The solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is not about who is right and who is wrong. It’s not about historical rights. The solution lies in an understanding that we need to shape the future and not to live in history.
Address by Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
"Challenges and Opportunities in the Middle East"
March 12, 2008
FM LIVNI: It is an honor to be here tonight and to share with you some of our views about Israel, the situation in the region, and the peace process.
I would like to say a few words, if I may, about myself, because I believe that this represents not only me and my family but what Israel is about. I was born in Israel in 1958. My parents came with their own families in about 1920 to Israel from different places. Two families came to Israel to build their own future in the place they felt was the homeland of their people, the Jewish people.
Those were the days of the British mandate in Israel. In 1947 the international community decided that it was necessary to end the conflict between the peoples in the Middle East. The United Nations Partition Resolution decided that the best thing to do was to create two different states: one – a state for the Jewish people, and the other – an Arab state.
My parents and the others in Israel decided to embrace this decision, but the Arab world decided to reject the decision to create two states for two different peoples between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. My parents were married the same day on which the State of Israel was born, and they were married in the hopes of creating a state for their children, including me – a democratic state based on their own values: values of democracy, respect for others, and equality; a state that I know that they believed deserves, wants and aspires to live in peace with its neighbors.
About 40 years later, I gave birth to my own two children, my two sons, in a place that had become a very beautiful place to live in, a place that I’m proud to be a citizen of, not only a member of the government; a center of different ethnic groups that came to Israel to live, a place in which different groups and minorities have equal rights and respect, a place that has became a center of hi-tech and creativity. And yet, unfortunately, Israel doesn’t have peace with its neighbors.
I entered Israeli politics in order to change this. This was my decision to leave my profession – I am a lawyer by profession, I practice law. But my drive, my decision, my aspiration was to try and change the situation and to leave something that maybe can bring not only hope for us but also can create a better future, not only for my own children but for generations to come in Israel.
Now I am the chief negotiator on the Israeli side, and there are two rules that I decided to abide by when I entered the negotiating room, and I believe that the ability to reach any solution or peace treaty between us and the Palestinians depends on our ability to understand these two parameters. The first relates to an understanding of my life, my family, the connection between my family and the Land of Israel.
There are those who were born in what I call the Land of Israel; they call it Palestine. They have their own connection to the same land that I feel is mine; they feel it’s theirs. And the idea, or the understanding, is that the State of Israel is the answer to my national aspirations. It’s not the answer to their national aspirations.
The other understanding, and I believe that this should be part of any negotiations, is the understanding that the solution is not a kind of a judgment between our two peoples. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. It’s not about historical rights. It’s not about deciding who suffered more during these years of conflict. I believe that the solution does not lie in rewinding the clock or changing the rules of history. The solution lies in an understanding that we need to shape the future and not to live in history. This is how I enter the negotiations room, and I hope that the other side, my partner on the Palestinian side, enters with the same aspirations to find an end to the conflict and not to convince me that he has more rights to the same land.
I am going to refer in my speech, of course, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is a conflict, it is a national conflict between two peoples. But I would like to take you, as you say here, "to the balcony" and to speak more about changes in the region and in the world. I believe that if you have a better understanding about other conflicts in the region and the effects of these conflicts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this can also help us understand what the solutions are and where the problems lie.
We can see that the world is now divided between moderates and extremists. I would like you to put aside the old perception of a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. There is a conflict and I’m going to refer to it, but something totally new has now changed the allies and alliances in the region. Basically, the extremists are those whose ideology is based on an extreme Islamic ideology. They don’t fight for their own rights; they fight in order to deprive us of our rights. They represent this kind of ideology in different forms. We can see a state which represents this kind of ideology, namely Iran. We can see organizations like Hizbullah, the long arm of Iran in Lebanon. And we can see Hamas, which represents the same kind of ideology in the Palestinian territories.
When we, as part of the free world, talk about globalization, about how we now live in a world which is a small village, that borders don’t mean anything any more, the fact is that this is being used by these extremists in order to spread their ideology and to carry out terror attacks in different places. Unfortunately, September 11th showed us all that borders mean nothing to them. Therefore it’s not a conflict about borders or about rights any more, but just an ideology which is based on hatred.
Now, Israel as a state, of course, doesn’t have a conflict with them, yet we have chosen, since the beginning at the creation of the State of Israel, to be part of the moderates. We decided that Israel will be and is a democracy. These are our values.
In this conflict, the other camp, after I referred to the camp of the extremists, is the camp of the moderates. In a strange way, Israel has found itself in the same camp with states with which we don’t have even diplomatic relations. But there is an understanding that Israel is not the enemy any more, an understanding that there is something that threatens us all, and an understanding of the nature of the threat: the understanding that Iran is a threat to the region, that they work to undermine other regimes in the region, and that they work with radical elements elsewhere. This understanding of the new threat also led to a better understanding that maybe there is an opportunity here. And I believe that this is the opportunity, since the division between extremists and moderates also took place within Palestinian society and the Palestinian leadership.
So, on one hand, looking at the ground, the fact that conflicts change, and instead of national conflicts we are facing more religious conflicts – this is bad news because national conflicts are solvable. Conflicts over borders are solvable. But conflicts based on extreme religious ideologies are not solvable.
So one basic understanding is that time is of the essence; we need to find out whether we can reach an understanding with the part of the Palestinian society and leadership that is fighting for the Palestinians’ national aspirations but understands that the conflict is based on national aspirations and not a religious conflict.
Looking now at the situation and what we are facing, we have Israel. Sometimes when I say "we," I mean Israel plus the pragmatic leaders among the Palestinians, plus Egypt, Jordan, other Arab and Muslim states that understand not only the nature of the threat but the need to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that can solve the conflict and not keep it as an open conflict forever…. So, when looking back at this embarrassingly tiny place between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the strategic Israeli decision is to work with the pragmatic Palestinians in order to find and explore whether we can find a way to end the conflict and reach a point at which we can sign "end of claims."
Now, it’s not easy because, as you know, the division between moderates and extremists is not only a theoretical division. We face terrorism coming from these extremists who completely control the Gaza Strip now. The moderates have no influence in the Gaza Strip and Israel is under attack on a daily basis. Only a few days ago, as you know, eight teenagers were murdered in a yeshiva in Jerusalem while learning Talmud. But Israel’s strategic decision was – and I said it clearly in Annapolis, as I said it in the Knesset, in the Israeli parliament, answering a no-confidence vote – the decision is to work with moderate Palestinians, with the pragmatic leaders, in order to find a way and see whether we can reach an end to the conflict.
I know that we’ll face terror and I know that they will have some excuses to end the negotiations, but we are not going to let Hamas, the extremists or the terrorists have leverage in this conflict. We won’t give them the keys to the peace process. Since Annapolis there have been ongoing negotiations. I met with my colleague on the Palestinian side on the same day, unfortunately, when there was a suicide bombing in a mall in Dimona and an Israeli was killed; on the same day that an Israeli was killed by a missile attack in Sapir College near the Gaza Strip; on the next day – the day of the funeral, and so on. This is our decision and we are determined to continue.
Now, a few words about the process itself and the negotiations, because I know that everybody wants to know what’s going on in the room. The first decision was that we are not going to tell you. This is also part of past experience because, in the past, seven years ago, Israelis and Palestinians met at Camp David and the world was watching and everybody was waiting for a decision and, unfortunately, nothing came of it. I am not going to go into the blame game about whose fault it was, but there were high expectations. It led to frustration, and frustration led to violence, and this is the last thing we can afford because, as I said before, I’m not going to give Hamas and the other terrorist organizations an excuse to stop the negotiations. I’m not going to lend them another excuse to blame Israel or the moderate Palestinians for not achieving a peace treaty according to their own ideology.
So we decided to do it in the quietest way. We decided that until everything is concluded, nothing is concluded, and, not surprisingly, we are working accordingly. So there are no high expectations but I find myself in the most bizarre situation in which it appears that there are those who suspect that there aren’t any negotiations at all because we do not invite the media into the room. But I can assure you that we meet about twice a week, Abu Ala and myself, and some experts are beginning to work on other issues which are not the core issues. Abu Ala and myself are talking about the core issues, but we have other issues that are related to the core issues: water and other things that need to be addressed in any kind of agreement. The experts have started to work on these issues, and basically this is what we are doing quietly.
Unfortunately, during this period of time there was one time when the Palestinian leaders decided to stop the negotiations for a few days after the Israeli attack in the Gaza Strip, but I believe that this was a mistake that didn’t help the process itself, because the day you say that stop the process because the other side did something is the day you have difficulties reentering the room when you decide it is the right thing to do; and, as I said before, it gives Hamas the keys to the negotiations. And I hope that this was the last time that happens.
Now, it’s not easy to negotiate under terror, but since we decided to act according to this dual strategy, to negotiate with the moderates and work against the extremists, it is no less important to understand that both go simultaneously and that there cannot be one without the other. It is not enough, I believe, to fight terrorism without giving hope to the people that there is some hope in the future, that there is a political horizon, that the Palestinian state is feasible. This is something that we need to give our peoples, meaning the people in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority.
But just talking with the moderates is not enough because we need to change the situation on the ground, because there are certain things we cannot afford, that we – the world – cannot afford. The world cannot afford another terrorist state. We have enough of them in the region. The world cannot afford an extreme Islamic state. The world cannot afford a failed state that cannot control terrorism which spreads to other territories. So during this period of time in which we are negotiating, we need to change the reality on the ground and we need, at the end of the negotiations, to find on the other side an effective government that can control terror which originates in its territory. And this needs to be done during the period in which we are negotiating. Because just as I believe that the creation of a Palestinian state and a Palestinian economy is also in the Israeli interest, I do believe that Israel’s security is not only an Israeli interest but also a Palestinian interest as well, because the path toward a Palestinian state goes through the renunciation of violence and terrorism.
I cannot, of course, negotiate or present all the parameters for the final status agreement here right now, but I would like to share with you the parameters that I feel represent the vision of two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security. The first pillar to any agreement is the translation of two states for two peoples. The basic idea is that just as Israel was created as a homeland for the Jewish people, and I believe that it is based on democratic values as well, but most importantly it provided refuge to Jews who came from Europe to Israel, to Jews who had to leave Arab states and came to live in Israel. They became Israeli citizens the moment they landed in its seaport or airport. Just as the raison d’être of the State of Israel is to be a homeland for the Jewish people, so with the Palestinians whose desire and aspiration is to create a state of their own. So, clearly, the creation of a Palestinian state is the answer to the national aspirations of the Palestinians.
It looks obvious but it’s not that obvious, and it needs to be said. The idea is that the creation of the Palestinian state gives the answer to the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinians wherever they are – those who live in the territories and those who live in refugee camps – in a way, as political cards – and I believe that the creation of a state is the answer.
The other basic pillar to any agreement is, of course, living side by side in peace and security. Now, peace and security are not just a dream, not just a vague idea. Security means certain parameters that we need to adopt in any agreement. The fact is that Israel left the Gaza Strip – in a way, we got terror in return even though we left the Gaza Strip to create a hope for peace. Now, since we know better, we need to address what happens when we just throw the keys to the other side of the border and terror comes. So we need certain parameters. The future Palestinian state should be demilitarized. We need to address the issue of the border crossings. We need to address certain issues because we cannot afford, as I said before, another terrorist state. And I believe that this represents not only the interests of Israel but the interests of the Palestinians as well.
Now, before I finish this speech, I would like to say a few words that I feel are important because I know that there is a huge gap between the image of Israel and what Israel really is. I know that when it comes to the image of the conflict, sometimes Israel is seen only through lenses showing the conflict in the most distorted way. I know that when people watch television and see pictures of the conflict, when they see an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian child, usually they feel empathy for the weaker ones.
I would like to make something clear that I believe is important in terms of the international community’s values. Because when we are talking about extremism or terrorism, there is no just cause for terror. Terror is terror is terror. And when these terrorists are looking for children to kill, they go to high schools, to yeshivas, to buses, to restaurants, in order to kill civilians. This is something that cannot be excused or understood one way or another. And when Israeli soldiers need to address this kind of terrorism, believe me, we try to attack only the terrorists but, unfortunately, they live among civilians, and during these attacks sometimes people get hurt. Even though we try to avoid any kind of civilian casualties, it happens. The loss of a child is a terrible tragedy, whether a Palestinian child or an Israeli child. It’s a terrible loss for a family. But I would like the international community to make this distinction because no moral equation can be made between a terrorist who is looking for a child to kill and a soldier who tries to defend his own people, and unfortunately, by mistake, accidents can happen.
I believe that this complies with the values of the international community and any kind of legal system based on the same values; there is no moral equation between somebody who murders and somebody who kills by mistake. I also wanted to share with you, as a decision maker, that these are the kinds of decisions that we need to make on a daily basis. We need to defend our citizens, on the one hand. We don’t want to punish the Palestinian people, on the other. But at the end of the day we need to make a decision, and our first responsibility is to the lives of our citizens.
Now, I was asked before we entered this room whether I’m optimistic or not, and I said – usually I say that those who live in the Middle East should be realistic and not optimistic – but I am optimistic enough to give my time, energy, and hopes to this process. I believe that there is hope, I believe that there is an opportunity, but I do believe that only determination on both sides, only an understanding that we are now talking about an historical reconciliation that needs decision, that neither of the two peoples can fulfill their entire national dream, and only an understanding that we are talking about the future of our children can lead to a peace treaty that can be implemented. And I believe in it. Thank you.
