A Conversation with Tzipi Livni

Simon Rabinovitch speaks with Tzipi Livni about the meaning of a Jewish and democratic state and Israel’s prospects for passing a nation-state law

Between December 2014 and May 2015 Marginalia ran the Defining Israel forum with documents and essays on Israel’s parliamentary struggle over whether to pass a law defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and if so, what that would mean.

I spent some time in Israel this summer and spoke with lawmakers, bureaucrats, intellectuals, friends, and, especially, taxi drivers about khok ha’le’om — the nation-state law. My conversations were selective, but there nonetheless appears to be an obvious yawning gap between the politicians and the public about the significance of this issue. Prime Minister Netanyahu previously claimed that the passage of a nation-state law would be the capstone of his historical legacy, but few among the public understand how or why disagreement over the passage of this law, or rather the failure to do so, played a central role in the collapse of the last coalition government and why the elections were necessary.

The new governing coalition approved following the spring elections is both narrower (with just 61 seats, the smallest majority possible) and more religious than the previous. The Prime Minister and members of his and other parties who favor a nation-state law will have a more difficult time passing such a law because of the presence of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties in the coalition, who object on principle to what they perceive to be encoding a national, and therefore secular, understanding of Jewishness into the state’s DNA. The coalition agreement for the new government stipulates that a nation-state bill will be passed, but it also gives each party veto power over the law’s wording. One government official told me that the Haredi veto guarantees that no bill will be passed during this government’s term. Even so, Likud Member of Knesset Benny Begin recently submitted a new proposal for a concise definition of the state’s identity shorn of most of the articles from previous drafts (similar in its form and wordings to those previously put forward by Ruth Calderon and Tzipi Livni) that would likely have considerable support on the center and left, outside of the coalition itself. The first clause of this new bill paraphrases the Declaration of Independence in stating simply, “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel, and upholds equal right for all its citizens.” One Arab MK suggested to me that according to this formula his party might even be convinced to abstain rather than vote against.

Tzipi Livni played a central role in the debates over the nation-state law. After a career practicing law, Livni became a Member of Knesset in 1999 and has headed seven ministries and served as both Vice Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. In her second stint as Minister of Justice (she held this position from 2006-2007 then 2013-2014) Livni commissioned the prominent legal scholar Ruth Gavison to draft a constitutional provision dealing with Israel’s identity that balances the state’s Jewish and democratic character (Marginalia published an English translation of the resulting report that can be found here). Though she favors a nation-state law, and even more so a constitution, Livni adamantly opposed the Prime Minister’s text as proposed on November 23, and the members of her party put forward Livni’s proposed basic law the next day, November 24 (as a sitting minister Livni could not sponsor the bill personally). On December 2, Prime Minister Netanyahu dismissed Livni and Minister of Finance Yair Lapid, setting the stage for the elections.

Tzipi Livni
Tzipi Livni, June 2015. Photo by Oren Shalev.

I sat down with Livni in her party’s Tel Aviv office for a conversation about the law and the challenge of clarifying Israel’s constitutional identity. At one point our conversation turned to a concept articulated by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, who has recently argued that instead of Israelis thinking about the state in terms of majority (Jewish) and minority (Arab), or even Zionist and non-Zionist, today’s Israel is composed of four “tribes” of approximately equal size: secular, national-religious, Arab, and Haredi. As each tribe becomes more isolated from the others — especially in systems of education — the only way to build bridges between them, in Rivlin’s formulation, is to acknowledge a multi-ideological Israeli identity that resembles the multicultural civic nationalism of a growing number of states.

Rivlin proposes that Israeli society focus on a partnership between these sectors based on the starting point that membership in Israeli society recognizes these separate identities. The pillars on which this partnership should be fostered are shared responsibility, equality, and the creation of a shared Israeli identity that recognizes difference. Yet, I suspect, the debate over a nation-state law will not disappear precisely because of the clarity of what Rivlin calls the “new Israeli order,” or what several contributors to our forum pointed out was a different Israel today — more religious, less socialist, and less European — than what constituted the society of the early state. As the percentage of Israelis — whether religious or secular — who see the state’s identity in national terms declines, the greater the impetus will be to enshrine the state’s national identity in the law. Benny Begin perhaps best captured this sentiment when, in explaining the need for a law now, he paraphrased Cardinal Richelieu, who said, “if it is self-evident, write it down,” and added, in his own words, “if it is not self-evident, all the more so.”

