Interview with FM Tzipi Livni on CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer
Sunday, Sept 17, 2006
       
BLITZER: Foreign Minister, thanks very much for joining us here on "Late Edition."

LIVNI: Thank you.

BLITZER: 1701, the U.N. Security Council resolution – you’re on your way, now, to the United Nations General Assembly. You’ll be speaking there. Is this resolution being fully implemented right now?

LIVNI: Not yet. This is only the beginning. We are now a few weeks after Resolution 1701 was adopted by the Security Council. We can see the signs of the beginning of implementation. The Lebanese army is deploying to the south part of Lebanon, but not yet fully. Plus, some effective international forces have come to replace Israel in terms of enforcing the arms embargo from the sea side.

But there are two problematic issue which are not being implemented. One is the release of the Israeli hostages. This is a very sensitive humanitarian issue – an open wound for Israeli society.

BLITZER: The two Israeli soldiers.

LIVNI: Yes. This was the attack, the unprovoked attack, which started with the kidnapping of these Israeli soldiers.

And the other issue which is not being implemented right now is the enforcement of the arms embargo on the Lebanese-Syrian border.

BLITZER: All right, I want to get to both of those issues. There are still Israeli forces in South Lebanon.

LIVNI: Yes.

BLITZER: How many are there?

LIVNI: Well, there are some troops waiting for the international forces to come with the Lebanese army in order to replace them.

BLITZER: What do you estimate? How much longer will it take before all Israeli forces are out of Lebanon?

LIVNI: It’s not a matter of time, but a matter of performance. We are waiting for the Lebanese army to come with international forces. We want to give the keys to responsible adults, you know. We are not going to leave the south part of Lebanon to Hizbullah. This is not the reason for the operation, and these are the terms which are part of Resolution 1701.

BLITZER: Speaking of Hizbullah, the leader of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, said on Al Jazeera on Wednesday, "We are present on the border with Israel. There is no demilitarized zone south of the Litani River. Hizbullah is present south of the Litani and is present in all of south Lebanon." Is that true?

LIVNI: There are some Hizbullah militia members in the south part of Lebanon also, but the idea – and this is part of Resolution 1701 – is to keep this as a free zone between the Litani River and the Israeli border, and at the end of the war, to dismantle Hizbullah. I think that Nasrallah already regrets the attack on Israel. He said so, to the Lebanese people. He had to explain to the Lebanese people whether it was worth it or not, and I think that the answer is clear. So I just suggest to Hizbullah, if I may, right now, to work according to Resolution 1701, not for the benefit of Israel but for the benefit of the Lebanese people.

BLITZER: Your predecessor, former foreign minister of Israel Silvan Shalom, was quoted in The Jerusalem Post on September 7th as saying this – very strong words – "The diplomatic results were not favorable to Israel. Israel did not achieve any of its declared war objectives: freeing Israel’s kidnapped soldiers, disarming Hizbullah and removing all long-range and short mid-range missiles from Lebanon. Israel’s exit strategy illustrated poor judgment, and it weakened the State of Israel."

Was the Israeli response to the kidnapping of those two Israeli soldiers, with hindsight, a mistake?

LIVNI: No. Israel had to respond. The idea that we’re living in a neighborhood in which somebody like Nasrallah can attack Israel, in an unprovoked attack, kidnap soldiers, kill others without any response – this would have been the wrong message. So the idea and the decisions that we took on July 12th was to counterattack.

Now, let’s compare the situation that Israel was and Lebanon was before the attack, or before the military operation, and let’s see what is the situation right now.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, there is a lot of anger within Israel right now over the tactics, the strategy, how this war unfolded.

LIVNI: I know that. I am a member of the Israeli government, and there are some demonstrations in Israel and some frustration. But I think that if the Israeli public will stop licking the wounds of the last month and see and look at the process, maybe from the outside, they will see the advantages of the process.

On the day before the attack, the Lebanese army was not in the south part of Lebanon, which was Hizbullah land. The Lebanese government couldn’t reach an understanding or couldn’t reach a resolution to deploy the forces to the southern Lebanon. To transfer arms to Hizbullah was legitimate. There was no arm embargo. It was totally legitimate. And the Iranians, plus the Syrians transferred weapon on a daily basis.

Now, what we can see is that the Lebanese army is deploying forces, plus international forces. There is an arms embargo, though it should be enforced fully and completely, and there is, as I said before, the two hostages, which no military operation could bring back.

BLITZER: So you’re saying Israel won this war.

LIVNI: I say that the situation of Israel is better right now. And in terms of the process, the military operation plus Resolution 1701 represents the interests of Israel, and brings us to a better situation.

BLITZER: Let me read to you what the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon said. He was very, very forceful, and I just wanted to get your sense on the final days of the war…

Very bitter words from a respected retired Israeli officer. "That was a spin move." He’s referring to the offensive of the last few days that the Israelis launched. "It had no substantive security political goal, only a spin goal. It was meant to supply the missing victory picture. You don’t do that. You don’t send soldiers to carry out a futile mission after a political outcome has already been set. I consider that corrupt. That is why people have to resign. For that, you don’t even need a commission of inquiry. Whoever made that decision has to assume responsibility and resign."

In effect, he’s calling on Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the chief of staff, Dan Halutz, to resign.

LIVNI: This is not true. And I’m not going to argue now against somebody who was the former chief of staff, but I would like to say something because this is important, especially to the Israeli public. Maybe some of us made mistakes during this operation, and we’ve had some discussions, and we had different ideas even during the operation. I’m talking about the cabinet, the Israeli cabinet.

But even though I could agree with some of the decisions and disputed others, the main goal was the safety of Israel. And the idea that some of us were not thinking about the lives of the Israeli soldiers is more than nonsense. This is something which is not acceptable, and this is something which is against our values. It’s now going to be part of the future inquiry, but it was all done in good faith, even though maybe we made some mistakes during the operation.

BLITZER: The biggest criticism, internationally, was the destruction of so much of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure – the roads, the airports, the ports, the environmental disaster along the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon.
Looking back, was that military attack justified?

LIVNI: The first decision that the Israelis had to make was whether to attack Lebanon as such, as a state, or to attack Hizbullah. And Israel decided, in accordance with the international community, not to undermine the Siniora government.

The fact is that we tried to attack Hizbullah, to attack the terrorists who were hiding and still are among the civilian population – creating a more complicated operation. We could have ended this operation in days if we would have attacked Lebanon as a state. This was the decision that we made at the beginning.

Now, this infrastructure served not only civilians but also the terrorists. If we attack a road leading from the north part of Lebanon to the south part of Lebanon, maybe it serves, also, civilians – I’m sure that it does – but it also served as a way to transfer weapons to the south part of Lebanon.

These were the instructions that the Israeli forces got from the cabinet. The idea was to hit infrastructure with dual use – military and civilian.

BLITZER: As far as Syria is concerned, is there a possibility that you would be open to meeting with your Syrian counterpart, who is going to be at the United Nations also, and get this dialogue between Israel and Syria going?

LIVNI: If Syria wants to be part of the international community, there are some conditions that they have to meet. And the first one is to stop embracing terrorism.

It is not only about Lebanon and Hizbullah. They are hosting, in Damascus, also, the most extreme leaders of Hamas – Khaled Mashal. And the fact that the first abducted soldier has not been released yet is, unfortunately, partly is the result of the negative role of Syria, in supporting the extremists of Hamas.

BLITZER: So opening a dialogue, negotiations with Syria, which occurred in the past, is not going to happen?

LIVNI: No, I think it’s too early. There are some conditions that they have to meet.

BLITZER: How much time do you believe the international community has before Iran crosses into an area of no return, in effect has a nuclear bomb?

LIVNI: The crucial moment is not the day of the bomb. The crucial moment is the day in which Iran will master the enrichment, the knowledge of enrichment.

BLITZER: And how long is that?

LIVNI: A few months from now.

BLITZER: Six months?

LIVNI: No, I don’t know for sure, because it takes time…

BLITZER: Because other Israelis have said that would be the point of no return.

LIVNI: I don’t want to use the words "point of no return," because the Iranians are using it against the international community. They are trying to send a message that it’s too late; you can stop your attempts because it’s too late.

It’s not too late. They have a few more months. And it is crucial because this is in the interests of the international community. The world cannot afford a nuclear Iran. It’s not only a threat to Israel. The recent understanding, also, of moderate Arab states is that Iran is a threat to the region. And I believe that this is time for sanctions.

BLITZER: Is this the biggest threat facing Israel?

LIVNI: Unfortunately, even though Israel was established about 60 years ago, it is still fighting for its existence. We just saw what the threats from Hizbullah, which is the long arm, the proxy of Iran in the region, and we have the Hamas and the terrorist organizations, and the global terrorism, and the Palestinians, and Iran.

So should I choose between the threats? I don’t think so.

BLITZER: The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, says he’s ready for unconditional peace negotiations with the prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert. And the prime minister has responded positively to that. Is there the possibility that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are about to resume?

LIVNI: Israel made it clear, a few weeks ago, that we are willing to meet Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, but there are other open issues that the Palestinian government has to do to meet the requirements of the international community.

There is also a very painful open issue, on this track, and this is the first abducted soldier, Gilad Shalit. And we hope that he will be released to his family soon.

BLITZER: The soldier who was kidnapped along the border with Gaza.

LIVNI: Yes.

BLITZER: Do you see any movement on the part of the Hamas government toward the conditions that Israel, the United States, the Europeans have set forward, that it should accept Israel’s right to exist?

LIVNI: I don’t think so, but I believe that the next few weeks are crucial. Because until now, and since the Hamas won the election, the international community was united in demanding the Hamas to meet these requirements.

Now, I think, we can see the first signs of demonstrations in the Palestinian streets against the Hamas government. And if the international community shows determination in the next few weeks, maybe this is the moment in which Abu Mazen can be strengthened and Hamas will have to do something about it.

Our idea – and this also refers to your question about meetings with Abu Mazen – is to strengthen Abu Mazen as the moderate side in the Palestinian Authority.

BLITZER: One final question: The last foreign minister of Israel who was a woman was Golda Meir. She went on to become the prime minister of Israel. You have a political future ahead of you. Do you see yourself someday as a potential prime minister of Israel?

LIVNI: I am trying to do my current job the best way I can, I know.

BLITZER: It sounds like you’re open to that possibility.

LIVNI: As I said before, I believe in doing the best or acting the best in every position that I was until now, and it worked for me, and I hope that this can work for the State of Israel what I’m doing as a foreign minister.

BLITZER: Foreign Minister, thanks very much.