Q: Thank you very much for a very energizing discussion. You’ve given us a lot to think about and a little bit of hope, or maybe more hope than a lot of us walked in with, so I thank you very much and for everything you’re doing to bring peace. My question concerns the new settlements that Israel is now allowing to be built, and I realize that these settlements had been granted permits earlier. I realize that there is probably a domestic concern here of Shas leaving the coalition. But I also realize, as you’ve explained, that Israel is in very important negotiations with the Palestinians. And I think that just as there are threats to the coalition, but I’m also seeing the building of settlements as a threat to these very important peace negotiations you’re in and to saving the Jewish character of the State of Israel. We’re really at a turning point now, so can you explain why Israel is allowing the settlements to be built at this time?
FM LIVNI: Okay, I want to be clear on this: it’s not Israeli government policy to expand settlements nowadays. As you said, in the past were some tenders and some of the licenses are now in the private sector’s hands. We decided to stop settlement activities but during the next few months I think that we may see, one way or another – not new settlements, by the way, never, because this needs government approval – but maybe we will see some settlement activity that is not dramatic. I don’t think it helps, but I want to remind everybody that when Israel decided to leave the Gaza Strip we dismantled settlements. So, clearly, I believe that since we are going, I hope, to reach a peace treaty anyway, and one side is going to be Israel and the other is going to be Palestine and we’ll need to dismantle more settlements, I think that it doesn’t help. Yet it doesn’t make it impossible for the future.
Q: You have mentioned your commitment to democratic values and to equality, and I want to question these values by mentioning two very brief examples from your record in the Israeli Knesset. On January 23rd, 2002, there was an Arab MK who presented a proposed legislation saying the following, I quote, "Everyone is equal before the law. Equality of opportunity is the right of every citizen of the state. A person shall not be discriminated against on the basis of race, nationality, sex, ethnic group, religion, etc." You were the minister connecting between the government and the Knesset and you were the one urging the members of the Knesset to vote against this bill and, indeed, 42 MKs voted against it and only 16 voted for it. Less than a month later, on February 18th, 2002, Rabbi Chaim Druckman and along with 61 MKs presented a legislative proposal saying that allocation of land is only for a Jewish settlement, and you voted with that bill. In December, 2004, again you said, with Zvi Hendel, something similar allowing the Israel Land Administration to allocate land. So my question is why do you reject the principle of equality for all and equal protection for all and why do you support discrimination of races among and – someone can say – also apartheid when it comes to allocation of land and settlement for one ethnic and national group and not for the other?
FM LIVNI: Israel is a democracy and I’m proud to say that Israeli citizens are equal. "Israeli citizens" means Jews and Palestinians, and Israel, I think, is the only place in which there is also affirmative action when it comes to minorities in order to encourage them also to be part of the civil service. In Israel, everybody is equal when it comes to the law, when it comes to tenders, when it comes to the government’s activities. And I think that this can also be an example to some other states in the region. Thanks.
Q: The latest incursion of Tzahal [IDF] into the Gaza Strip came as a reaction of Kassam attacks onto Israeli territory, yet the Kassam rockets began to be fired seven years ago at a time when Tzahal was occupying the Gaza Strip, and even then it was nearly impossible to stop them from happening. So it does seem that currently Israel foreign policy is based mainly on a reactive process and I was wondering if there was really a grand strategy from Israel and the Israeli army, as opposed to just a constant pull-and-tug. And could you please explain a little more as to what you would think that grand strategy should be?
FM LIVNI: Of course we are reacting. Israel left the Gaza Strip, not in order to come back. We left the Gaza Strip in order to create a vision of peace, to send a message to the Palestinians that we are also ready to dismantle settlements, and I voted to uproot 7,000 people from their homes. And regardless of what you think about whether they should have been there in the first place or not, this was not an easy decision to make. We decided to take our forces out of the Gaza Strip because we wanted to end what was called the occupation in the Gaza Strip. We also left greenhouses there in the Gaza Strip and we sent a message, as we saw it – a message of peace. And then the next day we got Hamas controlling Gaza and we got terror in return. So this is reactive. The idea of war is not part of our vision but, yes, we need to protect our citizens and this is the reason that when Israel is under attack we need to react.
Now, talking about the grand strategy, there are different possibilities. The idea now is to negotiate with the more pragmatic leaders in order to create hope and to change reality also among the Palestinians in the future. Clearly, since the Palestinian state includes, according to the Palestinians’ needs, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as well, there is a need to change the situation in the Gaza Strip as well. There are two different possibilities: one is that at the end of the process the Palestinians decide that terror doesn’t serve them and that their aspiration for the creation of a state comes with the more pragmatic leaders, and maybe this can change the situation in Gaza – maybe. It’s going to take time but during this time we need to give an answer to terror attacks from the Gaza Strip militarily, one way or the other, and we will continue to do so. We have no other alternative.
