Israel’s latest crisis from an insider’s perspective: the role of the US, the state of Israel’s internal politics, and is there a path to diplomacy.
In a world where the Middle East often feels like an unsolvable maze of moral, political, and military quandaries, recent events have sharpened the focus into a stark narrative of good versus evil.
As tensions escalate and opinions solidify, the need for voices invested in genuine solutions becomes paramount. One such voice is Nadav Tamir, a seasoned adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and the current Executive Director of J Street Israel.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Tamir offers an insider’s perspective that cuts through the noise, as he dissects the implications for Israel’s already-divided internal politics, and the role the US could play in this volatile geopolitical landscape.
He speculates on whether diplomacy is a viable path forward — or just a pipe dream.
With a perspective shaped by personal experience and historical context, Tamir draws parallels to the transformative 1973 Yom Kippur War, suggesting that today’s crisis could actually serve as a catalyst for meaningful change. But, he asks, what form could such change take? And is the prospect of peace more than just a mirage in a region long dominated by only military solutions?
Tamir’s insights offer a nuanced understanding often absent from mainstream discourse, making this episode an essential listen for anyone seeking to grasp the complexities of the current crisis.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the special edition of the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Even for those of us in the business of words, they fall short when grappling with the magnitude of events in Israel this past Saturday. What has always been a labyrinth of political, moral, and military complexities in Israel and among its Middle East neighbors is suddenly crystallized into the stark narrative of good versus evil. You have heard me say here before on this program that sometimes the solution to an unsolvable problem is to create a bigger one, a reset for better or worse. The recent Hamas attack on innocent civilians in Israel may very well be that bigger problem, but will it lead to a reset or simply a larger war?
Certainly, it is a catalyst that will redefine Israel and the Middle East and the world for years to come. It brings to mind Richard Nixon’s prescient warning back in 1974, liking the Middle East to the Balkans before the onset of World War I, a powder keg of geopolitical interests in local rivalries. A tinderbox awaiting to spark to set off an inferno that could engulf us all. As we watch Israel’s next justifiable moves, as we scrutinize the global lens through which these events are viewed, and as we await the actions of key players like the United States, Iran, and Russia, we’re left to wonder, are we on the cusp of a world-altering explosion, or is there a glimmer of hope for something better?
One thing is crystal clear, the physical and geopolitical landscape of Israel, Gaza, and the Middle East has been irrevocably altered. To help us understand these turbulent waters, I’m joined today by Nadav Tamir, an advisor to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Tamir has served in the Israeli embassy in Washington and is Council General in the Northeastern US. He’s currently the executive director of J Street Israel and advises the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. Nadav Tamir joins us via cell phone from Israel today, and it is my pleasure to welcome him here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Nadav, thank you so much for joining us.
Nadav Tamir: Thank you, Jeff. Hard time, but I think that it’s important to talk about it.
Jeff: Before we talk about the broader framework, talk a little bit about your personal experience. Where were you as this unfolded on Saturday?
Nadav: I was actually in Boston. I was visiting my daughter and I realized quickly that I cannot stay there when the country is at war so I was able to get a flight and come back home. In terms of the personal connection, I have relatives and friends in the two Kibbutzim that were in the Gaza envelope that were hit very hard, and friends and family get killed, and some of them are in the hands of Hamas. I have my son who’s an officer in a commander unit who’s in reserves and also my son-in-law.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about how the internal politics of Israel is adapting to this. You and I have talked before, certainly much has been written about some of the divisions that existed inside the country, the political divisions. How has that shifted today?
Nadav: First of all, everybody is now united in the need to support the victims and to protect the country. So all the demonstrators that were called anarchists by the government, they’re all serving. And many of the network[s] that were created for the protest movement are actually now used to bring support to the soldiers and to the people in the South.
Jeff: Is there a sense that some of the division that existed prior to October 7th, that some of that division really caused the leadership of the country to take its eye off the ball and led to this in some ways?
