Nadav Tamir, an Israeli diplomat, is the executive director of J Street Israel, a Jewish American organization working to promote American foreign policy which is pro-Israel and pro-peace. He is also a senior advisor for governmental and international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, former personal adviser of Shimon Peres for diplomatic affairs, a member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative, and of the board of the Mitvim think-tank. He served in the Israel Embassy in Washington and as Consul General to New England. In this interview on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he tells us about the existing realities of collaboration between Arabs and Jews, the role of the international community, and extremism and moderate leadership in both Israel and Palestine.
In the past days, we received a desperate appeal for peace from Neve Shalom, a village in Israel where Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews live together, practicing non-violence and peaceful coexistence. Can you tell us more about the existing realities of collaboration between Jews and Arabs?
There are so many projects of collaboration between Jews and Arabs: in my view, this is the optimistic part of this whole disaster. In fact, most people want to live together in peace, although extremists always get much more attention. Today, many of those existing networks are well connected through social media, and there is even a Whatsapp group with all the different initiatives bringing together Arabs and Jews. One of the most interesting is Women Wage Peace, an organization that is led by women, both Arab and Jews, both right-wing and left-wing, both religious and secular, who are united in the demand for a mutually binding non-violent agreement between Israelis and Palestinian, and who also believe that women should be more involved in decision making, a view that I share. But there are so many other different professional and political networks from a variety of backgrounds: doctors, municipalities, NGOs and non-profit organizations, artists: you name it.
Many of those groups have been demonstrating a lot these days, calling for an end to violence. Do you think they can find a voice in politics?
Yes, I think so. One of the reasons why Netanyahu was unable to get a majority in the last rounds of elections was because of civic protests, which have been tremendous in Israel in the last two years. People took part in them for different reasons. For me, it was mostly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; for others, it was his corruption or the erosion of democracy. In general, however, those protests gave voice to widespread frustration among Israelis regarding current politics. This frustration affected the Israeli Right as well. New Hope - the recent center-right party founded by Gideon Sa’ar - was born out of great dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s politics by people who believe that you can be right-wing without being populist, putting yourself before the country and being corrupt.
Where are these critical voices now?
When the Israeli people are under attack, many hold the flag and slide into non-critical support of the Government, taking any criticism of our policies personally. I have this argument even within my family: it’s like people cannot distinguish between the government’s policies and the state of Israel. They put it in those terms: either you are for Hamas, or you are for Israel. But they really miss the point: for me, Hamas is a terrorist organization, but this doesn’t absolve Israel from its responsibility for not creating an actual peace process and making a real effort, even within Israel, to treat the Israeli Arab fairly and equally. I really hope that, now that a ceasefire is agreed, the Israeli people will be more open to thinking about the mistakes and lack of strategy that led us to this situation.
In a recent article, you said that the “Nation-State Law” – which Netanyahu’s government passed in 2018 – sent a clear message to Israeli Arabs that they are second-class citizens. Could you tell us something more about this law? Why does Israel have it, and where does it come from?
First of all, it is crucial to clarify that Israel does not have a written constitution. When Ben Gurion declared the independence of Israel, he thought that dealing with court issues would be too complicated and would pose an existential threat to Israel. So, he decided to take on the British model, characterized by the absence of a constitution. Yet Britain and Israel differ significantly. Britain has a long-established democratic tradition of precedents ensuring human rights are protected and safeguarded, and this is not the case for Israel. In our country, many see the Declaration of Independence as a Constitution. They believe, for example, in the Declaration’s principle that Israel is a homeland for both Jewish people and of all its’ citizens including those other religions, a country based on freedom, justice, and peace, where complete equality of social and political rights is ensured to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex. But other people do not consider these principles foundational in Israel. This is at the origin of an everlasting conflict between the Left and the Right. Many people on the Right say that our supreme court is too universal, too liberal, and lament of a Jewish character in the laws of the State. For me, these objections are nonsense: as a Jew, I believe that democracy is in itself a Jewish value because Judaism brought to the world the idea that we are all equal. Yet, the Israeli Right eventually passed a law that gives to the Jewish character of the State an overriding statute over the liberal value of democracy, promoting inequality and discrimination. This law, for example, enshrines Hebrew as Israel’s official language, downgrading Arabic — a language widely spoken by Arab Israelis — to a “special status”. There are people on the Centre and the Left who want to add equality to this law so that the Arabs, who are also citizens of Israel, are not treated less fairly than the Jews. To me, this is even more striking because we have been minorities in other countries. Because of what we suffered, we are supposed to be the model of how to treat minorities. In fact, the very idea of having our own State was a way to repair those things that were done to us.