MK Tzipi Livni (TL) sits with MRB for a discussion about Israel’s identity, the meaning of “Jewish and democratic,” and the nation-state law. Below are excerpts from that conversation:

For me, it was the first chapter of the future constitution

SR: In terms of the public’s appetite for the law itself, I was wondering what you think about the extent to which the public wants a law clarifying the meaning of the state and the definition of the state.

TL: It depends when you say public to which group or to which tribe you refer to. Because I think when I was elected to the parliament I thought this is something that is needed, because when we say “Jewish democratic state” nobody really knows what it is all about, and we have different translations to the same word. Well, not about democracy, because democracy is something that we have in different states around the world, but what is this Jewish state? What does it mean? For the ultra-Orthodox it is Jewish from a religious perspective, for me from a national perspective — and how can we have these two different values [Jewish and democratic] living in harmony, when I see democracy also as a set of values, when for others it’s just a system of elections?

Basically, for me, it was the first chapter of the future constitution. But then during these years — I’m talking about 1999 until now — it has become so dangerous, because everyone puts his own translation and values, and in a way, as was shown, the law itself creates also lots of dispute and misunderstanding and tension. Unfortunately, because I think that a few years ago it could have been something that the vast majority would have embraced. Now, because what was put on the table was changing the balance between Jewish and the democratic values, the debate was about the need for this law and about the substance.

SR: So do you think when the term “democracy” is used, it’s clearer in its meaning than the term “Jewish”?

TL: No. For some, democracy can be used as “system of election” and not for a set of values, and this is part of the reason why I rejected the bill that Netanyahu put on the table, because it referred to democracy just as a system, as a democratic system …

SR: The mechanics.

TL: Yes, and since also we had this dispute about what Jewish values mean, also on the nature of democracy we can have a debate. Until now what we have had is a kind of combination in which they can live in harmony without real contradiction between these two areas. For those who want to have democracy as something technical, they are those who basically want to have the Jewishness of the state as something more religious, which would have a greater impact on the nature of the state.

SR: So why do you think the recent versions have all tried to make this correction? In November I heard the Prime Minister saying repeatedly that there is an imbalance between the Jewish and democratic consideration in how laws are considered.

TL: Basically it should have come from the Bill of Independence, or Scroll of Independence. It’s there. In the Scroll of Independence it’s quite clear what it is, what it means; it’s more than just two words. But during these years, because of the bill of kvod ha’adam ve’khiruto [the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, passed in 1992] there was one law that the Supreme Court of Justice in a way used in order to put all of the sets of values of democracy into this law. Now, what the Supreme Court said is that it is a set of values, but the Jewish values, Judaism, represents a kind of democratic value, so they could live happily ever after by having the Jewish and democratic values as basically the same set of values. And for some, especially from the right wing, those who want also to reduce the power of the Supreme Court, what they thought is that, if they have another bill that relates just to the Judaism, to the Jewishness of the state, so this bill would be the balance. Not balance in the same bill, but balance in two different laws. So one would be kvod ha’adam ve’khiroto — for freedom and all this stuff, which is democracy, human rights — and the other would relate to Jewishness; so this would force the Supreme Court to judge in accordance with these two bills. Basically it’s the same group that acts against the power of the Supreme Court.

SR: Though, of course, the Supreme Court can judge according to any principles it likes.

TL: Because we don’t have a constitution, this is the situation. I wish we had a constitution.

SR: What’s interesting to me is the sense of threat to Jewish national identity in the state that’s articulated by those who want the bill. The way it’s articulated is that it’s not only democracy versus Judaism, but also individual rights versus national rights.

TL: Yes, it is true. It is true, and it is also true that the ultra-Orthodox don’t need this law because, anyway, they said once, since they don’t want the constitution, even if we were to write the Ten Commandments they would never accept it. So for them it’s less important, because the source of authority for them is the halakha anyway. It’s not a constitution.

SR: But when I walk down the street in Tel Aviv, admittedly as an outsider, not just in Tel Aviv, in any city in Israel, I find it difficult to understand the sense of threat to national identity, to the Jewish identity of the state. I read Netanyahu saying that those who oppose his version of the bill are essentially proposing bi-nationalism instead …

TL: This is completely different. As long as we are not dividing the land on the basis of two states for two peoples, the meaning is that this would lead to a bi-national state. It’s not about the bills that we write; it’s about what we do, because if we don’t have a Jewish majority we are going to have a contradiction between these two values. Because without a Jewish majority you cannot just force it — I don’t think you can force the minority. I think we can live by an understanding that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, but a state in which all its citizens are equal-rights citizens. This is the entire sentence. In a way, if we want to translate the “Jewish democratic state,” the meaning is nation state for the Jewish people with equal rights for all its citizens. This is the Jewish and this is the democratic.