Q: I was wondering about some of the conditions, or preconditions, that the Israeli government puts on the Palestinians and Hamas, and why it itself doesn’t follow those same conditions, and there’s three mainly: one is respecting previous agreements, but Ariel Sharon, as you know, declared the Oslo Accords null and void and the IDF constantly violates areas under the sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority. The second condition: recognize the State of Israel and its territory, but does the Israeli state, and do you, recognize Palestine in 22% of the land with East Jerusalem as its capital? And the third condition: preaching and practicing nonviolence, but the IDF obviously, as shown by the Gaza carnage just a couple weeks earlier and by the statement by one of your ministers, I believe, warning of a Shoah, or a Holocaust, against the citizens in Gaza, and Ehud Barak saying that the Gaza citizens should suffer for supporting Hamas. Why does Israel not follow the same three conditions that it places on Hamas and the Palestinians?
FM LIVNI: I said before that I cannot accept any kind of moral equation between terrorists who are looking for children to kill and soldiers who are looking for terrorists in order to stop them from killing others, regardless of the question of whether the children that the terrorists kill are Israelis or others. I believe that this is not only an Israeli idea. I believe that this reflects the values of the international community as well, and I hope that this also reflects your values.
Secondly, the State of Israel was established according to the United Nations resolution which was accepted and legitimized by the international community but never legitimized by some of my colleagues in the Arab world. We expect the Palestinians to accept the right of Israel to exist and then we negotiate with those who accept the right of Israel to exist in order to create a Palestinian state within borders that will be accepted by the Palestinians as part of the negotiations.
About former agreements, we are working according to former agreements. Believe me, the situation in which Gaza is getting electricity, water, etc., all these things from Israel, even though it’s a burden on Israel, even though, believe me, it is tempting for us to stop and to say that these agreements are void, we are not doing so because we respect former agreements.
So, please, if you want to tease me, this is fine, but if you really want to get some answers, please, legitimizing Hamas is not only against Israeli interests, it’s against the interests of the Palestinian people whom they use as shields while they fight Israel. It’s against the interests of the pragmatic leaders in Palestinian society. It’s against the interests of those who believe in freedom, in equality, and it’s against the interests of those who believe a state needs to be created to fulfill the real aspirations of the Palestinians.
Q: First, I want to thank you for your courage and commitment to the pursuit of peace. It’s very genuine, I believe, and indeed very impressive, as is the evolution of your thinking, which Dean Elwood mentioned when he introduced you in the first place, giving up the greater dream for a more pragmatic resolution. And if, in fact, you’re able to keep these negotiations secret, I think, like your parents’ marriage, it’ll be a first in Israeli history. My question is this: There are a number of plans out there and we’re all familiar with them. There’s the Geneva initiative. There are the Clinton parameters. There is the Saudi initiative as well. And my question is really two parts: One, do you see the end game – and I know that this is a difficult thing for you to project – as being all that different from what’s outlined in those plans? And secondly, what do you see the United States’ role in all of this and how can the United States be more constructive and more helpful?
FM. LIVNI: Basically I believe in the bilateral track. This is maybe the beginning of the answer to your second question. I believe that these are decisions that both our peoples need to make. When it comes to the idea of two states for two peoples and roughly talking about the borders, you can say that these plans are similar to each other. But certain parameters have significant differences. For example, the Arab peace initiative represents the Arab narrative and I can respect it, but this is not the end game when it comes to the negotiations room, since they are talking about ’67 borders and Jerusalem, the capital, and so on. These are part of the Palestinians’ demands. But, more than that, part of the Arab peace initiative refers to United Nations Resolution 194 and what they call the "right of return" of the refugees to Israel, even though the Arab League initiative says it should be according to an agreement with Israel or something like that.
So, basically, this is something which is completely different from the Clinton parameters, which refer to different places the refugees can go. And this is different from the Geneva Accords. So when it comes to the core issues – well, somebody gave me an example that can be used here. It’s like two magnets with the same poles that at first look like they go together very fast and just when they reach the last moment at the end we have this rejection. The differences between these kinds of plans may be the difference that makes or breaks the deal, and I think that it’s about us exploring whether or not we can bridge the gaps.
About the role of the United States and the international community. I said before that I believe that the right thing to do is to explore this ourselves; this is our own responsibility. I know that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the “sexiest” conflict in the world and everybody wants to be involved. I do believe that the role of the international community and especially the United States of America – and I’m not naïve – is to stand for the right things.
As I said before when I spoke about the parameters for any agreement, I see the understanding of two states for two peoples in terms of the answer, or two different answers in two different states for two different peoples in terms of the national aspirations, and the answer to the refugees. I believe that this represents the idea of two states for two peoples and I expect the United States and the international community to stick to this idea as President Bush made clear in his letter to Israel in 2004. I do believe that the idea of a terrorist state or a failed state is something that the world cannot afford, so I expect the international community to put pressure on when it comes to the need to fight terrorism or to stand by Israel’s security demands, because it’s not only about Israel’s security but about the stability of the region.
When we try to reach an understanding I think that the world should leave it to us, because there is no need to convince us that we need to reach peace. There is no need to push us to do so. It is about our lives. We need to do so. So we need the international community to help us do the right thing and to stand for the right things when it comes to differences between us, but we really don’t need much more than this.
Q: You closed your speech speaking about the image of Israel and I think you’re doing a great disservice to your country when you present the conflict as a religious and not geopolitical for what it is. And also you don’t speak of the occupied relationship you have with the Palestinians. How can you legitimize the existence of your country when you delegitimize and annul a group of people, the Palestinians? But here’s my question: In the blurb here it says, "I believe in the right of the Jewish people to the entire land of Israel." And speaking of parameters, I would like if you could define Israel’s geographical parameters for us.
FM LIVNI: I clearly expressed at the beginning of my speech that when it comes to understanding other conflicts in the region, there is a division and a conflict between moderates and extremists. I said also that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a national conflict, a conflict which I believe is solvable in terms of two states in two different geographical terms. Each state in its own borders gives the answer to the national aspirations of its people. I hope that we will not turn this conflict more into a religious conflict and less a conflict between two nations, two peoples
Now, I said that I believe in the rights of the Jewish people to the entire land, yet I went on to say that I believe that, when talking about the future, it’s not about rights but about the need to divide the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and to give a place for two states to live in the future in peace within this tiny geographical place.
Q: My question is about the Palestinian moderates that you’ve been talking about, and it’s twofold. On the one hand, how do you expect the Palestinian people to accept any agreement you reach with Fatah, after having overwhelmingly rejected them in favor of Hamas in the last election? And from the other side, why should Israelis believe that Fatah is seriously committed to peace? In your opinion, how serious is Abu Mazen about peace, especially in light of his recent comments that seem to validate the use of violence against Israel?
FM LIVNI: I hope, I think, that Abu Mazen also – I don’t know if he denied what he said before but I think that he expressed his beliefs in talks, in negotiations, and not in violence. These are the partners that we have. I cannot choose my partners for peace. We made a strategic decision to work and to try and find a way with those we understand to believe are fighting for the national cause of the Palestinians, who believe in the idea of a two-state solution, those who accepted the Oslo agreement in the past, those who recognize the right of Israel to exist. This was also one of the demands when the new Palestinian government was formed after Hamas took control the Gaza Strip; and they also announced that they accept Israel’s right to exist, accept former agreements, believe in negotiations, and renounce violence and terrorism. But, of course, this is something that needs to be proven on a daily basis. This is not just an idea.
But talking about Hamas and the support within Palestinian society – clearly we are talking with those who I don’t know if they have the support of the Palestinians or will have it in the future. Part of their idea is that if we reach an understanding and a peace treaty, they will have a referendum, or elections, something that can get the support of the Palestinians – support or rejection – to any kind of a peace treaty.
I hope that this is realistic enough. I hope that when there is a need to choose between terror or to live in a state of their own, I hope that the Palestinians will choose to live in a state of their own, to be free and to respect the agreement signed by their leaders with Israel. But I have no assurances that this will be the end of the road, even when we reach a peace treaty. But I am hopeful enough that this will be the case.
Q: I’m an active member of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, a national organization very much in favor of the type of two-state solution that you’re advocating. My question is do you see any special role that American Jews could play that would help the process along? And since my question is so short, I’ll take the liberty of asking another one, which is that there’s been a lot of talk in recent days about Israel possibly invading the Gaza Strip, for reasons that we might well understand. If that were to happen, what effect do you think that that would have on the prospects for peace?
FM LIVNI: To your second question: since Annapolis, we decided – and this was the mutual strategy of Israel, the United States and the Palestinians – we knew that we are going to face a situation in which we need to continue to promote this peace process on the one hand, and on the other to fight terrorism. It was clear that the situation in Gaza is something that we cannot afford. It is not something that we are going to get used to. This is something that we cannot afford in light of our responsibility to our citizens. And it was and is clear now, that Hamas will take all the steps it can in order to stop the negotiations. So we decided at the beginning that we’ll continue to negotiate even though we’ll face terrorism, and the Palestinians decided that they will continue to negotiate in the understanding that Israel will react against terrorism coming from the Gaza Strip and other places.
This was the understanding, and I think that the question of whether this is an invasion or an Israeli reaction or operation in Gaza, and the effect of this operation on the peace process, depends not on Israel but on the reaction of the Palestinians to it. As I said before, I believe that it was a mistake to stop the negotiations when Israel answered the missile rocket attacks on Israel. I believe that when Abu Mazen stopped the negotiations, he gave leverage to Hamas on the peace process. I believe that this was a mistake since it created also some anger. The things that Abu Mazen said against Israel also created demonstrations and anger not only in the Gaza Strip but also in the West Bank, and this later led to more difficulties for him to enter or reenter the negotiations room.
This was the basic understanding in Annapolis, because we cannot live in different worlds – I mean the pragmatic Palestinians. Abu Mazen has a choice. Whether he has responsibility over the entire territories, including the Gaza Strip, and he can stop or be responsible for what’s happening in the Gaza Strip – this is one possibility which is not realistic.
So the other decision was to make a distinction between those who are responsible for the situation in Gaza and the pragmatic leaders. But this means that while talking with the pragmatic leaders we are going to fight terrorism. This was the basic understanding, and I expect Abu Mazen and the other leaders to stick to it, to show determination. I know that it’s not easy when it comes to public opinion. I know the popular thing to do when Israel attacks the Gaza Strip, like I know the popular thing to do when there are terror attacks on Israel in the eyes of Israeli public opinion. But, as I said before, it’s about the determination of the leaders.
And as for your first question, I really don’t know.
Q: It’s become pretty obvious that Egypt has failed to stem the smuggling of weapons across the Egypt-Gaza border. My question is do you regret giving up control of the Philadelphi Corridor? And what are your plans for the future to stem the flow of weapons in the long term?
FM LIVNI: This is a very good question since when we decided to leave the Gaza Strip we made two different decisions: one was what is called the Disengagement Plan, and we decided to leave the Gaza Strip, to dismantle the settlements, and to get our forces out; and in the other decision was to leave the Philadelphi Corridor. In a way we decided to leave the Philadelphi Corridor because, according to international law, we thought that in doing so and giving the Palestinians a direct connection from the Gaza Strip to Egypt, this would really mean the end of Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip and less Israeli responsibility over the situation in the Gaza Strip. Because, believe me, we didn’t and don’t want to control their lives. We don’t want to be responsible for them. We want them to do whatever they want, except terror against Israelis, of course.
But this is now the situation, this is the major problem in the Gaza Strip. I know that we are talking about terror and rockets; this is a problem. But even if things are quiet for a few days or a few weeks or months, on the other side we see the infiltration and smuggling of weapons coming to the Gaza Strip from Iran. We saw in the last few days that the range of the rockets changed and now it also reaches other Israeli population centers. This is something that we cannot afford because Gaza has become not only a place controlled by a terrorist organization, but there is also a kind of small army there.
So we expect the Egyptians to take responsibility, and this is an ongoing dialogue between us and the Egyptians. I would also like to say that the relationship between Israel and Egypt is of a strategic nature to Israel as well. After the last time when the Palestinians destroyed the barrier between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, I think that there is a better understanding in Egypt that the situation in Gaza is not only an Israeli problem but something that threatens them as well. So I hope to see a reduction in the smuggling of weapons to the Gaza Strip from the Egyptian border.
So if I ask myself the question that you asked me before, whether this was a mistake, it really depends on the situation on the ground in the near future. If the Egyptians provide an answer, then no, it was not a mistake. If there is no answer, then maybe it was a mistake and maybe we will need to change it in the future.
Q: I have two questions for you: one regarding Gaza and one regarding Iran. They’re interrelated. In terms of Gaza, you say that Israel has left Gaza, an area which has 1.1 million Palestinian citizens. However, Israel controls the airspace, controls the seaports, controls the access into Gaza from the Israeli side. And many humanitarian organizations, in fact, last week put out a report talking about the deteriorating conditions in Gaza and the access to humanitarian aid in Gaza, and Israel has been pointed out as an important contributing factor to that. How do you believe you can alleviate that? And following to that is why does Israel not allow an international peacekeeping force in the Gaza area? If you believe Gaza is such a threat, why not have an international UN peacekeeping force there to mediate the situation between Israel and Gaza?
