Can Israeli Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni Connect With American Jews?

Tzipi Livni. Photo: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

On a dreary Wednesday in late September, Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition in the Israeli government and a three-time near-miss candidate for prime minister, walked into a Jewish diner in midtown Manhattan with a sole publicist and no security detail, pursing her lips and raising her eyebrows as if to say, “Nu, this is the dump I’m stuck in?” She was in town for a few days on a meeting spree with foreign dignitaries during the U.N. General Assembly. I’d picked the location as a bit of an experiment. I wanted to see how one of the most prominent Jews in Israeli public life would react to an establishment that exemplified the sort of American Jewishness I’ve grown up with.

As it turned out, she was a little bewildered. She eschewed food in favor of a grapefruit juice (I told her that anything she ordered was on me, and she pointed to her gut and said, “It stays on me, later, so.”) and couldn’t quite suss out why she was there. “What makes this diner Jewish, by the way?” she asked. I told her it was the ambience, but also the cuisine: bagels, lox, challah rolls. “Okay,” she replied, “because what I see is the ketchup, so.” I asked her if ketchup is definitionally non-Jewish. “It’s basically American,” she said. I disagreed, and we moved on. The impasse may seem small, but it’s indicative of a larger disconnect that Livni and the rest of the Israeli opposition struggles with today. Even in the wake of last weekend’s mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a stark political and cultural divide lingers between Israeli and American Jews.

To Livni’s political right stands someone who has, his critics argue, shown little to no interest in connecting with the vast majority of Jews in the United States: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, as Livni sat down with me, was just finishing up a conversation with Donald Trump. Netanyahu has made a close ally of Trump, whom American Jews generally loathe, and his governing coalition has taken a wide array of reactionary steps during its nine years in power. Netanyahu and his allies have denigrated the interests of Arabs within Israel, in the militarily occupied territory of the West Bank, and in the blockaded Gaza Strip; caved to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox religious Establishment; employed racist rhetoric; attacked the judiciary on political grounds; and embraced conservative American evangelicals at the expense of the liberal American Jewish masses. For all of this, Israeli voters have repeatedly rewarded Netanyahu in polls and at the ballot box.

Livni, on the other hand, is a staunch defender of the shrinking Israeli center-left. She still believes peace can be made between Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza. She wants greater respect for religious pluralism. She criticizes the much-debated recent Nation-State Law, which enshrines Jewish rights and, in the eyes of its detractors, demotes those of non-Jews. Most important, she wants to oust Netanyahu. It’s an uphill battle, but she says she can’t avoid it: “I must say that, even after 20 years” — which is how long she’s been in politics — “I’m still angry.” Her push would be made a lot easier if she could muster American support. There’s no chance she’ll get it from the GOP, so she must rely on the American left, especially American Jews. But it’s an open question whether she can establish a real connection with them, much less inspire them.

A few minutes into our conversation, I asked Livni if she had any regrets about her career. She paused.

“Or do you just not think that way?” I asked.

“Oh,” she replied, “I always think that way, unfortunately.”

If that’s the case, she has much to torture herself with. In 2008, she could have become prime minister after the resignation of her party’s leader, Ehud Olmert, but she refused to cave to the demands of a right-wing party whose support she needed in order to form a coalition government, and instead the country went to an election. In that election, her party won a plurality of the country’s votes, thus again positioning her to become Israel’s second female head of government.* However, Netanyahu’s Likud party had more potential coalition partners on the right than she could find for herself, and she was unable to form a government, leaving Netanyahu to take the crown. He’s held it ever since, serving as prime minister longer than anyone since the country’s primary founder and original leader, David Ben-Gurion.

Livni had one more shot in 2015, when she and then-leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog ran on a joint ticket to be co-PMs. Advance polls favored them to win, but, in a preview of Brexit and Trump, the polling turned out to be erroneous. Livni and Herzog had underestimated the strength of Israeli right-wing populism. As the Yiddish expression goes, Keyner zet nit zayn eygenem hoyker: No one sees the hump on his own back. Herzog left politics this summer to head the Jewish Agency for Israel, an organization that manages Israel-Diaspora relations. With his absence, Livni is once again the last, best hope that left-leaning Israelis and Americans have for a Netanyahu-free future.

