Skip to main content

Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation Hosts former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni

Nov. 19, 2019 | By Lindsay Morgan | IGCC News

IGCC Director Tai Ming Cheung, Tzipi Livni and IGCC  Research Director for International Security Studies Eli Berman
IGCC Director Tai Ming Cheung, Tzipi Livni and IGCC
Research Director for International Security Studies Eli Berman

“Today, everything is changing,” Tzipi Livni told a sold-out crowd at UC San Diego on Nov. 11. “As a citizen of the world, it feels like we’re walking on unsolid ground.”

She should know. She was Israel's foreign minister, deputy prime minister and chief peace negotiator. Time magazine and Newsweek once ranked her one of the world's most influential women.

And after 20 years in politics, Tzipi Livni is as committed as ever to peace and stability in Israel and the Middle East.

In her remarks at the 7th annual Herb York Memorial Lecture, hosted by the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC), Livni reflected on what increased tensions—including war in Syria, religious extremism and the growing confidence and strength of Iran—portend for peace and stability in the region.

Livni joined politics in 1995, after practicing law for nearly a decade, and rose quickly in the ranks, becoming a prominent minister for the Likud and then Kadima parties, and eventually forming her own party, Hatnuah.

Politics and civic engagement may have been in Livni’s blood. Her parents came to Israel in 1925 and were prominent members of Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization. Driven by a deep belief in the rightof Jewish people to so-called Greater Israel (that is, the land on both sides of the Jordan River), Livni’s parents organized, fought and were even imprisoned, before becoming the first couple to marry in the new state.

“I didn’t hear stories growing up about Snow White. It was about my parents, in prison,” she joked.

She insists that what might seem like careful career planning and calculation was actually an organic process: “When I joined politics, I wasn’t thinking about becoming prime minister. Some people have plans, and they love politics like it’s a chess game. But that’s not me. I didn’t come to politics because I loved politics, for me, politics was a platform to solve my country’s problems.”

Tzipi Livni, photo courtesy of Itzik Edri
Tzipi Livni, photo courtesy of Itzik Edri

And the problem closest to her heart was the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “My goal was to end the conflict between Palestinians and Israel. I didn’t feel my voice was being heard, and I wanted to leave something for my children that was better than a bank account,” she said.

A major theme of her speech was that the Middle East is changing. The Obama administration began a lowering of the U.S. profile in the Middle East with a withdrawal from Iraq, which has been continued under the current administration with the current withdrawal from Syria. 

Livni said that she worries about the implications of the Trump administration’s “America First” policy, and Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria, which “sends a very problematic message,” to allies in the region, she says. The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was also problematic, in that it should have been accompanied by an alternative strategy for handling Iran.

During a lively Q&A session, audience members asked Livni whether the Trump administration is helping or harming efforts to achieve peace.

“For Israel, the United States is the leader of the free world and a major part of Israel’s security,” she said. And though Livni believes in the importance of the American role in peace talks, she stressed that peace with the Palestinians is “first of all an Israeli interest, and would lead to peace with other Arab states that understand that Iran is the enemy and not Israel.”

Audience members also asked Livni whether she is concerned by reports that support for Israeli policies among American Jews, of whom there are approximately 5.7 million, is weakening. Recent surveys by the American Jewish Committee show a decline in the share of U.S. Jews who say that "caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew," down from 70% in 2018 to 62% in 2019.

She acknowledged that some now view Israel as a “Goliath” with tanks, against Palestinians who are like “David,” defenseless. “For many years, the relationship with Israel was one that had bipartisan support in the United States, but that’s changing,” said Livni, so that supporters of Israel do not want to be viewed as aligned with a particular political party simply because of their views on Israel.

An Economist/YouGov poll found that only 25% of Democrat voters consider Israel an "ally" of the U.S., compared with 57% of Republicans. And a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 42% of U.S. Jews say Trump "favors the Israelis too much," while just 15% of U.S. evangelicals, who are majority Republican, agreed with that statement.

Livni said it is important to reach out to and educate skeptical young people, but also stressed the “legitimacy of criticizing any Israeli government policies“ as long as there is agreement on three basic principles:  Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish-democratic state, terrorism is unacceptable and Israel has the right to defend itself. Criticizing Israeli policy “doesn’t make you anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. It’s like a family; it’s ok to have a discussion,” said Livni.

Livni said the debate in Israel today is the same as it’s always been: Two states or one? Livni herself supports a two-state solution as the only approach that allows Israel to remain both democratic and majority Jewish.

In February, Livni announced her retirement from politics. I ask her what it’s like to decompress—if she is in fact decompressing?

“Decompressing is the right thing to call it,” she said. “After 20 years in politics, it was the right moment and the right reason to quit.” 

How do you feel about not achieving your ultimate goal: peace between Palestine and Israel?

“When I joined politics, my goal was to end the conflict between Palestine and Israel,” she said. “That goal wasn’t achieved but the position allowed me to do my utmost to try to make a difference. And ultimately, I think we each have to be responsive to that inner compass. I still believe it was the right decision to try, even if we did not succeed.”

And what’s next? 

“I don’t know,” she said with a big and almost mischievous smile. “And it feels great.” 

About the Herb York Memorial Lecture

The Herb York Memorial Lecture is hosted by the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) each year to honor Dr. Herbert F. York, UC San Diego’s founding chancellor, and the myriad contributions he made to the fields of international security and arms control. Past speakers have included Admiral Scott Swift, former Pacific Fleet Commander (2019); John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (2016); Irwin Jacobs, Qualcomm founder and CEO emeritus (2014); Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (2013); Penrose (“Parney”) Albright, director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (2012); and Zachary Lemnios, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (2011).

Dr. York (1921-2009), a distinguished nuclear physicist, was the founding director of IGCC, the first chief scientist of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, later DARPA) and first director of Defense Research and Engineering under President Eisenhower. He was the founding chancellor of UC San Diego and the first director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (1952–1958).

York advised five presidents on science and technology issues, and served on President’s Science Advisory Committee and Army and Air Force science advisory boards. In 2000, President Clinton presented York with the Enrico Fermi Award for his efforts and contributions in nuclear deterrence and arms control agreements. The Fermi Award is the government’s oldest science and technology award honoring lifetime achievement.

Dr. York’s daughter, Rachel York, gave introductory remarks about her father’s career and legacy, and said: “IGCC is living out his legacy and continues to show us that rigorous analysis and action on security matter.” Her presentation can be viewed here.

The Herb York Memorial Fund honors the memory of Dr. York, and endows an annual fellowship to a UC student doing graduate work in an area related to IGCC's research agenda and mission.