By Maxine Dovere
When I think about Israel, the most important thing to do is to have the two worlds, Jewish and democratic, have a common denominator, an understanding of the meaning of “Jewish” and of “democratic”….For me, it is important that the young generation feel connected to Israel…to have in their hearts a positive music, the Jewish music. — Tziporah “Tzipi” Livni, MK
Not since Golda Meir has there been a more powerful woman in Israeli politics than Tzipi Livni. She has served in the Cabinets of three prime ministers and held eight cabinet positions, including foreign minister, vice prime minister, justice minister, agriculture minister and housing minister. Livni led multiple rounds of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, and has earned a reputation as an honest politician who holds to her principles. Livni says her goal is to assure a Jewish and democratic state of Israel that ensures the country’s security and identity.
Livni began her legislative career in 1999 as a member of the Likud. She has been blocked from holding the prime minister’s office twice, and served as leader of the Opposition from 2009 until 2012. She ran in the 2013 elections under the banner of her new party, Hatnuah, and in 2015 joined forces with the Labor Party to create the Zionist Union. In 2017 she was said to be the first Israeli considered for the post of under-secretary-general of the United Nations.
Livni, a Tel Aviv Sabra born in 1958, is the daughter of Eitan and Sara Rosenberg Livni. The two former Irgun members were the first couple to marry in the new state of Israel. In 1984, her father supported the election of the first Druze candidate for Knesset.
Livni was a member of the Betar youth movement. In the Israel Defense Forces—IDF—she was a lieutenant, and she later served in the Mossad. She has been married to Naftali Spitzer since 1983 and has two sons, Omri and Yuval. She finished her law studies at Bar-Ilan University.
Livni has received numerous international awards, including the Abirat Ha-Shilton (“Quality of Governance”) award and Yale University Chubb Fellowship. She is the first Israeli woman to receive the International Hall of Fame Award from the International Women’s Forum. Livni represented Israel at the World Economic Forum and in multiple additional forums worldwide. Considered a pragmatic politician, she enjoys a high level of respect in American, European and even Arabic diplomatic circles.
Following the Olmert resignation, Livni became prime minister designate, declaring, “The national responsibility [bestowed] by the public brings me to approach this job with great reverence.”
However, the position was not to be hers. Shimon Peres asked Netanyahu and Likud (which received one fewer seat than Kadima in the elections) to form a government; Livni became leader of the Opposition.
“Elections alone do not make true democracy,” uttered President Barack Obama in 2009 during the Arab Spring. Those words continue to ring true.
Livni believes a successful peace process will be beneficial. “Israel is not involved as a favor to anyone…it is in the interest of all parties.” She acknowledged that it may not be possible to maintain Israel as a Jewish state and keep the entire land of Israel.
Livni gained popularity among the Israeli peace camp after her 2003 speech at the Rabin Memorial. In 2007 she met with then-Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to discuss “improving the lives of the Palestinian people, without compromising Israel’s security.”
“Peace,” she told New York Jewish Life, “is very good for Israel. I wish we would make the deal. I hope we will not be maneuvered by those for whom any deal is a political deal. We should not be shy.”
In November 2011 Livni resigned from the Knesset, emphasizing when she did that she was not retiring from public life. “Israel is too dear,” she said.
In the 2013 elections, her new party, Hatnuah, won six Knesset seats. Per the coalition agreement between Hatnuah and Likud, Livni was appointed justice minister. But in December 2014 Netanyahu fired her, saying she (and Yair Lapid) constituted an “opposition within the coalition” which made it “impossible to govern.”
Livni had controlled the ministerial committee on legislation and was chief negotiator with the Palestinian Authority. The party also held the Environmental Protection Ministry. Subsequently, Livni and Labor leader Isaac Herzog announced a joint slate between Labor and Hatnuah, which they called the Zionist Union. The partnership between Livni and Herzog created significant momentum and galvanized Israel’s center-left voters, who saw the partnership as having a realistic chance to form a government. Avi Gabbay, the recently elected head of the Labor Party, continues the alliance.
Now a member of the Knesset, Livni serves on its Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. She initiated and chairs the Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee on International Lawfare.
