On 27 December 2008, three years after it withdrew soldiers and settlements from Gaza, Israel launched its first major offensive against Hamas, Operation Cast Lead. A truce had been in place since June but, after an Israeli raid on a Hamas tunnel, the group resumed firing rockets into Israel. Cast Lead aimed to stop this and arms-smuggling into the Strip.
In January 2009, eight days after Israel started its ground invasion, the then foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, addressed the media. “This isn’t a conflict that will end with a [peace] deal,” she said. “I will not hug and be photographed with [the Hamas leader] Ismail Haniyeh in the White House. I will only speak with whoever is willing to renounce terrorism and recognise the existence of the State of Israel.” It was paramount, Livni said, that Israel stopped Hamas rearming after the war.
Fourteen years later, following the 7 October attacks and amid the country’s sixth operation against Hamas, Livni remains firm in her views: the group must be beaten, but to achieve lasting stability, a genuine attempt at reaching a two-state solution must be made. “My approach to Hamas wasn’t just from a place of [thinking], ‘They are terrorists and so we don’t talk to them,’” Livni told me on a video call from her home in Tel Aviv, “but from a realistic assessment of what they represent: a religious, Islamist, ideological, jihadi group.”
Israel’s stance on Hamas has not always been as hawkish as Livni’s. After Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 2009, the country’s approach softened. (Livni won the most seats as the leader of Kadima, a rival party to Netanyahu’s Likud, but failed to form a coalition.) More than 1,000 prisoners were exchanged for a single captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in 2011; Livni – who has held more government roles than any other Israeli woman in a decades-long career – voted against the deal. Israel also agreed to allow Qatari money transfers to the group.
The Israeli government is now shifting to something closer to Livni’s position. But the strategy is still incomplete: “They are walking on one leg,” she told me, as Netanyahu’s government is mounting a military response without having a coherent political strategy. There is a balance to be struck, said Livni: “I don’t think that only peace talks will bring security and I don’t think that only a military hit will give a long-term solution.”
Israel has declared two aims for its war: to defeat Hamas and to secure the release of the more than 200 Israelis being held hostage, ranging from a nine-month-old baby to elderly people. But the bombardment of Gaza puts their lives in danger, and as the fighting continues the civilian death toll among Palestinians is harder to justify. On 28 October Netanyahu declared a “second stage” in the war, launching a ground incursion.
Does Livni believe Israel’s aims are achievable? “I hope [so], because only one of the things is not enough.” Israel is pushing for the release of the hostages through military pressure, said Livni, but the role of Qatar, which has been negotiating for their release, “is dramatic” and the “world has to push Qatar on this”. But Israel can’t stop at bringing the hostages home, she added. “We live in a tough neighbourhood… there are sharks in the water and they smell blood.”
Israel, and the international community, must consider what would come after a Hamas defeat. “It’s clear that Israel doesn’t want to reoccupy Gaza… [and] it’s clear that Hamas is a problem for us and for the Palestinians who live there, because in the end they also pay the price,” said Livni, offering no definitive answer.
Israel has since 2008 been criticised for its operations against Hamas, for its failure to remove the group from power, and its devastation of the Strip. During Cast Lead, 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including children. Since 7 October this year, entire Palestinian families, even neighbourhoods, have been wiped out. Today, Israel’s rebuttals echo those of the past, too: that the Israel Defense Forces don’t target civilians on purpose; that Israel isn’t trying to cause a humanitarian crisis by cutting supplies of food, water and fuel; and that it is Hamas that is hurting its people, rather than the blockade that Israel and Egypt have upheld against the Strip since 2007. “For years I’ve always said: it’s amazing they have no bread but they still have rockets,” she said.
Livni maintained that the Israeli military operates within international law (though human rights groups dispute this) and defended Israel’s evacuation of Palestinians to southern Gaza, saying this was for their protection. When I asked about reports of bombings in the southern Strip, Livni said that, from what she can see, the operation is targeted on the north. She also affirmed what she believes is the difference between the actions of Hamas on 7 October and of the Israeli army in the Strip: “You can’t compare a murderer, certainly not a sadistic murderer, with someone who killed someone by mistake. There is no democratic state in which the punishment [for these two acts] is the same.”
As a former lawyer as well as a politician, Livni spoke with precision. Not once did she compare Hamas to Islamic State, or reach for Second World War analogies, as some Israeli officials have done. She spoke with pain and disbelief about the 7 October attack, and with the frustration of someone who spent years working on unsuccessful peace talks. Livni, as justice minister, was the lead Israeli negotiator in the last attempt at peace talks in 2013-14, mediated by John Kerry, then the US secretary of state. There has been no progress since.
Tzipi Livni, 65, ended her political career in 2019 as leader of the opposition, heading a joint Knesset list with the Israeli Labor Party (then led by the current president, Isaac Herzog) called the Zionist Union. But she entered politics on the Zionist right, first elected to the Knesset as a member of Likud. When I asked about her journey to the centre left, she showed me a photo facing her desk of the Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who argued, among other things, that military force would be necessary to the establishment of a Jewish state.
“That’s what I got from my parents,” she said (both were members of the right-wing Zionist paramilitary organisation Irgun, which carried out terror attacks). Her values, she insisted, have always been of the liberal right: “Jabotinsky was a liberal, [a] democrat, he believed in full equality for minorities.” But she came to understand the need to compromise on the Greater Israel Jabotinsky believed in, in order to maintain the realistic possibility of a Jewish democratic state.
Today, some Likud members espouse policies such as West Bank annexation and judicial reform, and a divisive cult has formed around Netanyahu. This is partly Livni’s fault, she quipped, as she and other moderate Likud members left the party to pursue Gaza disengagement, forming Kadima under Ariel Sharon. Someone with the true values of the traditional right “cannot live in a situation [where] there is annexation with no equality, it’s against the real values we grew up on”.
Following 7 October – “after these horrors… you can’t think normally” – there is clear public support among Israelis for targeting Hamas, but after the trauma any negotiation with the Palestinian Authority (PA) would be a difficult sell. A weakened PA – which Israeli officials have indicated is their preferred candidate eventually to replace Hamas in governing Gaza – is unlikely to enter negotiations after the devastation in the Strip and without an agreement that includes the West Bank.
“I am trying to think now about what is the right thing to do,” Tzipi Livni said. “Those who say ceasefire – ceasefire, and then what? I can understand that people say ceasefire because they don’t want to see more people dying, but it isn’t a solution.” What is needed is a process, she said, “with very measured steps along the way. In the past I said calculated risks. Right now things are different.”
[See also: Heeding the lessons of history]
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts