Livni to 'Post’: I will be the 'opposition leader of the Jewish world'

Tzipi Livni told ‘The Jerusalem Post’ she will hit hard where Netanyahu is weak – on Israel-Diaspora relations.

Tzipi Livni (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tzipi Livni
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
New opposition leader Tzipi Livni took on a difficult post last week.
It is now her job to persuade Israelis that their relatively popular prime minister must go.
It will not be easy to convince them that a different prime minister could keep them more secure, at a time when sanctions are returning on Iran that could permanently prevent the Islamic Republic from becoming an existential threat to Israel. But Livni did make her case that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to provide security on a tour of Sderot on Thursday amid the barrage of rocket fire.
She could also have a hard time selling the notion that an alternative to Netanyahu could do a better job with the economy, right after Standard & Poor’s raised Israel’s credit rating to a record high.
The former foreign minister will also face a challenge in making them think someone else in the Prime Minister’s Office could improve Israel’s foreign relations, after Netanyahu was welcomed warmly on six continents and built closer strategic ties with the presidents of the United States and Russia than any other leader in the world.
Livni, who has a reputation of being Mrs. Clean, can remind Israelis that Netanyahu is facing multiple criminal investigations and call him corrupt. But all polls seem to indicate that at least for now, Israelis don’t care and would vote for him again anyway, apparently even if he gets indicted for bribery.
That leaves only one card left for Livni that could be a winner: The deteriorating relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews. And Livni intends to play that card.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post in the Knesset, Livni says that if Netanyahu considers himself the leader of the Jewish world and mistreats Diaspora Jews, she will be “the opposition leader of the Jewish world” and give them the help that they need.
How will you use the Diaspora issue against Netanyahu, in your new role as the leader of the opposition to him?
I will speak about principles, values and the differences between Netanyahu and us on how we treat Diaspora Jews. Netanyahu tied his political fate to the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and gave a monopoly on Judaism in Israel to the haredim and their Chief Rabbinate.
He has allowed extremist policies on key issues to Reform and Conservative Jews like conversion and the Western Wall, and any compromises that could improve Israel’s relationship with them get turned down for political reasons. A significant percentage of Diaspora Jews are liberal, and as Israel gets more religious and stringent on Jewish law and doesn’t guarantee equality, it makes them feel disconnected.
Can the Western Wall fight be solved by quietly expanding the egalitarian prayer site at Robinson’s Arch, which was quietly approved by a ministerial committee last week?
I will support any solution to make progressive Diaspora Jews feel more connected. But the problem cannot be pinpointed only to the Kotel. It’s conversion. It’s the Jewish Nation-State Law, which says Israel will maintain a connection with the Diaspora in the Diaspora and not here. Instead of insisting on reciprocity and saying that just like they help Israel, Israel will reciprocate by helping them, the government takes steps to ensure they will not be recognized here. I will fight against this, for the Jewish world that is here in Israel and outside Israel.
What is the potential danger of the Israeli government alienating the Diaspora?
We don’t only need to act if there is a danger. We need to act, because it is our responsibility. Even if they continue backing us, we need to take action, as the state of the Jewish people. Their grandparents felt an obligation to take care of Israel, because they remembered the founding of Israel and the Six-Day War. Young people born after 1967 have had to deal with a David-Goliath image, in which we aren’t David and don’t act with values they feel comfortable with. It has gotten harder for them to defend Israel on campuses. This requires a new dialogue, not of them defending us no matter what we do but of shared values and taking their difficulties seriously.
Can the rift between Israel and young progressive American Jews be fixed while the US president is Donald Trump, with whom there is a massive gap between how he is seen by them and by Israelis?
I have no doubt that it can. Our relations cannot be a function of who they support or don’t in the White House. It depends on us in Israel. Our relationship with the US was always bipartisan, and now there’s a feeling that it’s not anymore. It must go back to being clear it is that way and will stay that way.
American Jewish leaders lobbied unsuccessfully against the Diaspora clause and clauses affecting minorities in the Nation-State Law. Do American Jews have the elbows needed to fight for themselves here?