Netanyahu, unfortunately, is the one who is kind of brainwashing Israel… that Israel can turn into a kind of Jewish ghetto in the Middle East

I think that altogether there is another trend, which worries me. When Israelis are looking at the region in the world, they are looking at it from a satellite point of view. So we have this tiny place surrounded by all the crazy Islamists — ISIS and Hamas and Hezbollah and terrorists and everybody — and the less Israeli government policy is understood, the more we have clashes with the free world, and especially with Europe. And so Netanyahu, unfortunately, is the one who is kind of brainwashing Israel, that we — well he’s not using this word — that Israel can turn into a kind of Jewish ghetto in the Middle East: surrounded, isolated, we are just there, we need to keep ourselves focused on who we are. He once said in the parliament: it’s not about what we do, it’s about who we are. So, this is part of it.

2015 Election Billboard for Zionist Union
2015 Election Billboard for Zionist Union

Well, you know I’m to blame partially on this. I entered politics because I wanted to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians, because I believe, as I said, that this is the only way to keep these values living in harmony. And because we are working since Oslo on the same final status issues, including refugees, what I tried to do with the world is to say, listen, the idea of two states for two peoples, the meaning is the end of conflict. So Israel is a Jewish state. When Israel was established it was the solution of an ongoing conflict here: it took off the international table the Jewish problem, we absorbed Jews who came from all over the world, and every Jew is entitled to become an Israeli citizen when landing at Ben Gurion airport. So the creation of the Palestinian state is the answer for all of the Palestinian people, including the refugees. And also internally Israel is nationally — from a national perspective — Israel is the nation state for the Jewish people, but yet, all of the Arabs who are living in Israel individually have equal rights. So this was the entire concept.

I got from the [United] States the Bush Letter saying that the creation of the Palestinian state is the answer for the refugees, and I convinced lots of leaders in the world to recognize this. And Netanyahu — since he didn’t want to say the words “Palestinian state” — just took this Jewish state, just one part of the equation, and altogether this became his flag. This is also the reason why he won the last election. Because as Netanyahu portrayed the danger, the combination between the Arabs living outside, the Arabs who are Israeli citizens, us, foreign governments, and all this mess is threatening; it’s not threatening like an enemy to conquer Israel it is more about the identity of the state.

Basically, their answer is God; but this can help

SR: There is a strange alignment between those who are most pessimistic about a future Palestinian state and those who want most clearly a definition that the state only reflects the national rights of the Jewish people.

TL: No, it’s not only pessimistic. You have a group there that, even if we had the greatest partner in the world on the other side, they would not sign an agreement because they would not give up even a centimeter square of the land. So for them, this is the only way to give me the answer when I ask them, “What are we going to do?” We cannot continue like this between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea without …

SR: So their answer is a nation-state bill?

TL: No, it’s not directly, basically, their answer is God; but this can help. It’s fate. We had miracles during all these years so maybe we will still have.

SR: But the problem is there’s a blind-spot for those who aren’t citizens. You mentioned at the beginning of the interview the “tribes.” I read Rivlin’s speech where he outlines the four tribes. When he talks about how these four groups need to live together — and we’re not talking about majority/minority anymore, we’re talking about several minorities — for each of them he always has representative towns: the town of this, the town of that, Tel Aviv or Bnei Barak. He does this twice in his speech. When he talks about the national-religious, the two places he associates with that group are Beit El and Efrat [both in the West Bank]. So, the question is, to me, if you’re going to talk about partnerships and all of the rights and privileges of these various citizens of the state, there’s one group that he’s representing by cities that are surrounded by people who are not citizens of the state.

TL: Yes, but this is not what Ruvi Rivlin thinks about Beit El and Efrat. For him it’s going to be part of Israel anyway. He did not want to exclude them from being part of Israel; this was not his intention, not at all.

SR: No, I don’t think he was trying to exclude them from being part of Israel. My question is, if one doesn’t believe in the impending future of a Palestinian state (as it is clear, Rivlin does not), what does one do with all of those who are not citizens?

TL: But they are citizens … ah, you are talking about the Palestinians?

