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Justice Minister Tzipi Livni
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Livni wants to save Bibi from Bibi
In a wide ranging interview, the justice minister discusses her determination to pursue peace talks, the deal with Lapid and Lieberman, her opposition to restricting the High Court, and how she became a defender of women's rights.

Tzipi Livni describes herself as "task driven." Her daily agenda is constructed of tasks – anything that fails to promote their completion is unimportant. For a few years, the task was to become prime minister. That mission, as we know, failed, and now looks further off than ever before.

 

 

To aspire to be prime minister is power, but it is also, and perhaps primarily, a weakness. The fear of getting into conflicts, breaking political alliances, upsetting vote contractors is crippling and emasculating. Livni is free of such constraints. She doesn't have to contend with a central committee that puts the squeeze on, a faction breathing down her neck, ominous surveys; she's a free agent.

 

Now, the political process is her task, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the means; and the course of action of which she speaks for the first time in this interview is the consolidation of a joint political front with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid faction.

 

'Cooperating very closely'. Livni / Lapid (Photo :Eli Mandelbaum / Gil Yohanan) (Photo: Eli Mandelbaum, Gil Yohanan)
'Cooperating very closely'. Livni / Lapid (Photo :Eli Mandelbaum / Gil Yohanan)

 

"I've held talks recently with Yair Lapid," Livni says. "He is in agreement with the things I am saying here. During the Knesset session that begins next week, we will form a united front in the government and the Knesset insofar as the political issue is concerned – a single bloc, 25 seats, together in favor of a political settlement, together against nationalism. And we will join forces, too, when it comes to matters of religion and state."

 

(Lapid later confirmed this statement. "We are cooperating very closely on both issues," he said. "We are partners with Avigdor Lieberman too on matters of religion.")

 

At the same time, Livni has also set herself a new and radical daily agenda for her role as justice minister. She's putting the brakes on anti-democratic laws and promoting liberal ones. She has scores to settle with short-sighted lawyers, judges who have strayed, recalcitrant lawyers and, primarily, the religious establishment and the Bayit Yehudi party and its leader, Naftali Bennett. "When it comes to matters of religion and state," she says, "Bayit Yehudi is more extreme than the ultra-Orthodox."

 

The sooner the better

Just prior to Rosh Hashanah, Livni made a secret trip to New York, to attend a meeting organized by the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Present at the meeting were the foreign ministers of numerous Arab states, including Lebanon. European foreign ministers and Arab League officials also attended the conference. The focus was Islamic State and how to put together a coalition to bring about its downfall. Livni was there as Israel's government representative.

 

Three weeks later, foreign ministers convened in Cairo to discuss Gaza's rebuilding. Despite the fact that Israel holds the key to any move in Gaza, it wasn't invited. The government came to terms with the slap in the face – Livni didn't. She viewed it as an abject failure.

 

Abbas and Sisi at donors conference (Photo: AFP) (Photo: AFP)
Abbas and Sisi at donors conference (Photo: AFP)

 

Is Livni nothing but a fig leaf protecting a settlement-driven government from the wrath of the world? Or is she a moderating and influential element in a government that is treading water? Livni believes she's a bit of both.

 

Do you support US Secretary of State John Kerry's revised initiative, we ask her. "There's no clearly defined initiative at the moment," Livni replies, "so I can't express an opinion about it. But I am convinced that the process needs to be restarted. The two leaders – Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas – must do so in the interests of their people. From my perspective, the talks could be resumed tomorrow morning.

 

"Israel must achieve a settlement – and the sooner the better. Doing nothing is not an option. Preserving the status quo will exact heavy costs. Everything is so volatile. If Israel fails to initiate a move, we'll either have a solution imposed upon us, or we will lose the chance of achieving a settlement for many years to come.

 

"There are some people who believe we can achieve normalization with countries in the region without a process with the Palestinians. That's a fantasy; there will be no regional normalization without Abu Mazen (Abbas). I've been involved in ties with elements in the Arab world for years now. They wish to establish relations with Israel, but they cannot do so while there is no peace process.

