism, which we have a joint obligation to wage. I have to appreciate the solidarity [of Diaspora Jewry]. And I'm not talking about the money, which is of course important, but it was very moving to see the groups who came here during the war. I see myself as Jewish and Israeli, in that order. It is important to stress that we don't only have common threats to face, but common goals and a common future and joint issues to work on together. That's how I see the Jewish people - whether sitting in Zion or living beyond the borders of Israel who I hope will come here one day. So long as that hasn't happened, we must maintain a permanent common ground, which relates, too, to education there and also education here, where there must be emphasis not only on what it means to be Israeli, but also on what it means to be part of the Jewish people. You'll doubtless be asked about Israel's inability to effectively articulate a message. Al-Jazeera is launching in English, and what have we got...? I understand the frustration. We all share it. There is such a terrible gap between what Israel really is and its image. It's frustrating for Israelis and for those who want to identify with and be proud of Israel, and who feel embarrassment instead of pride. Part of my job is to give the people who represent Israel the tools to do so effectively. We are now launching a whole project of "branding" Israel and I'm not talking about which spokesman is going to talk for Israel. The Palestinians managed to create identification with their situation, even when Yasser Arafat was leading them - and he was hardly an articulate spokesman. The Erekats and the Ashrawis were pretty articulate. Israel also has excellent spokespeople, but the perception of Israel does not depend on who gets a few minutes of screen time. It's much deeper than that. Let's not delude ourselves that a few more fluent, effective spokespeople will remake Israel's image. Incidentally, in the course of the war, we got compliments on our spokespeople. When people hear the word "Israel," I don't want them to immediately be thinking of conflict and soldiers, or camels and haredim. It has to be much more complex - to relate to values and reflect our part in the world we want to belong to. This may be well-intentioned, but maybe what Israel needs to play up is precisely that it is in the midst of a conflict to safeguard those common values with the western world. Of course, we can't ignore the conflict. But to create a sense of identification, there has to be a greater sense of what we really are. When the [watching world] thinks of an Israeli soldier, it's not the soldier we think of - our child who is trying to avoid harming civilians; and if it happens, it will have been an accident, and if it was deliberate he'll be punished. This is a society that is grappling with conflict because it has no choice - a society that, alongside the conflict, is active and vibrant... a society with incredibly innovative skills and a robust economy. When Warren Buffet decided to invest in Israel, he knew there was conflict here. But he saw something beyond that, and I want people to see the whole picture. Israel is part of the western world and shares its values. It's not only the mother about to give birth at the army roadblock with the soldier; it's not only the haredim in Jerusalem. Jerusalem has many more components. It's not only the camel in the Negev. It's that and a lot of other things besides. This [Israel branding] is a massive project, and I intend to do it professionally. Part of what we love about ourselves is that we can be creative and improvise, but on this I think we need to be more professional. Finally, there's been talk of Israel introducing a new diplomatic initiative. Is that something you want to discuss? First of all, the prime minister will be making the diplomatic tour [of the US]. I'll be at the GA. Part of my job, all the time, is to think of new initiatives. Stagnation is not policy, although we shouldn't always blame ourselves. The situation in the PA with Hamas is an objectively problematic situation. But I'm always trying to think of new opportunities and ideas. When the time is right, they'll be discussed.