Today, we might argue that Hamas is the real winner of this war, whereby, as you wrote, Hamas filled a vacuum created by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority and is presenting itself as the real defender of the Arabs, in Israel as well as in Palestine.
Yes, absolutely: Hamas will win this war, no matter how many people will be killed, because they showed the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Palestinians in Israel that they are the ones who take care of the Arabs and the Muslims. The other winners in this war will be the Israelis, like Netanyahu and his supporters, who refuse to reach an agreement and a compromise with the Palestinians. Every victory of Hamas is also a victory for them. The moderate Palestinians, on the other hand, will be the most affected. Although they have their own faults, I think that the only way out of this conflict is to empower the moderate Palestinians, who don’t believe in terrorism or violence as the way to achieve Palestinian interest. With its policies, Israel is making them weaker and weaker.
In what ways, in particular, do you think Netanyahu is responsible for having strengthened Hamas?
By refusing to deal with the Palestinian issue diplomatically and by manipulating Jewish fear and traumas. Keeping Gaza and the West Bank separated, allowing money from Qatar to support Hamas, and, at the same time, promoting only military response to their attacks with no strategy: all this keeps Hamas alive not only physically but as a concept. This conflict was the best example of this. We almost reached a coalition of change, where Netanyahu was to be moved out of office, but this violence created so much pressure on members of the change coalition. In Israeli politics, violence always plays to the hands of Netanyahu, who fuels fear and uses the traumas that the Jewish people have suffered across history as leverage. This is why he makes Iran much bigger than what it is; this is why he makes the BDS movement much bigger than what it is; this is why he makes antisemitism much bigger than what it is. For Netanyahu, fear is the only tool to stay in power: but the founders of Israel wanted to inspire us by hope, a principle that Netanyahu keeps neglecting.
How about the US administration? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict hasn’t really been on Biden’s agenda until now. He expressed support to Netanyahu, and Democrats are increasingly divided on this issue. What do you think the US can do?
Biden is a good friend of Israel. Yet, in his years as a vice-president during the Obama mandate, he learned that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a very radioactive issue in American politics. Biden didn’t want to get into this issue too early: he preferred to deal first with things he already knew how to handle. He was hoping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be quiet for some time, with the two countries having political chaos. He needs time to reverse some of the most damaging things that Trump did. Yet, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not something you can neglect, and it eventually knocks on your door. Now, Biden is using the old talking points because he still doesn’t have a policy in this department: he didn’t even appoint an ambassador for Israel yet. But now the conflict became a factor, and there is pressure for him to do something. I really hope that Biden will want to address this issue adequately, appointing someone to take care of it if he doesn’t have the time to do it.
Last year, former US President Trump promoted the so-called Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab states, which he described as the “dawn of a new Middle East”. In fact, those accords reflected Israel’s Arab neighbors' loss of interest in supporting Palestine, favoring Netanyahu’s neglect of the Palestinian issue. In your view, how are these accords acting on the conflict?
Trump and Netanyahu’s initial intention was not to sign the Abraham accords but to promote the annexation of significant parts of the West Bank to Israel. When they learned that the Arabs would never agree to this plan, Trump and Netanyahu decided on plan B to play on the economic interests of the Arabs and put forward the Abraham accords. Yet, I think that the normalization process will help the Palestinians in the long run. This is only possible if Biden manages to include the Palestinians in this process, allowing them to benefit from its advantages. In that case, normalization might turn into a powerful tool to put an end to this conflict. Years ago, Shimon Peres talked about a “new Middle East” because he believed that a regional approach could also benefit the Palestinians. But this will happen if the Palestinians are included rather than just bypassed in the normalization process.
Do you think Biden will reverse those accords, then? And how about Trump’s move of the American embassy to Jerusalem?
I don’t think Biden will reverse the Abraham accords, nor will he reverse the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem. It’s pretty clear that the capital of Israel is Jerusalem: the big mistake was instead ignoring the Palestinian aspiration for their own capital. What Trump should have done was, yes, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, but declaring that he also wanted an embassy in East Jerusalem, in the Palestinian capital. This is something Biden could do.
Some consider Hamas’s actions to be backed by Iran. Others maintain that Hamas is acting autonomously, with internal more than international dynamics in place. What do you think?
Many people like to explain things as part of a big conspiracy. Things are much simpler than this. First of all, Hamas and Iran are very different. Iran, for example, is a Shia country led by Shias who want to export the Iranian Shia revolution to other countries. By contrast, there is no Shia among Palestinians. Of course, there are some common interests: both Iran and Hamas want to fight Israel, both are anti-American and anti-West. There might even be some sporadic events, such as the recent Iranian drone at the border with Jordan, but I believe that the last events were much more local and definitely not orchestrated by Iran, which is now busy with elections and not interested in the Palestinian issue.
