Tzipi Livni talks to Simon Schama

It’s a long, lonely walk to the entrance of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. You cross a bald plateau of paving alongside an avenue of Star of David flags, and on the way try to fight off an attack of seasonal metaphors. But you fail, for it’s spring in Jerusalem. Sprays of almond blossom riot against the blonde limestone walls. “Hatikvah”, the Israeli national anthem, means hope, and, however many times it’s been dashed, this is the season when it’s no shame to fall for it all over again, what with multiple sproutings going on from the Maghreb to the Gulf. Could Passover, the freedom festival, herald liberation from the bondage of defensive assumptions, starting with the received wisdom that any serious move towards peace with the Palestinians is bound to deliver more jeopardy than security?

The party Tzipi Livni leads calls itself Kadima – Forward – a name which turns a military order into an exhortation to break with dead-end truisms; a march to the future. No one could accuse its first leader, Ariel Sharon, the epitome of military ferocity, or its third, Livni, the ex-Mossad agent, of being soft touches. But she wants to redefine bravery as more than reflex military impulse; rather as the co-existence of Palestine and Israel: “two states for two peoples”.

“Time is not on our side” is one of the refrains of her conversation. The possibility that the United Nations General Assembly will independently recognise a Palestinian state in September has given the need for movement on the negotiation front a burst of urgency. It is beginning to sink in that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s default mode of standing pat could confront Israel with unpalatable alternatives: either the acceptance of imposed borders, or the drastic consequences of refusing to recognise the frontiers of a sovereign fellow member of the UN.

Even without this incentive to action, Livni, who has a son in the Israeli army, does not believe that a perennial defence of the status quo best serves the survival, let alone the prospering, of the Jewish state. She makes no secret of her frustration with Netanyahu, whose opposition to the talks that she and the former Kadima prime minister Ehud Olmert had with the Palestinian leadership in 2007 and 2008 was, she believes, expedient rather than principled. “I have no idea (other than rejectionism) what he wanted,” she says, a bemused smile settling on her face. “Actually, I still don’t know.”

Their difference has the unforgiving sharpness of a family feud, but the family in question is ideological. Both “Bibi” Netanyahu and Livni come from the same political cradle: the Revisionist party founded by the charismatic orator and writer Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s out of disgust with what he thought was mainstream Zionism’s cowardly pragmatism; its refusal to embrace a sovereign Jewish state – on both sides of the Jordan – as the unequivocal goal of the movement. Bibi’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, a distinguished historian of the fate of Jews under the Spanish Inquisition, who celebrated his 101st birthday last month, was Jabotinsky’s secretary, a pedigree that gives the Netanyahus an almost dynastic claim to the succession of hardline Zionism.

But Livni’s father, Eitan, the operations chief for the Revisionists’ paramilitary wing, the Irgun, was hardly a compromiser. It was the Irgun that blew up Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in July 1946, and today it would unquestionably be classified as a terrorist organisation. But when Livni argues to the Israeli people that their true security is best served by evolving away from a dug-in obduracy, she can invoke her father’s Irgun commander, Menachem Begin, whose history of militancy did not prevent him from evacuating the Sinai Peninsula, shaking the hand of Anwar Sadat and signing a treaty of peace with Egypt in 1979. It was that larger vision, she thinks, that was the stamp of true leadership. By contrast, Netanyahu’s outlook seems morally puny and historically self-defeating.

Livni points to another hard man of the right – Sharon, who was prepared to uproot settlers from Gaza – as an additional precedent for the courage of changed minds; Revisionism revised. If the ultimate goal is the simultaneous preservation of Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy, then the Land will have to be divided. Otherwise demography will destroy democracy.

She knows this is a hard sell, especially in light of a recent upsurge in atrocious violence. This month, an anti-tank missile launched from Gaza fell on an Israeli school bus. The subsequent counter-strike killed several Palestinian civilians. In March, Livni went to the shiva mourning at the West Bank settlement of Itamar for the Fogel family, whose slaughtered included small children, the youngest three months old, throats cut as they slept in their beds. “Though the settlers have very different views, I had to go, to express my grief and that of the nation,” she says.

The bereaved told her that at such a time she and her party should unite with the government. She tried to explain that murder only deepened her conviction that there could be no papering over the profound differences between which policies would deliver true security.

Almost the first thing the smiling Livni asks me as she comes into her modest office is whether I’d seen the framed document on the wall. I had been too busy looking at the photographs of her handsome, hawk-faced father and her mother, Sarah, to pay the letter much attention. But now I saw it was dated 1929 and was from Jabotinsky himself. My ragged Hebrew made out the word “nashim” – women – but not a lot more. Livni smiles again. “He’s writing to the town council to say he wouldn’t be paying any more taxes until women were hired.” “Was he true to his word?” I ask. “I bet!” she laughs.