She and her bête noire didn’t start out as rivals. Livni, a lawyer by training, first entered the Israeli parliament in 1999 as a member of Netanyahu’s Likud. Her parents had been ardent members of the Irgun, the pre-state militia that is variously remembered as a band of Zionist freedom fighters and as a terrorist group. They raised her with a firmly conservative ideology. Ariel Sharon, that icon of the Israeli right, became prime minister in 2001 and took a liking to Livni, appointing her to an array of cabinet positions. But when Sharon shattered the Likud consensus by deciding to withdraw Israeli settlements and military bases from the occupied Gaza Strip in 2003 — a profoundly unpopular move among pro-occupation conservatives — Livni became one of his loudest advocates and helped form his coalition Kadima party in order to push their agenda forward.

In the years that followed, through a succession of governments, Livni became a curious political creature. In some ways, she remained a staunch and outspoken hawk, advocating swift and brutal military actions in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008 and 2009. But she has also been a fervent advocate of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, negotiating with them when she was foreign minister from 2006 to 2009 and as official lead negotiator from 2013 to 2014. Neither stretch yielded a lasting accord, but Livni got farther than most have. Now, she finds herself raging against the Netanyahu coalition for not being, in her eyes, serious enough about pursuing peace.

To explain the difference between her viewpoint on the peace process and Netanyahu’s, Livni used a slightly bizarre metaphor involving Waze, an Israeli-designed GPS driving app: “My national Waze is keeping Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. I want to stop in a station and separate ourselves from the Palestinians, hopefully with a peace treaty with the Palestinians.” What she was getting at is her desire to capture the near-mythical diplomatic beast known as the two-state solution.

The “Jewish, democratic” bit of her metaphor is the key to understanding it. Right now, Israel occupies the West Bank but does not technically consider it part of Israel, nor does it extend voting rights to the millions of Palestinians there. Additionally, it blockades the Gaza Strip and has no presence inside it, leaving the Palestinians within it in a stateless limbo. If the occupation turns into de jure annexation of the West Bank, “we’d have a clash between Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state, because we are not going to have a Jewish majority,” Livni says. “And without a Jewish majority, we would need to choose between being Jewish or [being] a democracy. It’s something that’s completely against Zionism, the way I believe in it.” So, instead, she wants to establish a Palestinian-majority state centered in the West Bank that can exist alongside a Jewish-majority Israel. That way, everyone in the region can be full-fledged citizens of democracies and Israel can retain its fundamentally Jewish character. Livni feels that Netanyahu’s coalition, if forced to choose between being Jewish and being democratic, would choose to be Jewish, and thus permanently disenfranchise the Palestinians of the West Bank. “They want to give up democracy,” she said.

That summary, all too familiar to those, like me, who obsessively follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the basis of the liberal Zionist consensus that has persisted since the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine, which relies on the two-state dream for legitimacy. After his meeting with Netanyahu, Trump seemed to endorse a two-state solution, though the president would muddy the waters hours later by saying he was “okay with one state, two states, whatever.” Trump’s words may not matter, anyway, as Netanyahu has shown no willingness to pursue the creation of a true Palestinian state in recent years (and, to be fair, the Palestinian leadership recently said it would abandon discussions due to perceived American bias). Livni, on the other hand, has advocated for legitimate Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, albeit within a demilitarized state, so as to ensure Israeli security.

Tzipi Livni Photo: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The trouble with Livni’s vision for a Palestinian state is this that it may no longer be feasible. Jewish settlers in the West Bank are a key constituency for the Netanyahu coalition, and since Netanyahu’s current term began in 2009, some 100,000 new settlers have moved in, by one estimate, bringing the total number to roughly 400,000. The establishment of a Palestinian state would require a massive uprooting of that population, something made all the more politically unpopular in Israel by the fact that, when Livni and Sharon evicted all of the settlers in Gaza, the Islamist militant group Hamas took control of the vacated territory. Less than half of Israelis favor a two-state solution, at this point. Likud is currently polling way ahead of Livni’s Zionist Union party in predictions for next year’s elections. For Livni, it’s a grim picture.

In person, Livni’s tone is even, but her words occasionally betray a bit of political desperation. If she wants to take down Netanyahu, she may well need the support of those who back the large, six-year-old centrist Yesh Atid party, founded by former television personality Yair Lapid. When I asked her if she worries about Lapid’s rise, she responded, “I am focused on, What is the best way to replace Netanyahu? What I am worried about is whether other leaders — it can be Lapid, it can be others — are willing to say that they are part of the bloc of the center-left and they are willing to work together. It can be in one party, it can be in different parties supporting the others, or supporting the one that would get most of the votes.”

