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Tzipi Livni couldn’t save Israel because Israel doesn’t want to be saved

Tzipi Livni, who bid farewell to politics this week, won’t be Israel’s de Gaulle. She will not be the leader that shakes us out of our collective slumber. Today, it is difficult to imagine any other Israeli leader having the desire to even try.

Tzipi Livni holds a press conference in the Knesset, January 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tzipi Livni holds a press conference in the Knesset, January 1, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s strange to consider that a mere decade ago, Tzipi Livni and her Kadima party won the Israeli elections. Yet 10 years after Benjamin Netanyahu pushed her into the opposition back benches, Livni tearfully announced on Monday that she will not be running for the upcoming Knesset elections. Polls show her Hatnuah party wouldn’t make it past the election threshold and running anyway could potentially siphon votes from a center-left bloc that seeks to overthrow Netanyahu.

Following her resignation, Israel’s liberal commentators commended her undying commitment to a two-state solution to preserve Israel as “both Jewish and democratic.” But beyond the left-leaning intelligentsia, her resignation went on with little fanfare. At a time when the right’s twin policies of endless occupation and creeping annexation go entirely unchallenged, it is hardly surprising that few are rushing to write Livni’s requiem.

After all, in every election since 2009, Livni was a politician who, try as she might, simply couldn’t get things to go her way, jumping from party to party and forging puzzling alliances in an attempt to hold on to political relevancy. Yet when it came to what my colleague Dahlia Scheindlin calls doing the “politics of politics,” Livni failed time and time again.

Had things turned out differently, her life story would have been the stuff Hollywood kitsch is made of: born to right-wing parents who fought in the ranks of the Irgun terrorist group during the 1948 war, Livni went on to serve in the Mossad and become a member of Knesset on behalf of Likud. That is, until she realized the effect the occupation has on Israeli society, and particularly its threat to Israel’s ability to preserve a Jewish majority and still call itself a democracy.



One would be remiss, however, to view Livni’s departure from politics simply as a bookend to a storied political career. It is also a symbolic moment for a society that has neither a desire to talk about nor consider an end to its five decades of military control over millions of Palestinians. Ten years ago, when Livni was on a meteoric rise, she was part of the self-described political center, which set out to finish what Yitzhak Rabin began with Oslo in the 90s and “separate” from the Palestinians.

After Ariel Sharon, newly-rebranded as a centrist politician, was able to pull off the Gaza Disengagement in 2005, it seemed to many that a more comprehensive peace deal could just be around the corner. If anyone could do it, the thinking went, it was the former Likud hawks — like Sharon, Livni, and Olmert — who had had their moment of clarity.

Of course, none of that panned out. Livni, despite her popularity, was unable to form a government after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to step down in 2008, due to her opposition to what she viewed as blackmail by the ultra-Orthodox parties. Her critics from across the political spectrum would remember her inability to overcome those obstacles, her failure as lead negotiator in the last two rounds of talks with the Palestinians, in 2008 and 2014, and her constant attempts at searching for new political allies as a sign that while her ideological credentials were burnished, her ability to do the politics of politics was not. The hard right, of course, simply viewed her as betraying their cause.

Kadima leaders Ariel Sharon and Tzipi Livni, January 13, 2001. (Flash90)

Kadima leaders Ariel Sharon and Tzipi Livni, January 13, 2001. (Flash90)

More than anything, however, Livni’s political demise ­­— and what appears to be the death of the separation paradigm — can be attributed to the Israeli public’s lurch to the right and the election of the most far-right, nationalist government in the country’s history. With a public generally apathetic, if not supportive, toward the occupation, there are fewer and fewer people willing to buy what Livni is peddling.

Without Livni, the upcoming Knesset will be almost entirely bereft of Jewish Israelis whose chief political aim is ending the occupation. Aside from Ofer Cassif, a member of the left-wing Jewish-Arab Hadash party, not a single Israeli Jew — including candidates from the Zionist left-wing Meretz party — is expected to use the plenum as a pulpit to demand Israel end its military dictatorship over the occupied territories and its siege on Gaza.

The center, focused almost exclusively on presenting itself as an opposition to Netanyahu, knows that the Palestinian issue has become the third rail of Israeli politics. Meanwhile the right supports various forms of annexation and preventing the establishment of any kind of viable Palestinian state in the West Bank. It’s unclear whether centrist frontrunners like Yair Lapid or former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz could eventually take up Livni’s separation cause. For now, they have decided to remain quiet on the occupation.

The far-left has long accused Livni, among other things, of war crimes over her role in the 2008-2009 Gaza war and the 2006 Lebanon war, when she was foreign minister, and the demand that the Palestinian leadership explicitly recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” Not only will the far-left be glad to see another fig leaf fade into political obscurity, it will be pleased that the idea of keeping Israel “Jewish and democratic” through separation — a concept premised on the racialization and segregation of Palestinians — can now be tossed into the dustbin of history. If Livni only wants to end Israeli rule over the occupied territories in order to uphold Jewish supremacy in Israel proper, then thanks but no thanks, they would say. Some centrists and more moderate leftists, on the other hand, are quite sorry she’s out for this very reason.

Ten years ago, the Israeli public could still imagine a two-state solution that precluded having to choose between a Jewish or a democratic state. But Tzipi Livni won’t be our de Gaulle. She will not be the one to shake us out of our collective slumber, and after she leaves, it is difficult to imagine any other Israeli leader having the desire to even try.

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    1. Benjamin Mandel

      How can you write an article about Tzipi Livni without mentioning her role in Operation Cast Lead?!

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      “With a public generally apathetic, if not supportive, toward the occupation, there are fewer and fewer people willing to buy what Livni is peddling.” In other words, Israel has no endgame:


      As of 2019, there are 6.7 million Jews in Israel, the occupied territories and Gaza, and 6.7 million Arabs, according to the latest official estimates…Politicians run away from discussing potential solutions – never mind actual peace – as if it was the plague. And it’s not because they’re all out of fresh ideas, though they are: They know the Israeli public is in collective denial and that voters won’t reward those who dare snap them out of their reverie. Those who are might be tempted to cry out “The emperor has no clothes” will first be shushed and then sent home, consigned to political oblivion.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Joel

      Like most writers here on this topic, Edo has missed, or perhaps deliberately ignored the critical point. The peace-seeking left is weak, but not because of Bibi. And not because the Israeli populace is “apathetic” or likes the occupation as Edo suggests. The reason is much simpler and more concrete: Israeli attempts to move towards peace and a two-state solution failed miserably. Both the Oslo agreements and the withdrawal from Gaza ended up in endless terror and war. Are our memories so short?

      I am writing this with some pain, as I supported Oslo and the withdrawal from Gaza, at considerable personal cost. Most in my surroundings were against these moves- not to mention that people I knew were murdered by terrorists. I barely missed being blown up myself (look up bus 16 in Haifa). The plain fact is that these moves failed. Something very different needs to happen to make this work, and the change has to happen in Ramallah and Gaza, not just in Jerusalem.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        This sounds like a recitation of the axioms and truisms, the self-serving shibboleths, that Israelis tell themselves over and over again but are just not true. In fact, writers here on this topic have confronted this critical point repeatedly. I answered this on Feb. 18 at Dahlia Scheindlin’s article and, on Oslo, referenced Noam Sheizaf twice. Here is an additional, more direct reference by Sheizaf:

        Why do we only listen to violence?

        Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Joel: In the last decade the Israeli government hasn’t stated what it wants, it hasn’t stated what it expects from the Palestinians and what it’s willing to give.

        Reply to Comment
      • Firentis

        My feelings exactly. I was hesitant on Oslo because I didn’t trust Arafat but it seemed like it could be promising. I supported Sharon when he withdrew from Gaza.

