The fall of Tzipi Livni is a defeat for the two-state solution


In Israel, there is perhaps no politician more associated today with the two-state solution than Tzipi Livni. As the country’s former foreign minister, lead negotiator with the Palestinians and two-time leader of the opposition, Livni has warned Israelis repeatedly of the risks that avoiding a two-state solution has for the country’s security and democracy. For the better part of the past 15 years, she has argued that creating an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel is the only way to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and keep Israel a Jewish and democratic state.   

Livni’s sudden retirement from politics on Monday, announced at a modest news conference, was a belated acknowledgement of that ideology’s defeat. While polls continue to show that approximately half of Israeli Jews still favor a two-state solution, there has been little appetite in recent years for leaders like Livni who pledge to do whatever is necessary to bring it about. She’s certainly not the only Israeli politician calling for two states for two peoples, but she has championed the cause more boldly than others. This persistent single-issue focus has led much of the Israeli public to view her as a politician with no other fresh ideas to offer.

Livni, born to parents who were prominent members of the Irgun, was not exactly a natural candidate for Israel’s most enthusiastic supporter of two states. She was a beneficiary of circumstance who climbed the ladder of the right-wing Likud just as the party was experiencing a rift over the future of the occupied territories, with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arguing against most of his party for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and, eventually, much of the West Bank.

In 2005, after stints in relatively minor ministerial positions in the Likud-led government, Livni joined Sharon in leaving Likud and founding the Kadima party to advance the disengagement agenda. After Sharon suffered a stroke and was replaced by Ehud Olmert in 2006, Livni was appointed foreign minister, where she led Israel’s negotiating team and earned the respect of world leaders. In a revealing exchange in June 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy went as far as to tell Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring her back to the Foreign Ministry, which was then headed by Avigdor Liberman.

Livni’s first opportunity to lead a party into a general election came earlier in 2009, when she propelled Kadima to a first-place finish at the polls. While the outcome was not sufficient to prevent Netanyahu from forming a right-of-center government with his coalition partners, her performance left no doubt that there was still a sizable constituency in Israel that not only believed in the two-state solution, but that it was important to pursue it as soon as possible.

Alas, 2009 would turn out to be the highwater mark for Livni’s political career. Netanyahu’s first term was one of relative quiet in the West Bank, which dampened appetite for risky gambits such as the Gaza disengagement, which preceded the Hamas takeover of the strip. Livni returned to government in 2013 as the head of Hatnua, a small liberal party committed to two states. The involvement of an ambitious John Kerry as U.S. secretary of state raised the hopes of some, but ultimately the political considerations for Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas scuttled the talks in 2014.

Recent years proved no better for Livni and her signature policy issue. In 2015, Hatnua and the Labor Party contested the election together under the banner of Zionist Union, but were handily defeated by Likud on Election Day. Since then, parties opposed to Netanyahu have moved away from the two-state solution as the centerpiece of a diplomatic-security agenda. It is spoken of skeptically, as something that would be nice to have but not quite possible in the near future. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s strongest challenger in the upcoming election, has assembled a party list that includes ideological opponents of two states.

The political viability of the two-state solution is the oxygen for Livni-ism, without which it founders and is left without purpose. By the time her party was unceremoniously removed from the Zionist Union last month by Avi Gabbay, Labor’s current leader, it was clear that Israelis had moved on, at least for now. Polls in the last month consistently showed Livni’s party failing to cross the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. If she had decided to compete in the April elections, it would have most resulted in wasted votes for the center-left bloc.

A political environment in which the two-state solution is considered desirable but not realistic, as it is today in Israel, is not one to which Livni could have adapted. That Israel’s mainstream parties and a majority of the electorate see no reason to act even if they sympathize with the end goal is a testament to the failure of her political project over the last decade.

Abe Silberstein has written on Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations for The New York Times, Haaretz, the Forward and The Jerusalem Post. His commentary was distributed by JTA.