FM LIVNI: Okay. Now, just imagine what would happen if Hamas also had a seaport now. I mean, Israel left Gaza to create a situation that the Palestinians understand is the first stage. We thought this was the message that Israel is willing to leave places that were under Israeli occupation before, that Israel is willing to work with the Palestinians in order to create a Palestinian state which includes Gaza. But all these, what you refer to in terms of airspace and seaports and airports, are part of the negotiations between the Palestinians and us. So, by leaving the Gaza Strip we didn’t create a state in the Gaza Strip. And more than that, I think that part of the conspiracy theory is that Israel wanted to leave the Gaza Strip in order to create a small Palestinian state only in Gaza, and this was not our intention at all.
So clearly we left the Gaza Strip. We left the Gaza Strip to create hope for peace. We got terror in return. And the idea that in reaction to what we got from Gaza we will now give Gaza airspace and seaports and airports to create a terrorist state on our border – this is something which is not acceptable. But, yes, part of the negotiations between the Palestinians and us is what will happen with all these parameters and issues as part of the final status agreement.
On the humanitarian issue, since some of the crossings to the Gaza Strip are connected to Israel, it is our policy to maintain the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip as far as possible. We are working with all the NGOs and the humanitarian organizations, and even on days of terror attacks in Israel, the crossings are open in order to provide more humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. I don’t think that this is the best situation to live in, but when it comes to basic humanitarian needs, we work according to international demands and international criteria.
About peacekeeping, some European leaders and others come and ask me whether we would like to have some international European peacekeeping forces in the Gaza Strip and maybe later in the West Bank. Usually I say: Okay, are you willing to fight terror, and to go from house to house, and to fight Hamas terrorism in the Gaza Strip? And usually the answer is: Okay, we’ll check and we’ll get back to you. And believe me, they never get back.
Q: My question is what are the conditions that you believe would ripen the ability to reach a final status agreement, in particular taking into account religiously sensitive issues such as sovereignty over the Temple Mount, Al-Haram?
FM LIVNI: This is something that we need to discuss with the Palestinians. In Annapolis we decided that everything is on the table and nothing is excluded, and this is something for us and for the Palestinians to decide. And, yes, there are very sensitive issues for us, for both of us, and we need to address all these issues. And I hope that during the next few months we’ll find the way to do so, even though it is very sensitive for our peoples.
Q: We here at Harvard, the Israeli students and the pro-Israel students, have been facing a lot of difficulties on various anti-Israeli issues. Recently there was a divestment, a petition to divest against Israel. The Israel Lobby, the book came out of partly this school, unfortunately, and coming back from the Lebanon War I remember myself coming back, it wasn’t easy to deal with, all the hasbara, the public relation issues. My question is related to that, and that is – and I saw you’re tired so I’m sorry about that if it’s an exhausting question but what do you think are the weaknesses of the Israeli hasbara, of the Israeli public relations?
FM LIVNI: As always, the most difficult questions come from Israelis. This is part of the frustration of all Israelis, citizens and ministers alike, since we know what we are, we know what our values are and we know that we are fighting this because we have no other alternative. We know that we don’t want to control the Palestinians’ lives. We know that we want to live in peace with our neighbors. We know that we have no other alternative but to defend our citizens. We know that an Israeli soldier would never target a civilian, but these kinds of accidents can happen during war. We know that we have these dilemmas as decision makers on a daily basis, but the world cannot understand it. And this is the Israeli frustration and this is the reason for your question.
I believe that when the State of Israel was established, the legitimacy of Israel was clear, and the international community and the world supported the creation of Israel as a Jewish state. As time passed, and now we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of Israel, the image of Israel changed. And it’s not enough to explain a decision that we are making today or next week. Unfortunately, the word "Israel" changed and it’s no longer the dynamic new state, a democratic state in the Middle East. In some places, Israel is a camel or a soldier or something which is not Israel. It is part of Israel, but not the only part. In some places, Israel is only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I am doing something right now as part of my role as the Israeli foreign minister which is well-known to those who are familiar with the business sector, which is branding Israel. I would like to change Israel’s image and to give a better understanding of what Israel is, and I believe that when people know what Israel is they will better understand our decisions. And even if we make mistakes and sometimes, believe me, we also make some mistakes, but when you know that it comes from a state which really believes in these values, that really would like to live in peace with its neighbors, even if Israel makes some mistakes, this can be part of a better understanding in the world of what Israel is.
So this is what I am doing in the long run, and now you are part of the hasbara team of Israel. Thank you.