        The Israeli Left promised peace and security and threatened us with economic damage and political tsunamis if Israel didn’t withdraw from territory and hand it over to the Arabs.

        The Israeli Right promised quiet and prosperity if we didn’t go through with withdrawing from territory and threatened us with terrorism and rockets if we did.

        The Israeli Right has no solution to the Palestinian issue. The Israeli Left had a solution that left us worse off.

        The Israeli Right proved to be more pragmatic and realistic of the two. That the Israeli Left collapsed shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          “The left” collapsed the way a house of cards collapses or a hot air balloon eventually collapses and falls to the ground. Because “the left” was never constructed in the Israeli political ecology to be basically much more than a status-quo-maintaining facade, a non-serious gesture, a fig leaf, an illusion-maintaining pseudo-left. The illusion being “the Israelis are genuinely interested in negotiation towards a viable two-state solution and not just pretending to negotiate.”

          Halper’s “Matrix of Control” page is excellent on this:

          How many times have we seen people post here the “Barak’s generous offer” disinformation as if it were gospel truth?

          Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            Barak’s offer was generous. I realize that the Palestinians think they deserve all of the land with none of the Jews so they don’t think so but they lost and they will have to live with the consequences of failing to destroy Israel.

            I suppose they enjoy the status quo too much to agree to any offer from Israel, regardless of how generous. Their supporters certainly seem to want them to continue suffering rather than accepting a less than utopian solution.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            One has to think that Firentis is hoping that nobody will actually read Jeff Halper’s “Matrix of Control” page. Because anyone who actually does read that page, and has his wits about him, knows that Jeff Halper utterly refutes what Firentis is trying to slide by us.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            The Halper piece is based on the premise that whatever Israel offers can not possibly be sufficient because Israel has a nefarious design to permanently prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Regardless of the offer Halper would find a way to deign whatever Israel retains as leaving it in effective control. Rather than looking at what was offered – sovereignty over the overwhelming majority of the land – Halper looks at what wasn’t and makes it fit into his premise like a toddler trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It is a fun game of course to play and requires some rhetorical skill, but the conclusion is predetermined by the starting premise.

            The offer was generous and the Palestinians made a historic mistake in rejecting it. They could have had a viable sovereign state by now. But clearly having rejected the offer they are now in a far better place. Kudos to the Palestinian leadership for their foresight and wisdom.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “Regardless of the offer…”

            This is of course not true. I invite the reader to go to Halper’s page and simply search and highlight the word “sovereign” and the word “generous.” Halper uses these words 24 and 7 times, respectively. And ask yourself who here is actually the one trying to whack a square peg into a round hole. It ain’t Halper. Halper is the adult in the room. The settlers never have been.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            And I’m not sure that “whack a square peg into a round hole” is the proper metaphor here. It’s more like “pretending a square peg is a round one” and if you say it often enough and call it a “security peg” then you’ll make the peg itself kind of invisible and you can keep pegging away and blame the other side for the peg which is the real aim all along.

            ‘Because it operates under a Kafkaesque guise of “proper administration,” “upholding the law,” “keeping the public order” and, of course, “security,” the Matrix of Control renders the Occupation virtually invisible. In “normal” times (when active Palestinian resistance can be stifled), its outward appearance is legal and bureaucratic, the most effective means of control over a long period of time. The Israeli military government over the Occupied Territories is called, for example, the “Civil Administration,” even though it is headed by a colonel under the strict authority of the Ministry of Defense, and is bound by the orders of the general commanding the “Central Front.”…

            The Matrix of Control represents Israel’s success in establishing a system of control over the Occupied Territories that has lasted decades. Its usefulness does not end there. Because it renders the Occupation invisible, it is capable of deflecting opposition at home and abroad. Although it was Israel who prejudiced the outcome of the Oslo negotiations by measurably strengthening its grip over the Occupied Territories and offering concessions that left its control intact, it is the Palestinians who have been almost universally blamed for the breakdown of the “peace process.” An understanding of the Matrix of Control is essential for comprehending the sources of the present conflict and the obstacles to its resolution. Only dismantling it will lead to a just and lasting peace. This is the only way that Israel’s long-standing and ongoing campaign of “creating facts on the ground” can be effectively neutralized.’