Nadav: Probably, yes. But thinking about why and what led to this catastrophe and trauma, the intelligence, the failure, the fact that so many units were in the West Bank rather than protecting the border, all of that will be investigated after the war. Now we have to really focus on how to run things in the immediate future.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about what’s next. Talk about J Street, your position, and how this is playing out inside Israel right now.
Nadav: J Street is a pro-Israel Zionist organization that believes that diplomatic solutions and a democratic regime are better for Israel and represent the majority of American Jews who believe this way. So this is a tough time where we have to, on the one hand, support whatever way we can, the Israelis are suffering, and the legitimacy of Israel to protect itself. And on the other hand, that emotion cannot be the sole way to make decisions.
Jeff: Is it possible, do you think, for rational decisions in the crucible of what’s happening right now?
Nadav: We have to. The only way to improve things is to think rationally with all the empathy, with all the suffering, with all the feeling of revenge. This is not a strategy. Strategy has to be rational. I actually believe that the support that we’re getting from the American people and the American administration, the two speeches by Biden, who touched every Israeli, and the visit of Secretary Blinken here, are helping Israelis to know that we have a great friend and it’s time to think rationally and not just to remain in our grief and in our emotions.
Jeff: Talk about the unity government that has emerged to deal with this.
Nadav: It includes two common generals Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot, two of whom were heads of the IDF and have a lot of experience. And there was a feeling in the country that whatever we think about this government and whatever we think about the political future, now we really want responsible hands on the wheel. So I think that most people are happy. Some people think that this is legitimizing the Netanyahu government, but I think [the] majority of Israelis actually support this move to make sure that our destiny is in more experienced and better hands.
Jeff: Unlike the US where command and control in a military situation essentially rests with the president, the decision-making process in Israel, even in wartime, is a much more collaborative effort that involves the whole government. Explain a little bit how that works.
Nadav: In America, the president is the direct leader of the armed forces. In Israel it’s not- it’s the whole government. It’s not just the Prime Minister. And there is usually a security cabinet that the full government delegates to the decision-making. And this security cabinet now is going to also be composed by people from the opposition because of the severity of the situation.
Jeff: Talk about what’s next. How does this continue to play out within the political framework of Israel right now?
Nadav: Politics is not a priority right now. I’m sure that after the war we’ll have enough time to speak about why this has happened, who is to blame. In my mind, the most important priority is to get the abducted Israelis from Gaza back alive to Israel. I think this is also the reason for Blinken’s visit with the American expert on situations like that because there are many American citizens among the abductees. This has to be the priority. And we can always punish Hamas. We don’t have to do it right now.
The surprise operational opportunity is not there anymore. So I think the priority should be to bring back the abductees. And then as President Biden said time and time again, we have to make sure that our actions are justified as it is according to international law. That is important both morally and also in order to keep this international support that we have now. And then we have to think [about] how to solve this for the long run. And I do believe that there are no military solutions to the Palestinian issue or to [the] Hamas issue, which represent less, but still 30 percent of the Palestinian society. And that has to be by diplomacy and the US leadership in moving forward.
Jeff: Before diplomacy or anything else can happen, Israel has to process the events that have taken place. Talk a little bit about how the nation is processing what took place.
Nadav: First of all, the trauma, the pain is enormous. We never had something like that. Even in the Yom Kippur War, that was a surprise war, and we lost many, many Israelis, all of them were soldiers. This time we’re talking about civilians that are taken out of their homes. This is a huge trauma, and it’s personal for every Israeli. The good side is that Israelis in times of crisis know how to come together, and there are a lot of bottom-up initiatives.
For example, I was this morning, all morning in an organization that is trying to help get the abductees that were taken hostage by Hamas. There’s so many activities of the civil society to bring support, food, both to the people in the south and to the soldiers. It’s really amazing to see how the whole country is now mobilized to help, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, there are many initiatives that they help, and they understand that Hamas is hurting their interests and values as well.
Jeff: What do you think that we’re not understanding clearly enough about the situation as we watch it from here in the US?