Tough women are Israel’s history. Golda Meir, whose successor as prime minister Livni hopes to be, existed on a diet of cigarettes and six-inch nails for breakfast and made veteran generals look limp-wristed in comparison. Sarah Livni (née Rosenberg) with her thick knot of swept-up hair, wide, dark eyes and a delicate button nose, is drop-dead beautiful. I say so, and the daughter enjoys telling me about the firebrand’s vanity. “She lied about her age.” “How much?” I wonder. “A lot!” At Sarah’s shiva a few years ago, veteran comrades from the Irgun made sure to tell Livni that some people called the dead Sarah “the mother of the traitor”. “Did you find out what she said in reply?” I ask. “Yes, they told me that my mother said ‘she’s my daughter and my daughter is always right.’”

Tzipporah means bird in Hebrew, and the daughter has her father’s prominent, slightly beaky nose and the keen, intensely blue eyes that give her a look of avian alertness. The plumage is elegant: a sweater-dress in the black the photographers had expressly banned. She laughs at her disobedience, knowing that the stretch fabric shows off her trim, curvy figure. She wears indigo-blue tights and strappy grey suede shoes brightened with a little inset band of gold. The mother of two boys, she looks a lot younger than her 52 years and acts young too; merrily tough, easy body language. In conversation she’s animated and relaxed, the unhesitant English running along like water over stones. I had been warned by friends in the Israeli media that our conversation would be stolidly unmemorable. “That Livni,” said one of them, “she’s less than meets the eye.” Boy, was he wrong.

In Israel, politics invariably comes back to families, solid and fractured, devastated and enduring. Tzipi Livni is no exception. “You know how my mother and father met? In a train robbery!” Women were recruited by the Irgun to join the heists so that they could stuff the loot inside their clothes and pass – so the folklore has it – for pregnant. Both Eitan and Sarah were subsequently arrested and imprisoned, but it took more than barbed wire to keep Livni’s mother cooped. Incarcerated, Sarah found someone to spike her milk with whatever it took to mimic the symptoms of appendicitis. Transferred to hospital, she jumped from the second-storey window of her ward to liberty. Livni would later meet someone who took her mother in while on the run, still in her hospital pyjamas. Songs were written about the exploits of the legendary “Sarah katon” – little Sarah. “Want to hear one?” asks Tzipi, switching on her iPod. On comes the marching song and massed chorus, over which the daughter translates the lyrics of sentimental martyrdom … “If they are going to hang me, don’t cry. This is my fate; instead of tears, take your gun close to your heart.”

Eitan, who made his own escape in the Acre prison break in 1947, was the hardest of the hard. Serving for many years in the Knesset as a Herut (the forebear of Likud) party member, he was displeased by Begin’s peace deal but abstained rather than vote against, “out of respect” for his old commander. His will specified that his gravestone should bear the emblem of the Irgun, a raised rifle over the “greater” Eretz Israel along with the slogan “Rak kach” – “Only thus”. Perhaps it’s exactly this family history of fanatical militancy that makes it possible for Livni to understand the Palestinian version, and to be so committed to getting beyond the romance of blood.

In any case, she says, the likes of her parents were less hypocritical in their daily dealings with Palestinian Arabs than the self-righteous Mapai party-affiliated left that dominated Israeli politics and governing institutions in the first three decades of Israel’s existence. Tzipi grew up in a Tel Aviv district where politically correct neighbours were disconcerted to see Arabs coming to tea with Eitan, who spoke their language. “As a kid, I led a double-life,” she says. It didn’t do to own up to a Herut family when all of her friends were Mapai. Betar, the youth movement inaugurated in Israel by Menachem Begin, had been notorious for kitting out its cadets in brown shirts, chosen to symbolise the soil of the Land of Israel but, as the Mapai-niks were quick to remind anyone, bearing a telling resemblance to the uniform of the Nazi SA stormtroopers. Baffled by being called a “brownshirt” at school, when she was wearing the revised uniform of blue (for the skies of Zion, naturally), Tzipi came home to ask her parents what this was all about, and got from them, she says, a strong sense of a marginalised minority. Occasionally, the young Tzipi made a stand. In observance of May Day – a socialist occasion which, to her parents’ indignation, had been turned into a national holiday, Israeli schools were shut. “I demonstrated against this.” “How?” I ask, hoping for some act of hellfire revolt. “By going to school!”

Tzipi would not stay so well-behaved, joining the Mossad at 22, just out of the army. Around the time she was with the Israeli intelligence agency, in the early 1980s, an atomic scientist working in Iraq showed up dead in Paris. Although she may have been nothing more than a safe-house manager, it’s not hard to imagine Tzipi glamorously dangerous. Since there’s no point trying to get anything out of her about the Mossad years we talk of more important things, none more so than the clandestine discussions with the Palestinian Authority leadership undertaken in 2007 and 2008 by Olmert and herself, details of which were leaked earlier this year by al-Jazeera.