One of the most striking aspects of this conflict was the outburst of violence between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, even in areas where coexistence had been pacific for a long time. What consequences will these clashes have in the future?
I think this has to be a wake-up call for Israel on how to treat its Arab minorities. Israel will have to treat its Arab population more seriously and equally, not to let the extremists hijack the situation. But this depends a lot on future Israeli leadership. If Netanyahu and his fascist friends will lead the country, there will be no improvement, and things will only worsen.
Let us talk about leadership. How do you think this conflict will affect the Israeli leadership?
It is very difficult to predict the future: there are many new dynamics in place, and things are much less linear than before. The most likely scenario is that Israel will have 5th elections and the extremist and racist fringe of Israeli politics – will gain a lot of power even from right-wing parties that were more collaborative with the Left. Yet, I also hope that the Left will come out stronger from this crisis: on the center-left, Yahir Lapid gained a lot of wisdom and learned to do politics. I really hope he will be able to create a coalition against Netanyahu and the ultra-orthodox parties.
What about Palestinian leadership?
The change will come, sooner or later. I hope the moderate forces will be able to create a joint leadership: when they are divided, this will play in the hands of Hamas. Moreover, a lot depends on us, on Israel, on the US, on Europe, on the international community. If we help negotiations, if we help to get some kind of horizon of peace, it will strengthen the moderates. If we keep neglecting this conflict, nothing will change. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like riding a bicycle; if you don’t move forward, you fall. It is crucial for the international community to support the most moderate elements of Palestinian politics and to help not even with a solution to everything, but at least with negotiations.
How to recover the prospects for the two-state solutions, who will the agents of change be? What should Israel do? In a recent column, you wrote that “the Israeli government should have a comprehensive policy for the Palestinian issue, centered on strategic diplomacy with the Palestinian leadership dedicated to finding a solution to the conflict that will free us from repetitive futile patterns”. What should this comprehensive policy look like, in more detail?
First of all, we have to realize that there are no military solutions: even the most strong military in the Middle East – our military, which is only getting stronger – will not solve anything. Israeli governments have been using the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] too often but this is not the way out of this conflict. Hamas will not disappear if we bomb them again and again. The only way to defeat Hamas is by starting negotiations with the moderate Palestinians – not just for the sake of negotiations to get some international legitimacy, but a negotiation that is truly trying to get to a two-state solution. The solution is feasible: we need moderate leadership on both sides to implement it. Shimon Peres used to say that, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we have the light, and we need the tunnel. The agreement is pretty clear, and it is written in the 2003 Geneva initiative accords:
- coming back to the pre-1967 borders
- having a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem with special arrangements in the Holy basin where all religions could be respected and some kind of joint sovereignty can be established
- dealing with the Palestinian refugee crisis
- having regional security arrangements that involve other countries that want stability.
The solution is there, written on paper. We just need the political will to reach it. And in Netanyahu’s era, we don’t have this political will. The majority of people support the two-state solution. Once there will be leadership to go there, we will have the support of the public.
What is the role of J-Street in this phase?
J-Street was created because many liberal and progressive Jews in America felt underrepresented by mainstream Jewish organizations. On the one hand, J-Street was born as a home to pro-Israel, pro-peace people. On the other hand, our aim is to have a political impact. We are an advocacy and lobbying organization trying to affect the American policy in the Middle East with values of peace and diplomacy. We are trying to get the Biden administration to be more proactive and, in the Israeli office, we are working to also empower the Israeli peace camp. J-Street is in the middle of the Jewish community and the democratic party. We do not say that Israel is only wrong, as much as we are not saying that Israel is always right. We think that Israel has to learn from its mistakes and that America has to support peace and not violence. We believe that this is where Biden wants to be, but he feels he lacks the political space to do that. We are going to create that political space.
Is there a message you would like to send to our readers?
My message to all the people reading this interview is: move out of the blame game tendency and try to move to a constructive place. We need a joint problem-solving approach, where both Israelis and Palestinians can come together to move forward. For J-Street, this means putting pressure on American politics. For European countries, this means supporting the European Union in embracing and pushing Israel at once. If you just push Israel, we will stick – as we always do, unfortunately – to the narrative of anti-Semitism. If you just embrace Israel, Israel will take you for granted. Doing both it’s the right thing.
Interview by Alessandra Pellegrini De Luca