 

"Israel must therefore respond positively to the Arab initiative. The initiative is an important one for us as it speaks of the normalization of Israel's relations with the countries in the region – which Abu Mazen cannot offer on his own. It could be a fundamental game changer. Nevertheless, we don't have to accept it as is. Officials from Arab countries with whom I have met have made it clear that they are willing to hold talks with us on its components; we're not talking about a holy writ.

 

"Together with the United States, Egypt and the moderate Arab League member-states, we need to create a coalition that will back a political process and won't back what Abu Mazen is doing – a one-sided move with the purpose of getting what he wants without the concessions required through negotiations. Abu Mazen needs to get a clear-cut message from the moderate states: We won't support your appeal to the Security Council and the International Court of Justice in The Hague."

 

Sand in your eyes

The moderate Arab states, we say to her, are busy now with IS and the war in Syria; the Palestinians have been dropped from their agenda. Livni sees a different reality.

 

"Anyone who claims that the IS problem can be solved without a real effort to resolve the Palestinian problem is throwing sand in your eyes," she responds, "Thus, the two things are connected. The Western and Arab coalition against IS can provide a framework for a settlement. The fact that the talks in Cairo on the future of Gaza concerned us yet went ahead without us there is not a positive thing. Such things occur due to the absence of a political process."


IS militants in Iraq (Photo: AP) (Photo: AP)
IS militants in Iraq (Photo: AP)

 

Your cabinet colleagues, we point out, are ruling out any move to resume negotiations. "Some ministers," Livni says, "say to the world: Leave us be, let us and them bash heads alone. And I say: It's our head, and it's our head we're breaking.

 

After Kerry said what he said, Bennett griped: A Muslim kills a Christian and the Jew is blamed. I say: The wise Jewish Israeli must work with the moderate Muslim and the Christian leader of the free world against the crazy Muslims. The attitude of every nation unto itself is a destructive one for the future of Israel."

 

It's easy for you to argue with Bennett, we say, but for all intents and purposes, that's the government's policy. You speak about Bennett because you don't feel comfortable talking about Netanyahu.

 

"This is Netanyahu's third term as prime minister," Livni responds. "The political challenges are huge, and they will only intensify. Failure to show initiative and improper conduct in the face of this wave would be an extremely costly blunder.

 

"The country needs proactive leadership: That's his responsibility; he's the prime minister, and he is entrusted with caring for the future of the country – for security, borders, its standing in the world, the future of its young people, its democracy, its economy. A prime minister who disregards the responsibility that rests on his shoulders will be held accountable not only by history – the bill will come a lot sooner.

 

"As for Bennett, it's really not that easy to criticize his statements," she continues. "He is saying something that the public can readily identify with, something that is easy to sell to the public – but primarily offends. It's easy to unite in the face of a crisis, in the face of war, in the face of an avalanche in Nepal. I get it. Give me the IDF band playing Hatikva on Mount Herzl and tears come to my eyes. But to say that everyone hates us is a statement that goes against Zionism. Zionism has always initiated, has always looked for partners, has always been politically oriented.

 

'It's not that easy to criticize Bennett's statements' (Photo: Motti Kimchi) (Photo: Motti Kimchi)
'It's not that easy to criticize Bennett's statements' (Photo: Motti Kimchi)

 

"Most Israelis want borders, want to preserve the settlement blocs, preserve Jerusalem, and the holy sites in particular, want security. The settlers, in contrast, don't want to come to an agreement. They use the security argument and undermine the security."

 

Resign or not

There are many Israelis who have come to terms with Israel becoming a bi-national state, we say. There are some people on the right who are even working towards it.

 

"There won't be a bi-national state here," Livni says. "They are wrong. There'll be bloodshed, a protracted conflict that will spread into the State of Israel – a conflict over all or nothing."

 

If that's what lying in wait, we say, we have to question what influence you can have on the actions of the current government.

 

"For nine months, I conducted negotiations with the Palestinians in cooperation with the prime minister," Livni responds.

