Interview: Tzipi Livni

Israel’s leading opposition politician says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to “face reality” and work toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians -- before it’s too late.

Tzipi Livni has led Israel into war, and also attempted to guide it to peace. She played an integral role in Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah as foreign minister in the government of Ehud Olmert, and negotiated the agreement, enshrined as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, that ended the conflict. In 2008, she held talks on the "core issues" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei -- the first time such discussions had been held since the acrimonious collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000. Israel's Knesset elections, held in February 2009, presented a mixed bag: Her Kadima Party won more seats than any other party, but the Israeli right captured a majority of the total vote.

Rather than bring her party into a government headed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Livni elected to join the opposition. She has assailed the Netanyahu government for overseeing a "serious decline in Israel's standing around the world," and for failing to resume peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Foreign Policy spoke with Livni shortly after the announcement that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would agree to a U.S. proposal for "indirect talks," marking the tentative resumption of negotiations for the first time since 2008. The position of Livni, who told FP's David Kenner that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is "the reason for me to be in politics," will do much to determine whether this new round talks sputters to a halt or leads to serious negotiations between the two sides. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: It appears that Abbas will agree to resume proximity talks. Is it a diplomatic victory that the talks are being renewed, or is it a step backwards from the direct diplomacy of previous governments?

Tzipi Livni: Direct talks are very important. I think that the best thing to do is continue from where we stopped -- there is no need to start all over again. It is true that 16 years passed [after the Oslo Accords], and during all these years we had ongoing negotiations. [When I was] representing the Israeli interest [during] the negotiations, there is nothing that I discussed or agreed with the Palestinians that any Israeli prime minister who wants to make peace cannot agree to. I believe that we need to continue from where we stopped -- and when I say from where we stopped, it means from where the negotiation teams led by Abu Alaa [Qurei] and myself left off [in late 2008].

I'm glad to see the beginning of something, but for me the goal is not the negotiations -- the goal is the peace treaty. There is a big question mark [as to] whether this is just the beginning of a dialogue, or it is going to lead to a real peace treaty. For me, this is the real issue, and this is the goal: To end the conflict and [sign] a peace treaty. We faced a situation in the past in which negotiations led to more frustration, and blaming one another.

FP: Do you think this Netanyahu government is capable of engaging in serious negotiations with the Palestinians and reaching a deal without breaking apart?

TL: I think the question is where Netanyahu is, and later where his party is -- and only then where his coalition is. After my talks with Netanyahu before the formation of the government and afterwards, and I cannot say that it is clear that he's ready to make the decision. But let's see. We can test this. If he is clear, and the only thing that is needed is my support, he is going to get it. For now, it is too early to know.

FP: If the talks do appear to be advancing, and it looks like they could reach a serious agreement, would it be possible that you would drop your conditions for joining the government?

TL: I say to you what I said to Netanyahu publicly and privately: I entered politics because of the need to end the conflict with the Palestinians. In a moment in which the only thing that is needed to make peace is my support, he's going to get it -- even if this is going to be the last thing I do in politics. But as I said before, it's not just about atmosphere, it's about a real understanding of his sense, and what he's willing to do in order to make peace. And it's too early to know right now.

FP: It's no secret  that this hasn't been the best year for American-Israeli relations, and a lot of that has to do with relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. From the Israeli side, how do you believe that it could have been handled differently?

TL: There is a mutual interest between Israel and the United States of America. It is more than friendship -- it is friendship plus mutual interest, and it is bipartisan. The understanding that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon, plus the need to solve the conflict with the Palestinians according to the idea of two states for two peoples is something that represents the Israeli interest and the American interest.

So, instead of having all these suspicious thoughts [about] Barack Obama's speeches and intentions, we should sit with him and share not only our views and vision in general, but what is the best way to achieve these goals. But it took some time for the Israeli government to understand that two states for two peoples is something that is needed -- that it is more than words, and that the alternative is worse. And it led to misunderstandings, unfortunately.

FP: At the same time, there have been interesting developments  within the American Jewish community and its relation with Israel. Do you think the Netanyahu government made an error by boycotting more liberal organizations such as J Street?

TL:  I meet all the groups, and especially all the congressmen and senators, who come to Israel and who are willing to support us. And more than that, I'm willing to meet with everybody to share ideas -- to explain and to convince them on what is needed for the sake of the state of Israel. This is, as I just said, also an American interest. When there is somebody, or a group of people, who want to support Israel, we need to allow for different views on different issues, and to discuss this -- not to boycott them.

FP: What can the United States do, or what can Barack Obama do, to facilitate direct talks?

TL: Everybody is focusing on resuming direct talks, and I would say to end the conflict. We have no time -- time works against us. The conflict can be transferred from a national conflict to a religious one, which is unsolvable, and this is something that we cannot afford.

The United States needs to know where the parties are, not just in the willingness to enter the same room, but where they really are in the final-status agreements. The proximity talks are good opportunity to do so.

FP: Some people say that progress on the Arab-Israeli front would be helpful in limiting Iranian influence in your region. Do you believe that's true?

TL: The Iranians are abusing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to gain more support from radical elements in the region. It is clear to me that the Iranian ideology is not an outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let us assume that we solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The next day, their religious ideology is not going to be changed. But it is also true that they abuse this.... They try to [position] themselves as representing the Muslim and the Arab narrative when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But I think any connection between the two is not useful. We need to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And we need to solve the conflict between the Israel and the Palestinians, for itself. The goal is to reach a peace treaty between the Israel and the Palestinians, not just to prevent the Iranians from exploiting the conflict for their own cause. We need to do it anyway.

FP: You have now been in the opposition for a year. How do you assess your last year, and how do you think Kadima can distinguish itself in the future from the Netanyahu government?

