Moving Goalposts

Tzipi Livni, Israel's So-Called Lead Peace Negotiator

04.12.13 8:15 PM ET

Back when Prime Minister Netanyahu was juggling the egos and ideologies of Israel’s right and center-ish parties to form his current government, he got one person on board pretty quickly: Tzipi Livni.

Which was a little odd, because Livni has in recent years staked her political fortune on having evolved (in the parlance of our day) on the issue of achieving peace with the Palestinians. Raised in an Irgun family and a staunch Likudnik for most of her adult life, Livni left the Likud in 2005 when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formed Kadima, and not long after she began advocating for a two-state solution.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, she and the current Prime Minister have not always, shall we say, seen eye to eye. Indeed, the acrimony had reached such heights that I fully expected her to make her place in the opposition this time around. I was, clearly, wrong.

Livni’s alacrity got her the Justice Ministry plus the newly created position of “lead peace negotiator.” Was she unable to pass up a ministry? Was she moved by the urgent need for a peace agreement? We may never know, but here’s what we do know: If it was the latter, she probably shouldn’t have taken Netanyahu’s call.

As Leonard Fein noted early on in the coalition-building process:

…“lead negotiator” does not quite mean what the words themselves imply. We know this because Netanyahu himself, on naming Livni, said, “We need a Palestinian partner; I hope we find a Palestinian partner for negotiations,” and pledged to “form a team of ministers supervised by me for a peace agreement, with Livni at its helm.”

So from the start we know that Netanyahu [“supervised by me”] is not giving Livni free reign. Fair enough. But it gets worse: Livni, who is very smart, is totally devoted to a two-state solution; her new prospective boss, however, is not.

Fein’s point was proven when a coalition deal was finally struck and, as Haaretz put it, the peace process was pushed “to the margins”—and then proven again early this week when hard-right Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett told Norway’s Foreign Minister that he and his new BFF, the purportedly centrist Finance Minister Yair Lapid, “are not too crazy about the two-state solution.”

Any doubt that may have remained was removed later in the week when it was reported that Livni might be making a minimal effort to actually lead: “A Western source involved in the diplomatic efforts” told Maariv that Livni “has become convinced that Israeli insistence on the precondition [of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state] is likely to prevent the resumption of talks.”

Immediately upon publication of this information, Livni was publicly slapped down:

Harsh criticism in the political establishment following Maariv’s report that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was not a pre-condition to opening negotiations. Coalition chairman Likud MK Yariv Levine said her remarks do not represent the government’s position. “Livni relinquished recognition of Jewish state on her own accord," Levine said.

I’m sorry, Tzipi Livni, did we say you’d get to lead? We meant: You get to parrot the Prime Minister’s obstructionism, or say nothing at all. Not even to “a Western source involved in the diplomatic efforts.”

What’s really curious, though, is that once upon a time, Netanyahu said publicly that he was satisfied with the existing Palestinian position on Israel, and that he was willing to advance peace talks on that basis.

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In 1993, the PLO recognized the State of Israel and Israel recognized the PLO; in 1998, the Palestinian National Council finally amended the Palestinian Covenant (the PLO’s founding document) to reflect this mutual recognition, removing the previous call for Israel’s destruction and the continuation of an armed struggle. There was a great deal of foot dragging in the intervening five years, and Israel stamped its own feet a few times, but in December of 1998, the deed was done, and Netanyahu was (in the parlance of our day) cool with it:

Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed his satisfaction at the result of the PNC vote… to revoke those clauses in the Palestinian Charter calling for the destruction of the State of Israel. The Prime Minister said that his government would continue to insist with the same firmness on the fulfillment of the other Palestinian commitments, so as to ensure the implementation of the agreement and the advancement of the peace process.

Does any of this line up exactly with Netanyahu’s current demand? No. But it’s not Livni (or the Palestinians) who moved—it’s the goalposts.

This is what Netanyahu and Israel’s right wing do. There is always a reason to tell the Palestinians that what they’ve done isn’t enough, and to attack any Israeli (member of the government or otherwise) who says different.

Because Netanyahu’s goal is not peace, and it has never been peace. The goal of this government and every government that he has ever formed is permanent Israeli control of the West Bank.

One has to wonder if Tzipi Livni honestly didn’t know that, going in. And one wonders how long she’ll wind up lending whatever credibility she has left to the charade.