"We spoke about all the core issues. In April, we made progress to the point of formulating an American proposal based on which Netanyahu was willing to continue the talks. With respect to both the issue of borders and the issue of the settlement blocs, the American proposal was worded in a way that could have led to a fair and balanced solution. Bayit Yehudi didn't quit the government. It remained throughout.

 

"I remember that Tuesday on which Uri Ariel and Ze'ev Haver, the settler leaders, came to Netanyahu. I was there. They said to him with woeful looks on their faces: We understand that it's a done deal. And Netanyahu responded: Correct; it's a done deal.

 

Bayit Yehudi's Uri Ariel (Photo: Motti Kimchi) (Photo: Motti Kimchi)
Bayit Yehudi's Uri Ariel (Photo: Motti Kimchi)

 

"We reached a point with the Americans at which they were going to release Jonathan Pollard. He was supposed to have arrived here on the eve of Passover. We even discussed the question of how to prevent him from talking after getting to Israel. I was working on drafting a government decision. The settler leaders, who never miss an opportunity to demand Pollard's immediate release, should ask themselves about the contribution they have made to the fact that he is still in prison."

 

At that stage, we say to her, Netanyahu didn't accept their position. "True," Livni replies, "but then Abu Mazen decided to break the rules."

 

And since then, we continue, the three youths were abducted and there was a military operation in Gaza that ended the way it did. What kind of influence did you have on the decisions, we ask.

 

"Those who in the past had questioned my place in the government came to thank me during Protective Edge, when they saw just how much sway I had over the decisions," Livni says. "The operation didn't end the way Lieberman or Bennett wanted it to end merely by chance. I have sway over government policy at every given moment of every day.

 

"You know very well that this is not the government I wanted to be a part of – but that's what the so-called pact of the brothers gave rise to. On the eve of the elections, I went to Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich and suggested that we form a united front. Yair opted for his brother."

 

Do you have red lines, we ask. Under what circumstances would you pull Hatnua out of the government, we wonder.

 

"I'll decide whether or not to leave the government based on the facts on the ground – is political progress being made or not, why is there no progress, who's responsible, what can be done to change things, and from where is it best to do so – from within or from without. I frequently judge myself – and I am a stern adjudicator. I won't be party to a government that deceives the public.

 

"I am not one of those people who automatically shoulder the blame for all that is happening in the world; not everything depends on us. I have lots of criticism for Abu Mazen, for his evasion of the process in the past, and for his current appeal to the Security Council.

 

"Nevertheless, we are the ones who bear the responsibility to act, to initiate, to minimize damages and, of course, not to give in to those among us who want to worsen the situation – not so that the Palestinians can have a state, but so that our country can remain Zionist, Jewish and democratic. I am not concerned with establishing a state for them but with safeguarding ours instead.

 

"Quitting the government now wouldn't promote my vision – to the contrary. The situation would deteriorate. People say to me: If it gets worse, it'll get better afterwards. I tried that method for four years, when I was leader of the opposition. It didn't work; the public didn't buy it. To those people calling on me to quit, I say: No, thanks. My departure wouldn't lead to the establishment of an alternative government. Under current circumstances, elections, too, would not lead to the establishment of an alternative government. They would only cause the situation to worsen.

 

"This government has its good days and bad days. There are days when the representatives of the settlers feel they have no sway, and there are days when things are reversed. But there's one thing I'm not willing to do – and that's to give up on the chance of achieving a settlement. That, I will never do."

 

Unlike the commandos

How, we ask, can an agreement be reached when there isn't the slightest bit of trust between the parties and within the parties? Do you really believe Netanyahu? Do any of your friends around the world believe him?

 

"After Operation Protective Edge, there was an opportunity to come to an international decision that would have led to the resumption of the talks," Livni says. "It didn't come to pass due to our hesitation – and also due to Palestinian rejection.

