IN THE MIDDLE

03.18.12

Israeli Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni’s Strong Voice of Reason

Israeli Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni talks to John Avlon about stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, how to deal with Syria, and Obama’s tense relationship with Netanyahu.

“I resent the idea that Israel is part of the political agenda in United States’ campaigns, really,” says Tzipi Livni, the Israeli opposition leader and head of the centrist party Kadima.

She is fresh off a flight from Tel Aviv, sitting in a living room of a hotel suite near Lincoln Center, where she’s come to attend the Women in the World Summit.

“I believe Israel is and should be bipartisan—as we always were,” she says, hinting toward the widely reported tensions between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama. “I don’t question any American president in terms of his commitment to the security of the state of Israel.”

But of course, accusing Obama of being “weak on Israel” (or “naive and arrogant, misguided and dangerous,” to use Rick Perry’s formulation) has become a standard applause line during the Republican primary campaign. So does the former Israeli foreign minister consider Obama a strong ally of Israel’s?

“Yes,” Livni says without missing a beat. “He has some differences between him and Mr. Netanyahu. But I have some differences between Mr. Netanyahu and myself, as well. It doesn’t make me less an Israeli patriot.”

Livni is one of the most fascinating figures on the international political stage. Born in 1958, three years before Obama, she is a former Israel Defense Forces lieutenant, a lawyer, and the mother of two children, positioned to be the second female prime minister of Israel, after the legendary Golda Meir. She joined Ariel Sharon in his breakaway from Likud in 2005 to form the centrist party Kadima (“Forward”) and served as foreign minister in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government. She was narrowly defeated by the Netanyahu-led Likud in 2009 and now faces a primary challenge within her own party at the end of March. But this morning in New York, she seems crisp and confident, impatient with the Kabuki theater of partisan politics, and more grounded in the realities of pragmatic decision making.

“I hate the idea that talking security is Likud and right wing, and talking about peace is left wing and Labor and Kadima. The whole idea is to find a way to bridge, to find a way to have security and peace together,” Livni says while pouring a glass of water. “I think that most of the Israeli public is in the center. They are in the center, and they are more moderate.”

“I hate the idea that talking security is Likud and right wing, and talking about peace is left wing and Labor and Kadima.”

But, she acknowledges, it is more complicated to lead a centrist party, especially in a time of economic anxiety, “because it is easier to express extremist ideas. It’s shorter. You can have the headline, and people can identify with it. It’s more emotional. It’s more problematic to express ideas that are part of what we call ‘the center’ ... people are voting in Israel from their heart, not from their head.”

With anxious attention increasingly directed toward the threat of the Islamic Republic of Iran having a nuclear weapon, Livni is reluctant to discuss the prospect of military options in public—a sign of experience overriding political impulses. “I believe that this is something that leaders need to decide, not people, because in the cabinet room you can understand what is the prime concern of this kind of an attack and what are the options and what is the outcome the day after.” But she is clear that the famous Israeli surgical strikes against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007—both of which saved the world from the prospect of those regimes being nuclear powers—were comparatively simple.

This is one area where Livni is not without criticism for the Obama administration, especially the way the international dialogue about Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb has been conducted in public: “Unfortunately, what we see today is a kind of American foreign diplomacy that leads to a situation in which instead of everybody talking about preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon, now the discussion is about preventing Israel from doing something against Iran.”

Given the tone of coverage in the United States, I ask about a Jerusalem Post poll that found that only 19 percent of Israelis support unilateral strikes against Iran, while a recent Zogby poll found that 52 percent of Americans support military action against Iran. What accounts for this disconnect?

“I believe that when it comes to Israelis, they’re not only thinking about the nature of the threat, but they’re concerned about the outcome and the day after,” Livni says evenly. “And maybe this is something that the Americans are not thinking about.” Namely, here in the U.S.A., we’re not likely to be on the front lines of missile attacks the next day.

In a region full of troubles, this is nonetheless an unusually crowded hour. In addition to the near-term challenge of Iran and the still unfolding Arab Spring, the slaughter of civilians in Israel’s neighbor Syria continues. The horrors fill our television screens, but there are questions about what a post-Assad regime would bring to power and whether it might be even worse for Israel. It is a consideration Livni acknowledges, but puts in a more elevated perspective.

“I think that the world is not doing enough,” she says. “Assad is killing his own people, and the world is doing nothing, basically. And I think that the behavior of Russia and China in the Security Council was really something which is not acceptable. Help is needed, and I believe that Israel should be part of this. Nobody knows who’s going to be next [or] what’s going to be next, but we know that what’s happening there is something which is not acceptable ... we need to stand and to say this is not acceptable, to condemn these things and to help the international community to do something about it. It’s not a political issue. I believe it’s more than that.”

That is the perspective of a stateswoman, viewing crises with a sense of moral clarity, determination that is not driven entirely by short-term self-interest. We need more Tzipi Livnis in world politics—and more Kadimas, for that matter—offering a balance of head and heart, trying to move us forward, together.