            Reply to Comment
    4. UnimpressedRealist

      She has no one to blame but herself. When she had power she did nothing but be a monster who facilitated to the occupation and did nothing to reign it back.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Frank Adam

      It is very easy to blame the “right” for creeping annexation.

      We also need an analysis of PA politics as to whether they could have done differently to mutual benefit.

      The drip drip of Arab violence and defamatory language has been – is – as helpful as settling hilltops. Moslem and anti-Zionist chanting across the Diaspora, “From the river to the sea…” is a one state solution too.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Bruce Gould

      But let’s examine the reasons why Israel doesn’t want to be saved – it’s the increasing power of the Jewish religious fanatics:


      How the rule of the rabbis is fuelling a holy war in Israel…In which country did a senior, state-salaried cleric urge his followers last week to become “warriors”, emulating a group of young men who had murdered a woman of another faith?…Where can the head of the clergy call black people “monkeys” and urge the expulsion of other religious communities?…Is the country Saudi Arabia? Or Myanmar? Or perhaps, Iran?

      No. It is Israel, the world’s only self-declared Jewish state.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben

      Pretty striking, isn’t it, what defines the “far-left” in today’s Israel? Can you picture a journalist in the USA or Western Europe saying that opposition to recognizing the USA or France as a White Christian state is characteristic of the “far-left”? Or that opposing racialization and segregation and Christian supremacy is “far-left”?

      Reply to Comment
      • Joel


        You are making the usual errors.
        1. That being “Jewish” simply means having a religion, like being Christian. If you don’t understand why this is wrong, I’ll be glad to explain.
        2. That you can project from American politics directly into the middle East. Since when is this a white/black racial issue? Jews are not even “white” – they have always been treated as a minority (except in Israel)
        3. There are many who are not extreme left that opposed the Nation State Law.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          I’m not making any error. I deliberately amalgamated “France,” “White,” and “Christian” to account for the complex ethnic-religious-racial amalgamation that Israel means by “Jewish state.” So you can’t side step and back out of this by simplistically claiming that I claimed that ‘being “Jewish” simply means having a religion, like being Christian.’ I did not claim that. Far from it. As for my saying “Christian supremacy,” Christianity is the dominant or most prevalent religion in the USA and there are plenty of white racists who would like to ride in on that horse and make “White Christian” the definition of the American state. Ever listen to Ann Coulter? The only thing is that in the USA Ann Coulter is “far right” whereas her Israeli Jewish equivalent is “centrist.”

          “Black/white” is a separate Israeli (and of course non-Israeli) issue. Since you want to bring it up, would you like to explain Israel’s treatment of its African refugees, which is absolutely, starkly different that Western Europe’s and America’s if we look at rates of asylum granted?

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “How can there be so much discussion of “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism” when Israel’s prime minister invites anti-Semites to dinner?
            How can U.S. Jews stand up against Trump and for human rights when they support an Israeli government that is actively supporting racism, segregation, intolerance, and bigotry, against its Arab population and all who uphold liberal values?
            Will U.S. Jews keep inviting and respecting a prime minister who advocates for the inclusion of fascists and racists within his government, and annoints their hatred as acceptable political speech?
            Will American Jews embrace a government against which they would stand up with all their might if it was their government?
            Sometimes, we are defined by what we reject. Let this be that moment.”

            Reply to Comment
    8. itshak Gordine

      Tsipi Livni broke a world record: she has been a member of 5 political parties in 10 years ..

      Reply to Comment
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