 

Iron Dome in action during Operation Protective Edge (Photo: Eli Basri) (Photo: Eli Basri)
Iron Dome in action during Operation Protective Edge (Photo: Eli Basri)

 

"Trust is an important component in any dialogue; but the test is not whether you believe the other side, but if you are creating a reality that will lead to the right decisions, or at least promote such decisions. This was the case until things blew up in April. Thereafter, during Protective Edge, I saw how the reality had changed the viewpoints of Bibi, Bogie (Defense Minister Ya'alon), Bennett and Lieberman. Abu Mazen was preventing violence in the West Bank; and they, who had attacked him so fiercely, were impressed. All of a sudden, they wanted Abu Mazen in Gaza. But after the operation, when the opportunity was missed, everyone slunk into their own corner."

 

Bennett, we point out, has harshly slammed the cabinet's conduct during the war. Who's in the right – Bennett or Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon?

 

"Being a cabinet minister is more than being a soldier in the (elite) Sayeret Matkal commando unit," Livni says. "We all have friends in the army, but the considerations in the cabinet are much broader than those of a brigade commander in the army. When Bennett states publicly that the Israel Defense Forces' top brass and the defense minister demonstrated a lack of conviction during the operation, he undermines our deterrence capabilities. During the course of operation, ministers sought to win more Knesset seats. Their behavior undermined Israel's security.

 

"When the prime minister stands at the White House and speaks in favor of a two-state solution, and Bennett responds with not in a million years, he is in fact saying to the world: Security isn't our true motive; we want land and settlements. Bennett and his gang use the term, security, in vain.

 

"The entire government could have been united around a common security viewpoint. But when we have the settler leadership sitting behind us and saying: You talk about security, but we will settle people in areas that in the eyes of the majority will not be part of the state, they undermine the credibility of the security argument.

 

"The settlements turn Israel from a country that cares for its citizens into a peace rejectionist. We should talk about the money too – money that's going to places we won't be in, money that's going down the drain. For years, I opposed the slogan, 'Money for the settlements instead of the poorer neighborhoods.' I believed that such statements are detrimental to the country's unity. I know today that it's the truth."

 

Until now, we say, Netanyahu has been able to afford to disregard both you and Lapid – at least insofar as the political arena is concerned.

 

"You can't come crying to me about 19 Knesset seats that I don't have," Livni says. "Everyone had to prioritize things for themselves. On the eve of the establishment of the government, Lapid's priorities and mine differed. Now, he is ready to form a single front, and that's what matters."

 

The fig leaf

You, we say, are heading Israel's preparations for the legal battle around the world over the results of Protective Edge. What is the extent of the damage, we ask.

 

"It's going to be a very tough fight," Livni says. "Because of my support for a peace settlement, when it comes to this issue, too, my ability to convince the world is far greater than that of others. If I am the fig leaf that protects the IDF soldiers, I am very proud to be so.

 

"The entire operation was conducted under close supervision of legal experts. It was a very important element. It allows us to appear before all the international institutions and say: We acted in keeping with international law. It's the flak jacket of the IDF officers and soldiers."

 

With all due respect to the legal guidance, we say, the images remain the same images. The images from Gaza that were screened to the world portrayed indiscriminate destruction.

 

Destruction in Gaza (Photo: AFP) (Photo: AFP)
Destruction in Gaza (Photo: AFP)

 

"Pictures of civilian casualties always fire up public opinion, and the legal experts too," Livni responds. "I'd still rather see death on their side than on ours. I say to the word: Judge us not according to our moral values ​​but according to your values. All countries draw a distinction between a murderer who kills maliciously and someone who kills accidentally. I ask the world to make this moral judgment."

 

You, we say, oppose any concessions on the part of Israel in favor of Hamas. The fact is that government policy on the eve of Protective Edge, and now too, actually supports the Hamas regime in Gaza. The government wants a weakened Hamas.

 

"There are differences of opinion in this government," Livni says. "From the perspective of Hamas, the conflict between us is a religious one. In my opinion, therefore, Hamas is not a partner. I'm opposed to allowing Hamas to open a seaport in Gaza."

 

We ask if Israel should boycott the Palestinian unity government. "I thought so before the operation," Livni replies. "I feared that Hamas would use the unity government to take control of the West Bank. The operation gave rise to the other alternative – for Abu Mazen to take control of Gaza. This is truly an Israeli interest. Today, it is actually happening. The monitoring mechanism that will be established will work under Abu Mazen and with Israel's consent. This means that the government of Israel has faith in Abu Mazen."

