Tzipi Livni, another moral casualty of the Gaza war

This week she lost the leadership of Kadima, but Livni lost her voice when she supported Operation Cast Lead – and she wasn’t alone.

In the euphoria immediately after Obama’s election night in 2008, and with Israel’s own election four months away, I wrote that “if there’s any Israeli candidate who can catch the fire he lit, it’s Livni.” While granting that she wasn’t a true “peacenik,” meaning she didn’t seem too bothered by the immorality of the occupation, I called her “a woman of integrity, a woman of justice…[and one] who appears sincerely eager to make peace with the Arabs.”

My opinion was based on Livni’s having been the only member of Olmert’s cabinet who argued for a quick end to the 2006 war in Lebanon, who seemed to have very good relations with Mahmoud Abbas during the peace talks, who consistently reiterated the need to end the occupation, and who made an absolutely great impression as an honest, idealistic, intelligent, patriotic, charismatic leader, one who had examined the Greater Israel ideology she’d been been brought up on, and had changed. I was impressed. She was the new hope of the peace camp, the post-Labor successor to Rabin, Peres and Barak. Maybe she would succeed where they hadn’t.

Two months later, I gave up on this hope for good. Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, killing at least 230 people from the air on the first day then leaving more and more corpses and ruin that horrified nearly the whole world. Foreign Minister Livni was the war’s ambassador, arguing its righteousness to her good friend Condi Rice and other Western leaders. A couple of days after the war started, when the French proposed a “humanitarian cease-fire,” Livni got on a plane to Paris where she stated, “There is no humanitarian crisis in the Strip, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce.”

That was it for her career as an alternative to the Likud. If you can support such an onslaught, such an exercise in overkill when Israel was still blockading Gaza and subjugating the West Bank, when for years it had been raining incomparably worse hell on Gaza than Gaza had on Sderot, and when Hamas had publicly offered to stop firing rockets in return for an end to the blockade and a cease-fire in the West Bank – if you can support such an immoral war, you can no longer stand for peace or morality.

And that’s what happened to Livni – she became a hollow shell afterward, an image of liberalism, of change, of a new future, but with nothing inside. She’s had no substantive criticism of Netanyahu, not on settlements, certainly not on security. She supported the deadly raid on the Mavi Marmara, she supported every hush-hush overseas assassination, she supported the anti-Palestine campaign in the UN, she supported every bomb and bullet fired at Gaza or the West Bank, and the few murmurs she once made against an attack on Iran grew fainter and fainter until they ended completely.

The loss of a rallying voice for peace and change was one of the many effects of Operation Cast Lead. It’s an important reason why Netanyahu and the right have had such an easy time of it, why Israel is so dead politically. But it wasn’t just Livni who lost her voice in the Gazan destruction at the turn of 2009; the mainstream of the Israeli peace camp and at least a couple of great Israeli writers, all well to the left of Livni, pretty much lost their voices too, and collectively their silence, or near silence, has been louder and more soul-killing than hers.

The cave-in of the left began the day before the Air Force attacked, when Amos Oz wrote a front-page column in Friday’s Yedioth Aharonoth saying, “The State of israel must defend its citizens… The suffering of the residents living near Gaza cannot continue.” Further down in the column he made sure to add, “The best course for Israel is to reach a complete cease-fire in return for an easing of the siege on Gaza.”

This was the same position taken by Meretz – support at the start of the war, then after a few days, a call for a cease-fire. This was also author/Yediot columnist Meir Shalev’s position. The problem was that it had no integrity – Olmert, the generals, the pundits, everyone had been talking for a long time about the inevitability of ha’mivtza ha’gadol – the “big operation” in Gaza, the sustained ground and air assault that would finally put a stop to Hamas’ rocketing. What the left was calling for – a few days only of bombing and infantry raids – was what Israel had been doing for years, and the rockets had kept coming. This time it would be the big operation – and Oz, Shalev and Meretz knew it, they heard it from Olmert and the generals like everyone else, so when they supported the war but called for a quick ending, they were being disingenuous – pretending not to know what they in fact knew very well, for the sake of appearances.

What was Peace Now’s position on Operation Cast Lead? No comment. Not a protest, not a statement. Yediot Aharonot’s Nahum Barnea, whom I’d considered the Israeli equivalent of Orwell, supported the big operation, and since then he’s either backed Bibi’s little wars on terror or shut up about them.

That’s the way it’s been in the more than three years since Op Cast Lead – as Israel’s right-wing government has been smacking around the Palestinians and various others in the region, not only Livni but the mainstream Israeli peace camp has sat still for it. Likewise with the prospective attack on Iran – there have been a few one-off statements from Oz, Meretz’s new leader Zahava Gal-On and David Grossman (who’d called for a cease-fire early in the Gaza war – I don’t know if he supported the initial assault), but the only signs of a “movement” are from individuals starting things spontaneously, like on Facebook. The only demonstrations have been organized by disarmament activists and Hadash, and they’ve numbered from a couple of dozen participants to 1,000 at most.

I believe things would have been different today, and during the last three years of Netanyahu, if Peace Now, Meretz, Oz, Shalev, Barnea and others I can’t think of hadn’t so badly compromised their public voices in the Gaza war. I’m not saying the left would be in power now – I’m not that dreamy – but, to use a phrase of R.D. Laing’s, there wouldn’t be such a “low coefficient of truth in the air.”

The same goes for Tzipi Livni: It’s not that she would have become prime minister if she’d opposed the Gaza war, but she would have meant something as a politician, she would have stood for something, and if she’d finally been defeated like she was this week, she would have left behind a legacy, an example for others to follow, instead of leaving behind an image without substance, a kind of dignified blur.