Livni’s voice gradually became sharper as she spoke and her eyes narrowed. “This is my demand from any Israeli leader: Decide whether you’re here,” she said — “here” meaning, potentially, “with her,” or “against Netanyahu,” or both. “There are two different roads. There is no in-between. This idea of walking without getting wet while it’s raining? Forget it. This is the crossroads. You need to choose. And this is what I say to voters: Ask your leader where he stands or where she stands” when it comes to the current governing coalition. She starts to pound the table with a karate chop. “And if they cannot give a clear answer of, ‘We are here, and we will support the biggest party in our bloc,’ don’t vote for him or her. This is what worries me: new parties that will not take a stand.”

That’s not all that worries her. She also fears the widening gap between American Jews and Israel. American Jews voted overwhelmingly against Trump in 2016, but Israelis, like their top leaders, are hugely supportive of the man in the White House. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox members of the Netanyahu coalition have snubbed the interests of the American Jewish non-Orthodox majority and young American Jews are increasingly vocal in their anger about the treatment of the Palestinians. Even reactions to the recent killings at a Pittsburgh synagogue demonstrated the stark differences of opinion between American Jews and Israeli ones. The rift shows no sign of shrinking.

But Livni wants to refurbish the bridges. In the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre, she expressed concern about American Jewry, telling the Jerusalem Post, “I have no doubt that the pain over the anti-Semitic murder in the Pittsburgh synagogue is shared by everyone.” She even went so far as to use her platform in that moment to call for greater Israeli recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism, which is what the vast majority of religious American Jews practice: “The Zionist answer to the synagogue massacre is the recognition by the State of Israel of the various streams of Judaism, which includes issues like conversion and prayer at the Western Wall,” referring to the American Jewish push to open up egalitarian prayer space at that holiest of Jewish sites. (The matter is a bit complicated, but right now, the main plaza of the Wall is gender-segregated, and although there is a gender-mixed section, it’s a little dumpy and very hard to find — American Jews have been fighting to spruce that latter space up and make it more accessible.)*

This is all of a piece with Livni’s approach to finding a balance between American respect for Israel and Israeli respect for America. “Let’s have a new dialogue between Israel and world Jewry, and the dialogue is not the old dialogue of saying, ‘Okay, we are Israel, the safe shelter in case of anti-Semitism; you should support Israel, no matter what,’” Livni said. “It’s okay if you want to criticize any Israeli government, it’s fine. As long as we keep the common denominator: understanding that we need to defend the legitimacy of the state of Israel as a Jewish state, and the legitimacy of the state of Israel to defend itself. On top of this, we can argue. We have different opinions. It’s fine.” The question is, how much longer can American Jews who vehemently disagree with Israel’s policies, especially toward the Palestinians, loudly speak up in favor of Israel’s right to defend itself?

When I asked her about what connection she feels to American Jewry, the best she could muster was pointing out that we celebrate the same holidays (which, of course, is actually only true for the shrinking percentage of religious American Jews) and citing her love of Barbra Streisand’s rendition of the hymn “Avinu Malkeinu.” It was clear that our common definitions of Jewishness weren’t calibrated in the same way, and perhaps that’s the problem. In 2018, there is very little that binds a millennial American Jew in New York to a boomer-age Israeli Jew in Jerusalem other than the vaguest notions of ethnic identity. We have few common reference points, shared experiences, or political outlooks; only what political scientist Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community.”

And if there is a gap between Livni and myself, there’s an even greater one between her and non-Jewish liberals and progressives in America. Among the most vocal anti-Trumpists of the populist far left, Israel is often seen as an ethnonationalist pariah. Democrats are, in dribs and drabs, starting to break with the once-ironclad pro-Israel consensus. Livni is, in other words, more than a little out of place in America in 2018: too lefty for many of the Zionists, too Zionist for many of the lefties.

Nevertheless, she won’t countenance the idea of her natural allies abandoning the struggle. I asked her why anti-Trump, anti-Netanyahu Americans should have hope about Israel, and she responded swiftly: “Because we are there,” she said of herself and her political partners. “Because, depression, saying, ‘We have this government, Israel is changing’” — and here she trailed off before restarting her argument. “Israeli society is split,” she said. “So it is true that there is a coalition that is taking Israel in one direction, but Israel is a democracy. And we are working to keep Israel as a democracy.” She smiled broadly. “And as long as we are not giving up, don’t give up on Israel.”

*An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the legal status of the prime ministership of Israel. The prime minister is the head of government, not the head of state. The previous version also erroneously stated that the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall is controlled by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, when it is in fact controlled by the Israeli government.

Tzipi Livni is Struggling to Connect with American Jews