“Lawfare,” she said, “is a warfront as any other.” The committee’s mandate is to “deal with lawfare not only to see how we can defend ourselves, but also to try to change international trends against Israel in a legal context.”
New York Jewish Life met exclusively with MK Livni in her Knesset office in Jerusalem in mid-July. Livni is impressive: smart, savvy, dedicated to the Jewish and democratic state of Israel, and gracious.
“What I think is the most important thing to do is to join the two worlds, Jewish and democratic state. It’s difficult. We need to have a common denominator and understanding of the meaning of a Jewish and democratic state.”
The MK said there is no dichotomy between the two concepts.
“Equal rights for all citizens are part of both the Jewish and democratic value system. A democratic state is a matter of values, not just elections.”
Livni is concerned that “there are those trying to make Israel more Jewish and less democratic. Our role is to keep the balance….There is a major debate between those believing that Israel should be Jewish and those who want Israel to be both Jewish and democratic. The next decision is to make peace with the Palestinians. Every decision in policy is based on this choice.”
Livni stands in opposition to the current Netanyahu government. The character of the ruling coalition, she said, is “more Jewish, less democratic. This attitude affects relations between Israel and world Jewry. When Israel is more Jewish, the monopoly goes to the ultra-Orthodox….There is a rift between them and the Reform and Conservative on the meaning of ‘Jewish state.’ We [in Israel] need to take into consideration the impact on the Jewish people here and elsewhere, instead of making a decision that makes young people feel alienated.”
Livni expressed concern that the young generation will “stand with Israel, fight for Israel.” She acknowledged that “on the campus, the old dialogue no longer works. It Is unacceptable. We should open a new dialogue together, to find what it means to have a nation state of the Jewish people.”
“Democracy,” Livni continued, “is a matter of values of the Jewish system. It is about being a Jew. It is the meaning of being a Jew. Equal rights is not a favor; it is our Jewish values….I am worried about representing the balance. It is becoming more and more difficult.
“The political solution requires a change of the government. The vast majority [in the government] support democracy; the minority control decision making. We need to stand together for what we believe.
“Add the numbers. The majority in Israel and in the Diaspora do not favor minority control of decision making. When Likud decided on the ultra Orthodox and Jewish Home party [Bayit Yehudi] as coalition partners, we are all paying.
“We need to understand that the Jewish community was enthusiastic about Israel when the state was established and when it was under attack. Now that support has become more problematic….It’s an issue of conscience, not just a problem of the Jewish community abroad.”
The MK discussed some of the social problems besetting Israeli society.
“We called for Jewish families to come to Israel, according to the Law of Return. We have hundreds of thousands that are not [halachically] Jewish. They cannot get married. When they want to convert, they have to follow very strict rules. It is problematic.
“We said, ‘Come to Israel. Be a Jew.’ Now there are Russian women—part of the Russian Jewish community—who are not [halachically] Jewish. They feel disconnected from the Judaism the Rabbinate brings.”
Livni acknowledged that rabbis have tried, but “cannot act against what they see as Halacha [Jewish law].”
The Marriage Law—Hok ha goot “Couples Law”—involves replacement of Rabbinate marriage with an alternative marriage ceremony that maintains the same status.
“There has been no success in passing the law since it was introduced in 2003,” Livni said. “The moment we have a coalition that recognizes the importance and that this is not against Judaism, just giving a different way, there will be change. A new approach is not against Judaism.”
Livni is working to bring about this change.
“This is so important,” she explained. “The question of ‘who is a Jew’ in marriage transcends generations. Our children will not marry your children. It is very complex.”
Livni concluded by saying, “For me, it is most important that the young generation feel connected to Israel, to have in their hearts a positive music—the Jewish music. When the Jewish music is just the ultra-Orthodox music, they [the young generation] will not sing it. For me, this hurts because I want to have the feeling that the young generation will be connected to Judaism, connected to Israel.”
New York Jewish Life photographs our interviewees, but rarely our interviewers. At the conclusion of the meeting with MK Livni, this interviewer asked for a photograph. When we stood together, Tzipi Livni, minister, member of Knesset, kicked off her heels to lessen the height difference between us. Nice. Hamish.