JERUSALEM — When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed his new government in March, he appointed centrist politician Tzipi Livni as Israel’s justice minister and chief negotiator for talks with the Palestinians.
A former foreign minister, Mossad agent, Netanyahu rival, and daughter of two hard-line Israeli nationalists, 54-year-old Livni served in the war cabinet that oversaw Israel’s military invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009.
Now she is the nation’s top official advocate for the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Today, in her cramped office at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Livni sits behind her desk in an emerald-blue shirt, a small diamond-encrusted Star of David hanging on a gold chain around her neck.
She is preparing for another meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, scheduled to visit the region again this week as part of an ongoing diplomatic push to revive the moribund peace process.
Ahead of his arrival, in her first interview with a foreign media outlet since becoming justice minister in March, Livni spoke with GlobalPost about peace negotiations, Palestinian refugees, and Jewish statehood in a changing Middle East.
Below are translated and edited excerpts of the interview.
Is recognizing Israel as a Jewish state — a principal demand made by the government of Israel of the Palestinians — crucial for the peace process to move forward?
Forgive me if this is a convoluted answer. The State of Israel was established as a home for the Jewish people. That is the core idea of Zionism. It is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and in every document from the Balfour Declaration to UN resolution 181. It is our self-definition. But it is not yet fully defined. The question of Jewish statehood is still open here, and internationally, I hear more and more questions about the meaning of Jewish statehood.
I propose we anchor the meaning of the term Jewish statehood in the following way: the Jewish people are a religion and a nation. Jewish statehood has to do with Jewish nationhood. For many years, Jewish identity was composed of religion, nationhood and territory.
Then the people were exiled. The entity that protected identity became an uncompromising religious fabric that protected the people from assimilation.
The significance of Zionism is to reconnect […] the people and the territory. Now, our task is to infuse substance into the words “Jewish home.” That substance has to be in harmony with our own values as a democratic nation. Democracy is not only a form of rule — it’s a value. The Jewish state is a national, not religious entity.
But the reason politicians here are demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is that in 2002, I proposed this formulation, but at the time, on the Israeli right, you could not utter the words “Palestinian state.” So we were left only with Jewish state.
You grew up as the daughter of the hard-line nationalist movement [both of Livni’s parents were leading members of the pre-state Zionist paramilitary group, Irgun]. How did you become a leader of Israel’s peace camp?
I grew up in a home in which the Biblical, historical Land of Israel was our homeland, which was also a home that imbued me with reverence for democracy and for the equal rights of all citizens. A state cannot renounce part of its democracy. Therefore, the only way to ensure the endurance of a Jewish, democratic state is to relinquish part of its land. That is how.
I come to the peace process from the [political] right. I don’t come to this from the point of view of Palestinian rights. I recognize Palestinian rights, but my drive comes from the right [wing].
One of the Palestinians’ principal demands is a resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem. [According to the United Nations, there are more than 6 million Palestinian refugees worldwide]. How can this be resolved?
The answer is that the State of Palestine will resolve the matter of the Palestinian refugees. The establishment of the State of Israel removed the matter of Jewish refugees from the international agenda.
After the establishment if the Jewish state, Jews had a homeland. They did not pursue claims for lost property and rights. That ended. Similarly, the Palestinian state will solve the problem for them.
The Palestinian state will have to bring an end to claims. I don’t mean that the day we sign an agreement all conflict will end, but the end of [these] claims has to be part of any agreement.
How would you say you arrived in this place [politically and personally]?
There is not only one system of values, so I believe we can compromise. In late 1995, just before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, when there was no space for centrist thinking in Israel, I found myself identifying with my friends on the right, who believed in our right to the entire Land of Israel, but disliking their disdain for the left. The left wanted a new Middle East.
I found myself in the middle. That was when I made the decision to enter politics: on Yom Kippur, 1995.
How urgent is the need for peace in Israel now?
It is time for peace. We face an urgent need to come to a decision. It’s urgent internally, and it’s urgent internationally. If we don’t make a decision, we are liable to find ourselves in a situation in which we will no longer be the ones making the decision.