SR: I am.

TL: Well it depends. If you are talking about Jabotinsky’s believers, and Ruby Rivlin is one of them, so for him the meaning of one state is also to give equal rights to the Palestinians. This is the only way he can live with the values of Jabotinsky. If you’re not Ruvi Rivlin, you put your faith in God.

SR: But Jabotinsky believed in national rights.

TL: For minorities, yes, for minorities.

SR: The funny thing is, when I read the versions of the bill that say specifically that the right to self-determination in the state is uniquely for the Jewish people and talk then about the rights of others as zkhhuyot ishiyut [individual or personal rights]…

TL: Yes, this is what I said, it’s the nation-state of the Jewish people when all of its citizens have equal rights.

SR: My question is why go out of one’s way to specify that other groups within the state would not have national rights? What is the danger?

TL: Listen, we have a national conflict between us and the Palestinians. And the national conflict is also about land and about each people’s right to self-determination in a state of its own. So, there are two options to end this conflict. One is to live, in Greater Israel, between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, one state. But since we need to give everybody equal rights, voting rights, it’s going to change from a Jewish state into a bi-national state, maybe an Arab state in the future. In the concept of two states for two peoples, we accept and legitimize their aspiration for a state, but the meaning is that the creation of the Palestinian state is the national answer for those Arabs who are living in Israel. Because otherwise we are going to have just a state. We are giving part of the land of our forefathers, and our history, and we take some calculated security risks, and to do what? To create a state just for what? The whole idea is to end the conflict based on two states for two peoples; each state gives to the other national aspirations of different people.

You’re getting your state, you can stay here as respected equal-rights Israeli citizens, but the answer for your national aspiration is elsewhere

SR: Theoretically, conceptually, what is the fear for the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel? What is the fear for them having some kind of legal recognition as a national minority?

TL: Because since we have this conflict, and this is over land, and this is a tiny place, nobody wants — something Jabotinsky also wrote about — irredentism within the state. Between our two peoples we have an understanding: you’re getting your state, you can stay here as respected equal-rights Israeli citizens, but the answer for your national aspiration is elsewhere. Like, in a way, an American Jew.

SR: But Jabotinsky also wrote about …

TL: I know. I’m not trying to say that if Jabotinsky would have lived today this is what he would have wanted. I don’t know. This is a way to give my answer according to my beliefs.

SR: I agree that it becomes a bit silly when we start to talk about what people who had no ability to predict the future would have said about a situation that doesn’t reflect what they might have imagined.

TL: I don’t know, I totally don’t know. By the way he was completely secular, he saw things differently, maybe Jabotinksy would have preferred the idea of one state? I don’t know. One state over all of the land with some combination of minority and majority rights. The question is what are the rights of the group? (By the way, I’m not trying to impose my narrative on them. I respect theirs, I would not adapt it, it’s theirs.) So basically the idea of solving the conflict is not who has more rights over the entire land, and who is more just; it’s not this kind of decision. It’s trying to solve the problem we are facing.

SR: But collective rights are not based on land.

TL: I know, listen, we are now in an ongoing conflict. I’m not writing something theoretically. Now this is the situation. They have anyway a kind of rights based on Arabic; they have some. It’s not like they have to be Jews and Zionists in order to be Israeli citizens. This is my concept; I know Gavison is thinking differently on this.

SR: I won’t speak for her.

TL: About collective rights, it’s an open issue now. I don’t want to speak now about collective rights when we have this [conflict] also because it can turn into something that changes the endgame with their people.

SR: So you think that it would have ramifications on negotiations with the Palestinians?

TL: No. What I need from the Palestinians is end of conflict and end of claims.

SR: Can I ask you what you think lies in the future?

TL: I don’t think that they will find the common ground to form one bill, and while working on this Ruth Gavison tried and successfully convinced me that to open all of this stuff right now can just create new problems and we should live with the Scroll of Independence and that’s it.

As our conversation wrapped up I asked Livni if she would support Benny Begin’s new proposal and she made clear that in principal she is a supporter of a nation-state bill and considers herself to have been the one to have initiated the concept when entering the parliament in 1999 (at the time, the idea being to give constitutional grounding to the Scroll of Independence). What she opposed in Netanyahu’s version was the substance of what was included and how the articles were written, not the idea of the law itself. As for what comes next, Livni said that she is not going to initiate anything, and as for proposals from others, “Let’s see. I’ll judge it according to the substance.”