For a long time, it was an article of faith for almost all Israeli governments that the hardest issues – the fate of the settlements, the military status of Palestine and, above all, the possibility of Jerusalem being something other than the exclusive and unified capital of Israel – should be set aside pending some sort of preliminary agreement. But, Livni says, “I don’t do interim.” Postponing the hard stuff was not only cowardly; it would guarantee the unravelling of any more generalised agreement. In Sharm el Sheikh, Olmert and Livni said farewell to procrastination. Nothing, not even Jerusalem, was off the table. She stresses that an agreement over the city was not reached between her and the Palestinians; and that if she is to respect the promises of confidentiality made to their leadership, she can’t discuss any details of the al-Jazeera leaks, which they themselves have not put on the record. But her revolutionary willingness to countenance the possibility of a shared Jerusalem is the reason why Livni is not prime minister today. The price of forming a coalition with the ultra-orthodox Shas party was to take the indivisibility of Jerusalem off the table – and this she steadfastly refuses to do.

The breakthrough at Sharm el Sheikh with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad was one of psychological temper. Livni insists, refreshingly, that peace, or even the cessation of mutual mutilations, cannot turn on a choice of competing narratives; that the endless competition of unspeakable calamities, such as the Holocaust and Nakba, was a ball and chain that would hobble the lives of children yet to be born. Enough already!

“We began by talking about rights,” she says, “our rights, their rights,” and then decided to stop doing that and talk instead about possibilities. “It’s said that the devil is in the details, but in our case it was God instead … We made lists – the kind of lists, for example, of the kind of weapons they would need to defend themselves and the weapons we couldn’t let them have, and we found we could do those lists!” “Did their flexibility on these kind of matters surprise you?” I ask. She gives me one of her high-wattage smiles: “This wasn’t the first time I met with them.”

She gives me an example of the difference this made on one notoriously thorny issue: the demilitarization of Palestine. To ask as much was, initially, an outrage to the Palestinian leaders, who retorted they would never accept being a “minus state”. “At that point we could just have given up, and left the room, but we didn’t. We talked history. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘has Germany been an impotent “minus state” for limiting its army and armaments? Has Egypt been disadvantaged by a demilitarized Sinai?’” And so they hashed out those lists. The same concrete approach went for territorial exchanges. What seemed irreconcilable changed when representatives from both sides went to walk the line, to physically look at villages, olive groves, roads.

You get the feeling Livni thinks this kind of bargaining can make headway on all the issues that conventional wisdom has for so long decreed to be unresolvable. And that while men like to thump the table and shout grievances, women get on with the mundane practical matters in hand that constitute the realities of daily life. So she thinks about what those realities might be like for Palestinians as well as Israelis. “It’s not in our interest that Palestine should be a failed state.” Or, she adds, “an extremist state”. That, she explains, is the true conflict at the heart of the Middle East, one even bigger than the enmity of Jew and Arab: the genuinely irreconcilable clash between theocratic and autocratic regimes, and liberal democracies. Right now, and for a little time perhaps, an Israeli party of reason might be able to make the peace with its Palestinian counterpart. Evidently there has been something like a meeting of minds across the “security fence”. But not forever. No one knows which side – Islamic militancy or democratic secularism – will emerge from the Arab spring. But that uncertainty only makes the need for an early settlement more, not less, pressing.

Not least because Israel, too, has a domestic cultural conflict on its hands that is undoing assumptions about what kind of Jewishness the Jewish state is supposed to embody. Between the Jerusalem ultra-orthodox Haredim, for whom the only true Jewish state is one based on rigid obedience to halacha, the precepts of the religion, and those whose Israel is pluralist and secular, there is as wide a gulf as between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Tweeters of Tahrir Square. The two crises – of the outer borders of the Jewish state and its inner identity – Livni sees as organically connected. It says something about her forthrightness as well as her optimism that Livni wants a written Israeli constitution that would make a clear demarcation between synagogue and state.

But then she is a great believer in the strength of principle, championing an international code of practice to govern elections in newly born democracies. Recalling that in Israel the expulsionist Kach party was disbarred from participating in elections, she wants the same principle to apply to parties in Muslim countries that use democratic means to overthrow democracy. Hitler, she remembers, came to power through the ballot box. “This would not be patronising or imperialist,” she says. “They can all do what they like. But if they want to participate in an international community they should abide by those conventions.”

It’s this kind of reflectiveness that makes one feel Livni is a mould-breaker, even though when you say this around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, you are met with sceptical chuckles. But perhaps it’s the worldly straightforwardness of Tzipi Livni’s emotions that might make it possible for her to translate political heresies into a working version of what the majority of Israelis crave, the shalom, the salaam that is the first thing out of the mouths of Jews and Arabs alike. Don’t tell me gender has nothing to do with this; the difference between Netanyahu’s reverence for his father and his famous hero-brother Yonatan, killed in the 1976 Entebbe raid, and Livni’s life as a Mossad agent become mother. A few weeks ago, she went to see her younger son, Yuval, graduate as an officer in an elite combat unit of the army. To make the moment more intense he had signed on for a four-and-half-year service rather than the mandatory three. Talking about this, her face softens and she reaches into her wallet to show me a photo of handsome Yuval and his curly-haired elder sibling Omri. The ceremony was in the Negev desert but it was a chill winter day. “Of course I was conflicted. I was so proud of him but my heart was in terrible pain so I added my tears to the rain.”

There’s nothing trite about this. What Livni wants for herself, for Yuval, for Israel, she wants so that the tears, as well as the blood, might finally have some chance of stopping.

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