Netanyahu’s Opposition Keeps the Two-State Solution Alive

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The political acumen of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has left the bloc opposed to his right-wing policies out of power for nearly a decade. But that doesn’t mean that its members have lost heart. A perfect example is Tzipi Livni, the official opposition leader in the Knesset, which in Israel’s unicameral system makes her the rough equivalent of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer combined. Her path has not been straight: she started her political career as a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, then followed her mentor Ariel Sharon to help form Kadima, and in 2012 forged another new party, Hatnua (“The Movement”). But one thing has been constant: her support for the 1993 Oslo Accords and a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

I interviewed her several weeks ago in Manhattan, before she addressed the Israel Policy Forum, a centrist pro-Israel group that also advocates the two-state solution. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:

Tobin Harshaw: There has been a lot of commentary lately about Israel facing an inevitable “Great Northern War” against Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian troops and proxies supporting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Do you see that as something that’s going to happen?

Tzipi Livni: I do hope that it’s not inevitable. I don’t think any of the sides want the situation to deteriorate further. It is true for Israel, for sure. Nor would it be in the interests of Iran or Hezbollah. And especially not that of the Russians and Bashar al-Assad — the last thing that they want now is to further destabilize the region. But, frankly, as long as Iran continues settling inside Syria, it’s quite a problem for Israel. I hope that the Russians and the U.S. will take the steps needed to keep Syria as Syrian and not Iranian.

TH: Israel has conducted a series of bombing raids across the Syrian border. Do you think that was the correct move on the part of the Israeli government?

TL: I’m the leader of the opposition, but I do support Israel’s security. So, without referring to specific details or one event, I would say that it’s clear to the Iranians and to the Russians that we are not looking for a new war, but we can’t afford a situation in which Iran controls the Shiites in Iraq and then Syria and Lebanon. The idea of a state that supports terror — and Hezbollah is a designated terrorist organization — should be unacceptable to the entire world.

TH: Let’s switch to Gaza. Tensions have been heating up. There have been a lot of rocket attacks. Many people feel another conflict there is also inevitable. What do you think Israel can do now to help avoid that, and maybe get the terrorist organization Hamas out of power?

TL: The endgame in Gaza should be that Hamas is replaced with a government that abides by two requirements: saying that Israel has a right to exist, and renouncing violence and terrorism. Hamas has not been willing to do so. I believe that this should be a shared goal for Israel and the international community. So, in the end, we will need to have a legitimate government and demilitarize Gaza.

I’m not so naive as to think this is something they would do willingly tomorrow. But the strategy should be to strengthen the moderates and those cooperating on Israel’s security, which is the Palestinian Authority and Fatah.

I believe that more hope for the people, more electricity and clean water — that’s fine. But economic projects should be done only through the supervision of the United Nations or other organizations or states willing to do so. Since for now Abu Mazen is not willing to participate in these efforts, we need to find a way of giving him and the people in the West Bank some hope.

TH: The Palestinian Authority leader is very old, 82. Do you think that he’s going to be replaced by somebody you can deal with?

TL: I don’t think that anybody knows. There is no real legitimate successor. I don’t see a leader who would say, “OK, great, now I’ll make peace with Israel.”  

TH: You made a somewhat controversial comment recently to the effect that the Netanyahu government was intentionally empowering Hamas. [This was also the explanation given by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman when he resigned on Nov. 14 after his government called a truce with Hamas in Gaza.] Can you explain quickly what you meant by that?

TL: I believe that the strategy should be to work with the moderates. Abu Mazen cooperates with Israel and Israel’s security against Hamas. But unfortunately, what I see is that in terms of sticks and carrots, Abu Mazen gets the sticks and Hamas is getting the carrots, and I’m against it.

TH: Israel and the Gulf Arab states have obviously been coming closer together through shared security interests. Do you think that the Jamal Khashoggi situation and the trouble that Mohammed bin Salman now faces in Saudi Arabia will change that relationship, and perhaps the power balance in the Middle East?

TL: As you said, it is clear now that the interest of the Arab states is based on an understanding that Iran is the threat and not Israel. So, therefore, there is a huge opportunity for Israel to create a new alliance in the region. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains, and therefore the Arabs cannot do it publicly. It could be quiet, but it’s not the normalization that was promised in the Arab Peace Initiative. It’s too early to know what the impact will be on MBS.

TH: We’ll talk a little bit about Israeli politics, starting with the personal. In what must seem a lifetime ago, you were a member of Likud. What was the precipitating event that caused you to leave the party?  

TL: I left with Ariel Sharon. The Likud decided to be the No Party. No for a Palestinian state. No this, no that. No political horizon and no hope for peace. I joined politics in order to try and achieve peace between us and the Palestinians. So, it became impossible for Arik and me to stay in that party.

TH: What do you think have been the Netanyahu government’s biggest mistakes, particularly on regional and foreign policy?

TL: Stalemate of the peace process and the weakening of Abu Mazen deliberately.

TH: A growing number of commentators in the U.S. feel that the two-state solution is becoming less and less likely all the time. Are things moving that way?

TL: I am very worried. For awhile, I was optimistic when [U.S. President Donald] Trump said that he wants the "ultimate deal." I’m not against thinking outside the box as long as this would end the conflict and keep Israel a Jewish democratic state. My vision is not about creating a Palestinian state; it’s about keeping Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

I’m worried now, not only because we face a stalemate, but because there is no real status quo. I hear more voices on the Palestinian side talking about one state. And also, in Israel, there are those on the far right who are taking Israel toward annexation of the West Bank. That is completely unacceptable for me.

TH: The New York Times had a much-discussed article recently about the number of rising young Democrats in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, who call Israel an apartheid state and want to cut off military aid. Are you worried about the Democratic Party moving that direction?

TL: The relationship between Israel and the U.S. is the base for Israel’s security. Therefore, it should be kept bipartisan — and part of my criticism of Netanyahu is that he doesn’t make the effort to keep it bipartisan.

And when I come here and speak with Democrats, it is to say: “Criticizing an Israeli government policy, that’s something that we can live with. And having been a minister of foreign affairs, I know that sometimes we have disputes with U.S. administrations or members of Congress. It’s OK — as long as you would not undermine the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, and the right of Israel to defend itself.”

And what these new people don’t understand is that while most of them support or say that they support the idea of two states for two peoples, the BDS does not. The BDS is not for the establishment of the Palestinian state, it’s against the existence of the state of Israel. And therefore, we should invest in explaining this to all of them. Not everything is a zero-sum game. The idea that if you support the Palestinians you should be against Israel is nonsense. You could be pro-peace.

TH: Do you feel that the Trump administration’s actions, such as moving of the embassy to Jerusalem and generally acting with a strong pro-Israel stance and being less of an honest broker, is helping the peace process? Do you think that it’s helping Israel? 

TL: I’m an Israeli and Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. But I listened to what Trump said when he moved the embassy — that it just relates to the situation on the ground, that it doesn’t jeopardize final status on the border.

Therefore, for example, the Israeli prime minister could have said: “Thank you, Mr. President, we highly appreciate this move. We understand that there’s a need for negotiations and I support the idea of two states.”

And on the Palestinian side, a leader should have said: “Mr. President we are completely against it, but we heard what you say. It doesn’t jeopardize the process, and let’s negotiate.”

Well, all this didn’t happen, so what we are facing is stagnation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security and the military for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

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