 

Change is inevitable

Pressure to make fundamental changes to the democratic game rules has peaked during the term in office of the current government. It's become a matter of Jew vs. democrat, Jew vs. Arab, secular vs. religious, the Knesset vs. the High Court of Justice.

 

Livni, unlike some of her predecessors in the justice minister's chair, has become the mainstay insofar as warding off the pressure from the right is concerned. For now, she's doing a good job, partly because she has the silent support of the prime minister.

 

The murder of the three teenagers in Gush Etzion and the murder of the Arab youth in Shuafat sparked a wave of nationalism that gave rise to violence and racial incitement, incitement by Knesset members too. Where is the justice system in this whole story, we ask.

 

Livni sees herself as spearheading the fight against racism. "The murderers of the Arab youth must be prosecuted, and let them get sent down for as long as possible," she says. "And not only them: This murder was born out of a very violent political rhetoric. I have initiated a Justice Ministry campaign against racism. Unlike other ministers, I stayed to the very end during the cabinet debate on the budget. In the last hour, I secured an additional NIS 20 million to finance the campaign in 2015.

 

Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel (Photo: Shaul Golan) (Photo: Shaul Golan)
Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel (Photo: Shaul Golan)

 

"At our initiative, the police's cyber-crime unit has turned its attention to the social media, which, despite their positive elements, are also full of violent and dangerous incitement. I plan to adjust the legal definition of incitement so that it becomes easier to convict offenders. In the past, elements from both the right and the left opposed any change on the grounds that it would violate the principle of freedom of expression; but I think an amendment is called for.

 

"The attorney general and I have issued an instruction for all cases concerning incitement to violence to be transferred from the police to the state prosecutor's office and prioritized for trial purposes. This is the only time I have intervened in the state prosecutor's policies regarding bringing cases to trial. I've held talks with the state prosecutor's office, the police and the Shin Bet security service about the so-called price-tag incidents. The Shin Bet has had reservations about pressing charges due to concerns about burning its sources. Nevertheless, charges have been filed, and more will be."

 

It appears, we suggest, that the more Jewish the country becomes the less democratic it becomes too.

 

"I'm very concerned about this trend," Livni responds. "Here, at the Justice Ministry, I am erecting a wall to offer protection against efforts to shake the balance between Jewish and democratic. I used to be concerned about what was happening to the Jewish aspect; now I'm concerned about what is happening to the democratic one.

 

"The struggle today is over the source of the authority – the state institutions or the rabbi. Among other things, I took steps to prevent Rabbi Eliyahu's appointment to the post of chief rabbi of Jerusalem. Rabbi Eliyahu is afflicted with racism. Some of the rabbis promote anti-democratic views. They have a growing influence. I will protect the justice system from them."

 

No trampling the justices

Following the decision by the High Court of Justice to revoke the so-called Anti-Infiltration Law, Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar called for legislation that would allow the Knesset to easily bypass High Court rulings. Livni torpedoed the move.

 

On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation will discuss another bill aimed at circumventing the High Court and sponsored by right wing MKs Ayelet Shaked, Ze'ev Elkin and Yariv Levin. Livni is opposed to any undermining of the court's powers, but she is seeking a solution to the problem of the illegal immigrants from Africa.

 

"I am opposed to any proposal that comes to alter the powers of the Supreme Court," Livni says. "I know where these things start but not where they end. We can expect battles over law proposals of this kind throughout the coming session of the Knesset. I'll have to prevent moves and see what I can promote.

 

"There are a series of law proposals pertaining to the Jewish character of the state. These laws will have to be balanced; if not, I will make sure they are not passed. There's an entire stack of law proposals against which I have submitted appeals; until now, none of them have been enacted.

 

"I'm in favor of a legal solution to the problem of the infiltrators – but I don't support taking advantage of the occasion to launch an attack on the Supreme Court. I won't allow the justices to be trampled.

