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Tzipi Livni: Maintaining a Jewish democratic state

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MK Tzipi Livni addresses the crowd at a UJA Federation event in Toronto on June 27. (UJA Federation of Greater Toronto photo)

Tzipi Livni heads the Hatnuah party and is the leader of the Opposition in the Knesset. She has been responsible for numerous portfolios, including minister of justice and foreign affairs. Livni was in Toronto on June 27 to speak at an event hosted by UJA Federation and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

What do the words “Jewish democratic state” mean to you?

For me, Jewish state means the nation state of the Jewish people. Democratic state, another sentence from the scroll of independence, means it affords equal rights to all its citizens. So all together, it’s the nation state of the Jewish people that provides equal rights to all its citizens without discrimination. Therefore, the Jewish state is not a religious state, it’s the nation state of the Jewish people, and therefore the monopoly of the Jewishness of the state shouldn’t be in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox parties. But this is something that we all should define.

Are a Jewish state and a democratic state mutually exclusive?

Equality is not a favour that the Jewish state is doing for Israel as a democracy. “Love thy neighbour” is not written in the Canadian Constitution – it’s in our sources, in our mekorot. Tikun olam, all these values – this is part of being a Jew, a part of our Jewish values. And therefore, the meaning of “nation state of the Jewish people” includes these values that Judaism is based upon, values that also exist as part of a democratic system.

Where is the resistance coming from in Israel?

It’s funny, because we are talking in terms of left and right in Israel, like left wing wants to be with the Palestinians and right wing doesn’t want to be with the Palestinians. But basically, it’s the opposite. Because I want to separate ourselves from the Palestinians, I don’t want to annex the territories with millions of Palestinians in them. I believe that this threatens the Jewish majority in Israel and therefore I want to divorce them, not marry them. On the other side, you have the settlers, and basically they are talking about living happily ever after, Jews and Palestinians, in the West Bank. This is threatening the Jewish majority in the State of Israel and it could lead to a binational state.

Are the settlements a burden on Israel’s security?

Of course. Settlements don’t give us security. The whole idea of settlements after the Six-Day War was about building, settling or having Israelis living in places, in order to make the idea of dividing the land impossible. We need to speak truthfully about everything – this is the reason for settlement activities. And more than that, the concept of security in any democratic state is that the army gives security to civilians. So the whole idea of sending civilians to an isolated hill? We are sending our military forces to guard them and to give them security. So they take security, they don’t give security.

What is the greatest desire on the Palestinian side?

There are those in Israel who want to implement the idea of two states for two peoples, and there are those who are completely against it. On the Palestinian side, there is the Palestinian Authority, the national Palestinian movement. For them, the idea is two states for two peoples. On the other side, you have Hamas. And Hamas represents the religious side of the conflict. There is no hope for peace with them. They are not fighting to establish a Palestinian state, they are completely against the existence of the State of Israel. And therefore, I believe our responsibility is to try to achieve peace with the national Palestinian movement and simultaneously try to avoid the change of the conflict from a national conflict, into a religious one, because religious conflicts are unsolvable.

Have you seen any changes in the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora in the last decade?

Yes, an unfortunate change. While the grandparents cried with joy when the State of Israel was established and their children were horrified when Israel was under attack in the Yom Kippur War and the Six-Day War, their grandchildren, some of them feel alienated by the State of Israel. What was obvious in 1948 is not obvious anymore. We need to explain that it’s legitimate to criticize any Israeli government policy, but without undermining the base of Israel, its existence, its right to defend itself and the nature of the Jewish democratic state, because this is the common denominator.

I hear more and more voices saying, “Listen, you are going to lose us.” I do believe that Israel should speak with world Jewry and not just say, ‘OK, we are there for you, now you should contribute your money, defend Israel no matter what.” Let’s speak about what is the common denominator, who we are, what is the meaning of being a Jew and what is the meaning of being the nation state of the Jewish people.

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Recently, there was quite a lot of criticism from Diaspora Jews about Israel’s actions in Gaza.

This is something that I feel sad about. I said that everybody can question everything. But when it comes to the right of Israel to defend itself, this criticism is something that I cannot just accept as legitimate. I truly want everybody, but especially Jews in the Diaspora, to understand the moral values of the Israeli army. I mean, we left Gaza, we dismantled settlements, we pulled our forces out and they are continuing to attack us.

Both my sons were in combat units. I know that some of the young Canadian people are coming to Israel as soldiers, as well. We are acting according to our values and according to international law. We make inquiries when necessary, when something wrong happens, like in every democratic state. And I will not accept comparisons between terrorist organizations and the Israeli army, or any army. As in any democracy, there is no comparison between somebody who killed somebody by mistake, as in a car accident, and a murderer. It’s not the same. I mean, one is looking for the victim to kill and the other tries to avoid civilian casualties, but sometimes it happens.

I wish there would be more understanding of what we are facing. And this is the case in which we truly left Gaza. We don’t want to be there, we dismantled the settlements. Hamas, since 2006, is not willing to accept the parameters of the international community. And the parameters are that they should accept the right of Israel to exist, to renounce violence and terrorism, and to accept a formal peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s nothing. But they express religious ideology. They are not fighting for peace, they are not fighting for a state. They are fighting because we are there. And, you know, we are not
going to commit suicide because they don’t like us.

You said you wish there could be better understanding. Why do you think there’s not that level of understanding?

I think that when you see the pictures, it’s quite difficult. Even when you have a split screen, on one side you have somebody explaining, but on the other side you see civilians who are being injured or killed, this is quite difficult to explain. That’s the truth.

You know what’s happening, in a larger perspective, we feel that we are the Davids of the world, the Davids of the region. It’s a small state surrounded by enemies. When we look at the region, we look from a satellite, from a bird’s eye point of view. The world is looking from a Google Earth point of view. So we see a small state surrounded by enemies. What they see is a strong army acting against civilians. It’s the Israeli tanks and aircraft, and a Palestinian child. And usually people tend to understand or feel empathy toward what they believe is the David, or the underdog, or the weak side of the story, and they don’t understand what Hamas is doing. And that’s part of the problem.

Is there something you think Israel could be doing better in that regard?

Yes, I believe that when it comes to Gaza, it should be clear that we have a strategy for Gaza. That we don’t want to reoccupy Gaza; that, in fact, we, and the entire world, said in 2006 that if Hamas accepts the requirements, renounces violence and accepts the right of Israel to exist, then they can be legitimate. So it’s their decision not to do so. And that the strategy should be a dual strategy: on one hand to act against Hamas, but simultaneously to improve the humanitarian situation on the ground. Not through Hamas, but directly.

During the last operation in Gaza, I initiated a decision of the international community, and they even brought it to the UN Security Council, saying Hamas is a terrorist organization, that Israel has the right to act against it, but simultaneously the international community would help in humanitarian economic projects where the goal is to demilitarize Gaza. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t want to adopt it and that was the end of it. But I believe that this is the right strategy. So if Israel comes saying, “Listen, it’s not about the civilians, it’s about Hamas. If you want to help out civilians, be our guest.” As long as it’s not giving money to Hamas, because Hamas is taking the money for their purposes of war.