Nadav: First of all, I don’t think you can ever understand the personal pain and trauma if you’re not here. Especially a global superpower who sees all the crises all over the world, even though, of course, there is a special relation still, it’s very hard to understand how personal it is and how hard it is for every Israeli.
Jeff: Is there concern that this could lead to a wider war?
Nadav: Absolutely. I think that one of the reasons why the US promoted aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean is a message to Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies not to use this opportunity. And of course, I know that a lot of our military is now in the northern front to make sure that we’re not getting any attack from Lebanon by Hezbollah.
Jeff: And talk about Iran and the sense of their involvement in this. And what is the sentiment about that in Israel right now?
Nadav: Iran supports organizations that are terrorizing the Middle East in Lebanon, in Gaza, in Yemen, in Iraq. That’s not new. I know that American intelligence were checking if there was any clear involvement of Iran, and they did not find anything. But I’m sure that a lot of the financial support came from Iran before the war. It’s important to explain that, unlike Hezbollah, Hamas are Sunnis. So the connection with Iran is not as close as with Hezbollah but I think Iranians want to see the anti-American, anti-Israeli forces in the region more powerful.
Jeff: Do you think that any good can come out of this?
Nadav: Yes, I do believe that any crisis has to be used as an opportunity. I want to remind all of us that the Yom Kippur War, [a] tragedy and a trauma, but in some ways it led to peace with Egypt. Time and time again we realized that even though we have a very strong military, even stronger military forces [like] the Americans were not able to solve Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam by force only. And diplomacy is very, very needed.
Jeff: Do you think that there will be any kind of an appetite for diplomacy after such horrific events?
Nadav: It will take time for Israelis to realize it, but one of the reasons why I work in an American organization is that I do believe that there is a role for the US to help Israelis now understand that with all the pain and with all the anger and with all the expectations for revenge, the only way to really find a long-term solution is by diplomacy.
Jeff: Do you think that the current government accepts that idea?
Nadav: No, absolutely not. And we have to think that this current government will not necessarily be the government after this and we have to think long term. It’s clear that the government that we have right now is not interested in any diplomacy. But it’s also clear that there is a huge liberal awakening in Israel and [the] majority of Israelis do not agree with our government. And this liberal majority has to be helped to bring a better future for Israel, both in terms of our internal democracy, but also in terms of the Palestinian issue, which is another threat to our democracy.
Jeff: And why hasn’t that liberal majority that you talk about been more effective? Certainly, they have taken to the streets and we have seen the protests. Why haven’t they been more effective in terms of elections in Israel?
Nadav: For too many years the liberal majority was not very ideological, was not very energetic. The energy was in the hands of messianic settlers and ultra-Orthodox, and others but that is going to change. We already know that it has changed. And now the same people that knew nothing about anything political are very aware. And this is one of the opportunities that we have to take advantage of when we think about the day after this trauma.
Jeff: And finally, what would you like to see the US do at this point?
Nadav: First of all, what the US already did is amazing. I don’t know any Israeli who was not touched by the support, both [with the] words of President Biden and Secretary Blinken, and the material support that we received from the US. But it’s important for the US to remind all of us that first of all, the priority should be to get the abductees out of Gaza. Secondly, even though we have the right to protect ourselves and punish Hamas, [the] military by itself is not going to solve this and we need a diplomatic solution the day after. The US could lead this just like they led NATO to be together against Russia and helped Ukraine. And just now, we started to do before this tragedy with getting Saudi Arabia involved. The US could make a huge difference and I hope that they will spend more time in this region than before.
Jeff: Is the effort to do a deal with Saudi Arabia dead at this point?
Nadav: No, I think that it could actually be part of the solution for the day after because Saudi Arabia could help a lot in empowering the moderate Palestinians by providing them [with a] political horizon to have a state of their own, by providing the incentives, [and] by marginalizing Hamas. Saudi Arabia could play a role, but they will not do it without smart American diplomacy.
Jeff: Nadav Tamir, I thank you so very much for taking time out to be with us today.
Nadav: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.