 

Holot detention center (Photo: Reuters) (Photo: Reuters)
Holot detention center (Photo: Reuters)

 

"Two positives have emerged from the African issue – the fence and (Egyptian President) al-Sisi's policies in the Sinai. The combination of the two has stopped the infiltration. Thus, the problem is not a big one. You must understand that some of those who have come will stay; even Gideon Sa'ar realizes that. We need to encourage people to leave to other countries. The High Court rejected detention without trial. Therefore, we need to clarify quickly who is a refugee and who is not, and to detain the infiltrators until the matter is clarified. This probably requires an amendment to the law."

 

Somewhere between a compliment and harassment

Coalition chairman Yariv Levin, we say, is proposing a change to the make-up of the Judicial Appointments Committee in an effort to add more clout to the politicians.

 

"I'm opposed to a change in the make-up of the committee," Livni responds. "Some things shouldn't be tampered with. Moreover, the current committee is working well. We've improved the vetting process for candidates, and another psychologist will be added to the screening process soon too. I'd rather see a worthy judge fail to secure an appointment than see the appointment of a bad judge. The damage to the public's confidence is too great."

 

The president of the Nazareth District Court, Yitzhak Cohen, we remind Livni, was suspected of harassing women. Former state prosecutor Moshe Lador failed to investigate the matter. Is it time to examine the role of the state prosecution in the affair, we ask.

 

"Definitely," Livni says. "I intend to authorize Judge Hila Gerstel, the comptroller of the state prosecution, to look into all incidents relating to the matter of the judge and the manner in which the affair was handled by the state prosecution – separate from the police investigation."

 

The Bar Association, we say, is blacklisting Gerstel and has filed a lawsuit on the matter with the Labor Court.

Livni responds emphatically: "The lawyers will be making a big mistake if they don't cooperate with the new entity," she says. "They'll be hurting themselves. They will be the ones who spark renewed law proposals in the Knesset aimed at weakening the state prosecution."

 

You must be aware, we say, of the criticism that current Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is coming under. He's being accused of foot-dragging, of closing cases against public figures, and of being too close to the prime minister.

 

"I have the utmost confidence in Weinstein," Livni says. "I reject the criticism of him. We have an excellent working relationship. He plays an important role in many shared struggles. I'm not involved in decisions about investigations and indictments. I'm forbidden by law to be so."

 

A long line of senior law enforcement officials, we say, have been forced to resign due to rumors or suspicions of a sexual nature. The name of your presidential candidate, Meir Sheetrit, has also come up in the same context. What does this say about today's Israeli society, we ask.

 

'We have an excellent working relationship'. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (Photo: Gil Yohanan) (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
'We have an excellent working relationship'. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (Photo: Gil Yohanan)

 

"We are in a state of transition from one world to another," Livni says. "I'm pleased to say, the rules have changed; legislation has changed. I don't buy the statement that you can no longer compliment a woman. Today, too, you can pay a compliment without harassing.

 

"I didn't enter politics with a woman's rights agenda, but I have since been exposed to the plight of women who need work, who function in a system that rewards men more, who fall victim to harassment from men. Following my exposure to it, I joined the struggle. My commitment is absolute. To achieve change, one sometimes has to raise the bar a great deal – instead of gray areas, we are now creating a clear line between black and white."

 

But people have quit, we remind her, not because of offenses, but, in some instances, due to rumors, due to fear of media headlines.

 

"I don't like a world of rumors," Livni says. "I like facts. If people choose to resign, perhaps it's because they know that there's no smoke without fire. The affairs that are surfacing today were unacceptable in the past too; but we failed to put the law into practice back then. Many women suffered, and the suffering of women is not a women's problem – it's a social problem."

 

The plea bargain deal signed with Rabbi Pinto created a public uproar, we say. Are you in favor of plea bargains when it comes to public figures, we wish to know.

 

"I won't comment on specific cases," Livni says. "As a rule, I think it's best to avoid plea bargains with people who operate in the public arena. They need to come to court and be tried before a judge. Justice must be seen to be done."

 

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