TL: I'm not asking myself, "How I can be different from Netanyahu?," because I am different, and Kadima is different from Likud, by its own nature. When Netanyahu said the words "two states for two peoples," it was good to hear. I want most Israelis to understand, maybe for the first time, that this is the only option for a future peace treaty. You know something, I think that Netanyahu said the words because Kadima was not in the government. There were those who wanted us to be the fig leaf of the government, and to say nice words to the world. And they couldn't get it. So Netanyahu and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman and all the others needed to face reality, and the international community. And for the first time, what they call the right wing in Israel needed to say that two states for two peoples is their own goal. Whether they're serious or not is going to be tested.

Ronen Zvulun-Pool/Getty Images


Life Inside Somalia’s Bunker Government

An interview with Information Minister Dahir Gelle, as told to FP's Elizabeth Dickinson.

Just after I was sworn in as a minister in Somalia's government last August, I took a tour of my new office, located at the heart of the turbulent capital, Mogadishu. I had been there before -- though only for a glimpse. This time, as I walked through the halls and ventured into the rooms, I saw what I was really in for: There were no telephones, no fax equipment, no Internet access, and the radios weren't working. And I was the new minister of information.

In Somalia, to be minister of information is to lead a war -- a war of ideas -- against the Islamist militias tearing the country apart. On one side, you have al-Shabab and its affiliates, linked with al Qaeda. On the other side, you have the Somali Information Ministry and the government, trying to communicate with Somali people. That was our job, but we lacked even the most basic equipment to do it.

My first days of work as a cabinet minister were spent buying tools -- a transmitter for the radio and other equipment for my office. I had to find generators for electricity. We had to start everything from ground zero on everything, lacking in financial resources as well.

Then I had to find journalists from Mogadishu's shrinking media to add to our staff. We started with only 30, but today we have about 100, and we have managed to be online almost 18 hours a day. Our radio station, Radio Mogadishu, has a website. It is broadcast in Somalia daily by satellite. By now, my daily work has moved on from finding transmitters and phones, but I still spend much of my time watching over the security of the ministry's staff.

Our most important job these days is to cure the Somali people of the idea that Shabab and al Qaeda are a future for Somalia. We have to help people understand that Shabab's agenda is not in their interest. We have a variety of programs: cultural, sport, or programs led by religious scholars who explain how Shabab has nothing to do with Islam. Traditional leaders have spoken on the air. We support the forces fighting against Shabab in central regions by helping them to communicate with the country.

A good example of our work was aired at the end of December: a program called the "Destiny of Shabab." Radio Mogadishu outlined the differences between different groups within Shabab -- those who are led by foreign elements and those who are led by more nationalistic and local leaders. We can tell that our listeners listened in great numbers to that program because after it aired, Shabab outlawed Radio Mogadishu and prohibited listening to it in the territories that they control. The result of that banning, however, was not what Shabab expected: We have seen an increase in listeners since the program. Our answer to their ban was to broadcast Radio Mogadishu via satellite.

Now, for the first time, we feel that we have the upper hand against Shabab when it comes to the communication war. We have exposed their nature; we have exposed their wrong ideas and twisted ideology. Shabab has a radical agenda: They are against the Somali flag and don't recognize the borders of Somalia. They say they are planning to send support, in the form of fighters, to nearby Yemen. We have explained this to the Somali people, and Shabab is feeling the heat. Of course, they are still stronger when it comes to the military, but when it comes to the core ideas, we are starting to make inroads. It is very important that this government win the hearts and minds of the Somali people.

This does put us at risk, but our lives -- the lives of the journalists working at Radio Mogadishu -- are similar to the lives of the Somali people: constantly under threat. We do believe we are perhaps more endangered; there are elements within Shabab and another Islamist militia, Hizbul al-Islam, that want to silence us and the voice of Radio Mogadishu. Our reporters and producers have received calls from Shabab, saying "We will kill you -- you are No. 1 on our list." We record those calls when they come into our studios so that we have a record of the threats as evidence.

Security is why everyone from Radio Mogadishu must live in a compound inside the ministry, where they are a bit safer. Life takes place at the ministry -- family life, work, everything. The women and men have different compounds where they live.

Life for other journalists is also incredibly difficult. They too face many death threats. As a former owner of a Quranic radio station, I have witnessed this firsthand and I continue to have good relations with the independent media. Today, there are about 13 radio and TV outlets in Mogadishu.

When I recently met with some of these media organizations, I asked them why their reporting often seemed biased against the government. They replied, "Of course, we know that we are not reporting on some issues very neutrally. But our lives are being threatened by al-Shabab. When we start our work in the morning, someone from al-Shabab is always waiting at the entrance to the office. If we try to tell the truth, or say something that runs against al-Shabab, then we know we will be killed. Some of our friends have lost their lives because of that. This is why we can't always tell the truth and why we have some biased reporting."

Journalists today in Somalia have lost all freedom of expression. That's why we, as an information ministry, have redoubled our effort and established Radio Mogadishu. We have vowed to report on everything -- even if there is a wrongdoing on the government side.

For the entire Somali cabinet, life is a daily struggle. Our basic approach is to do what we can. We start from the question of what we can accomplish with our very, very small resources.

I know everyone as a human being would like to live longer and live in a peaceful area. But sometimes in life, you have no choice. You have to make sacrifices -- because of religion or because of the nation's interest. In our situation, we are there every day because of the nation's interest, because of the challenges that we are facing.

I remember when three of our ministers died in a Dec. 3, 2009, suicide attack. It killed students and doctors attending a graduation ceremony as well. I remember having a cabinet meeting right after and making a common promise to ask each other that we have to be strong and we have to be committed for the long haul -- re-establishing peace in Somalia. All of us ministers made that commitment. We have no choice but to stay and fight, even if we have to die for it.