My advice to them is to talk more to the Israeli public. The Israeli public loves them, and the Israeli public loves that they love Israel. We see it with how Israelis have embraced lone soldiers and Birthright Israel. But Israelis don’t understand Reform Judaism. Even I, when I go to synagogue, which happens rarely, go to a synagogue with a women’s section. There isn’t enough awareness about progressive Diaspora Jews among Israelis. If they understood how much they have been hurt by the decisions of the Israeli government, the voters would ask their representatives, including Netanyahu, to fix it.
Could Diaspora Jews feeling slighted be a cause that could fill up a square in Tel Aviv with 90,000 people like Druze feeling slighted did?
Regardless, it is important to show Israelis that these are people who care about Israel’s future and it remaining a Jewish state. The public needs to know about this. Their support for Israel when we go to war and their support for the periphery cannot be understated.
Netanyahu calls himself the leader of the Jewish world. Do you see yourself as the opposition leader of the Jewish world?
The answer is yes. We represent different views about Israel and World Jewry. Much of the Diaspora, though not all of it, is not Orthodox. They need someone to represent them. I will represent the Diaspora. Those in the Jewish world who are worried about promises made to them that have not been kept should know that they have a very significant group in Israel that is their partner, their address.
Do you believe those who say that Netanyahu has given up on American Reform and Conservative Jews and believes Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians are enough to fight for Israel in America?
I don’t know. But it’s not just a technical political thing. It’s his worldview. He’s not only doing what he’s doing to stay in power. He’s going much further. He fired me and [Yair] Lapid from his government in 2014, because he said he wanted to form a government with his natural partners. Bayit Yehudi was problematic in the last government on anything we wanted to do. Some of their rabbis make it harder for the Diaspora and for me. I don’t know what Netanyahu’s actual worldview is on Diaspora Jews but here he has his natural partners and there he might, too.
Haven’t you gone too far with protesting the Nation-State Law, which could have no practical implications at all?
I think the question should be the opposite. You should be asking Netanyahu what his problem is with the Declaration of Independence. I have devoted my career to keeping Israel as a Jewish state, so that’s why I care for the two-state solution. That’s why I told [then-US president] George W. Bush there cannot be a right of return of Palestinians. Minorities are right in saying that this law that does not mention equality is unacceptable. And it’s not just this law. It’s a pattern of making Israel more Jewish and less democratic. What bothers me is that the Declaration of Independence was signed by everyone, including Arabs, haredim and socialists, who put their differences aside for unity, and now Netanyahu is insisting on not uniting the people. Today, Israel is the state of the Jewish people and a place of equality, and this is how it must stay. We will make sure it stays that way.
How will you do that when you have a minority in the Knesset?
Yes, they have more MKs. But Netanyahu did not take votes from the center but from other parties on the Right. Many who voted for Kulanu and for Likud didn’t think their votes would be used for a government to go as far as it has. I want to give them our Waze, which is a path to maintain a Jewish and democratic state and separate from the Palestinians for our good. It’s an approach of taking the diplomatic and security issues together. If I had more votes, I’d form a different government. I’m in the opposition to change people’s worldviews. We have to persuade the public. The public realized Netanyahu made a mistake with the Druze. I hope the law will be fixed, not just for them but to also guarantee equality.
When will the next election be held?
I can definitely say they will be held in less than a year, but governments fall from the inside. I don’t want to guess.
Will Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit decide when the election will be held?
I don’t know. It bothers me that it has taken him so much time to complete Netanyahu’s cases. I would be happy if we go to an election when the public knows what Netanyahu did, but I also want the probe to be handled well and I want the election to be held as soon as possible. I think Netanyahu has to not be in power for many reasons, including corruption, but not only. We have to fight and present an alternative. I don’t intend to wait for the attorney-general.
And the alternative you will be giving the public is Avi Gabbay?
I said I support him to be our next prime minister, and I stand behind that. I also want to add more figures to the party.
Since becoming opposition leader, have you spoken to those figures?
Not yet, beyond them congratulating me. Some of them are waiting for an election to be declared and I understand that. We saw when we formed the Zionist Union that good timing matters.
Will there be a former IDF chief of staff or two on the next Zionist Union list?
I don’t know. I welcome everyone who agrees with our path and can help us win. I don’t need it personally because I myself have security experience as a former vice prime minister who was in the security cabinet for many years. But if the public needs us to have security figures, great. I will be very happy if they come.