Tamir, a native of Israel, grew up on a Kibbutz in northern Israel and has been part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1993, having served under three prime ministers. He began his public service as a soldier in the Israel Defense Force, from which he retired with the rank of major. Tamir later earned a Master of Public Administration degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Unsurprisingly, most of our discussion centered on the current military operation in Gaza. As of the time of the conversation, Palestinian medical sources were reporting 920 people killed, including 292 children and 75 women. Meanwhile, Israeli officials had reported 13 Israelis killed, including three civilians.
Although Mr. Tamir is a staunch defender of Israel’s actions in Gaza despite the high civilian casualties, he made a comment after our interview which I wish I had captured on tape but nevertheless found illuminating. I asked him what he thought of the tendency in the United States, particularly within the Jewish community, to label anyone who criticizes Israeli policy toward the Palestinians as “anti-Semitic” or “anti-Israel.”
Mr. Tamir agreed with me. “I tell my people in Boston all the time, ‘Stop being so sensitive! We live in a democracy,’” he said. “In Israel, we engage in these kinds of discussions all the time.”
Clearly, Mr. Tamir believes it’s in Israel’s best interest to engage in a healthy dialogue about the facts, especially with its most important ally.
Ed. note: Bread and Puppet is planning a demonstration to protest the bombing of Gaza on Saturday at noon in front of Burlington City Hall.
SEVEN DAYS: Was your visit to Burlington scheduled prior to the current hostilities in Gaza?
NADAV TAMIR: No. Burlington is definitely an important audience for me. But this trip was planned because there was an event here around the Gaza [situation].
SD: What is your primary mission as consul general to New England?
NT: I represent Israel in New England. What that means is to reach out to various communities, to improve relations, whether it’s economical or political relations, media, academic. I’m trying to reach out, meet people and get our message across.
SD: The current conflict in Gaza comes at time of a great change in government leadership, both in Washington and possibly in Jerusalem as well. Israel has elections coming up in several weeks, correct?
NT: February 10.
SD: Do you expect U.S. policy toward Israel will change under the Obama administration?
NT: I think strategically, not. Strategically, the relations between Israel and the U.S. are beyond politics. We see it in public opinion polls, we see it during many administrations from different parties that there are this special relations that are based on shared values and common interests, that are not based on one administration or one party or the other. It seems to me the Obama administration is planning to be more hands on.
SD: Is that a welcome change for Israel?
NT: In general, if the [U.S.] administration will be more influential in the world, which according to the enthusiasm you see around the world is a likely possibility, that is a very good thing for us, because the U.S. is our most important ally. When the U.S. has more influence in the world, that means we have more friends in the world, and the U.S. can help us much more than when you’re isolated. In terms of hands-on, I do think we need active American diplomacy to achieve peaceful coexistence with our neighbors. . . .
SD: Do you see the inauguration of Obama altering the outcome of the current Gaza conflict?
NT: No. I think this current tragedy brings some of those long-term issues into more awareness and more sense of urgency from the international community. But nothing there is new. Those who follow Middle East policy — and I’m sure the Obama people follow it very closely — know that the confrontation we have now with Hamas is the same kind of confrontation we had with Hezbollah. There is a story in the Middle East where extreme ideology, mostly emanating from Iran, is trying to get a hold in many places — in Palestine, in Lebanon, in other places. There are moderate Arab countries who want to be part of the West, of globalization, of modernity, who understand that Israel is there to stay and want to have peaceful relations with Israel eventually. Hamas and Hezbollah, as proxies of Iran, want the exact opposite. So, this is nothing new. And that’s kind of the sad thing for us. The only difference is, for all the eight years that our citizens were under missile attacks from Gaza, it didn’t really penetrate the public awareness around the world. There was no sense of urgency in the international community. When we react, there is much more urgency and awareness. But I hope this sense of urgency and awareness will be translated into some kind of solution that will be much more sustainable and durable for the good of the Israeli citizens and the Palestinian citizens who are being held hostage by their awful regime.
SD: Israel doesn’t officially recognize Hamas as the legitimate leadership of the Palestinian people, correct?
NT: Not only Israel. The European Union, the United States, Japan, Canada and most of the western world does see Hamas as a terrorist organization, and all those countries see Mahmoud Abbas as the representative of the Palestinians.
SD: Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni referred to Hamas taking its civilian population “hostage.” Why, then, would Israel exact such a heavy price on those civilians?
NT: Oh, we’re not targeting civilians in any way.
SD: But certainly, you have to acknowledge that Israel’s actions, whether deliberate or unintentional, are taking an enormous toll on the civilians of Gaza.
NT: Sure. Well, unfortunately in the Middle East, you have to choose between unattractive choices. We didn’t want this. We tried to renew the ceasefire with Hamas, even though we knew it’s a flawed ceasefire, because when you start to fight, it gets ugly. It’s getting ugly for young soldiers put at risk. It’s getting ugly for innocent civilians who are caught in this. But we’re dealing with an organization that sees civilian casualties on both sides as a measure of success. The other choice is not to react. And what that means is that, if in the past, some towns in the southern part of Israel were under rocket attacks, eventually it will be the entire country. This is not bearable. Nobody can live this way. The first responsibility of a country is to protect its citizens.
SD: The BBC reported yesterday that nearly one-third of the Palestinian casualties, both injured and dead, have been children. When Israel exacts such a heavy toll on civilians, aren’t you just playing into the hands of the extremists? Doesn’t this benefit them by allowing these images to be broadcast all around the world?
NT: Again, it’s a matter of alternatives. The other alternative is that you just destroy the well-being of your own country, you leave your citizens defenseless, which no country in the would do. As for the perception while the fighting goes on, yes, many people hate us, many people think we’re evil and it plays to their hand. But in the long run, it depends how this will end. . . . One of the reasons why Hezbollah, with all its strong rhetoric now. . . doesn’t open up another front is because the Lebanese people say, “You brought us all this destruction. You created those provocations. You’re playing the Iranian interest rather than the Lebanese interest.” So, I think in the long term, what the Palestinians will say to Hamas. “You brought this destruction on us. Look at the moderate Palestinians who had the best Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem since 2000, since the beginning of the Intifada. Look at life there and look at life here. You’re not providing the answer for the Palestinian aspirations.” . . . But in the end, they left us no choice.
SD: But aren’t you setting this up as a dichotomy between doing nothing or this overwhelming show of force?
NT: Oh, no. We’re not supporting either. We left Gaza in order to give peace a chance. We are negotiating with moderate Palestinians in order to achieve a two-state solution, [to living ] side-by-side with peace and security. It’s not that we are trigger happy. We tried to renew the ceasefire, even though it was flawed. On Christmas Day, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, my boss, was in Egypt trying to renew the ceasefire. We didn’t decide to throw that ceasefire away. Hamas made that decision. So the question is, in terms of options, you should ask them. And as for the numbers, I don’t think that’s the moral comparison, how many people got killed.
SD: Why not?
NT: Because the moral question is ,who are you intending to kill? They are trying to kill civilians. The fact that they are not very successful is because we put our civilians in shelters, while they use their civilians as human shields.
SD: But Madame Livni essentially, said that the Palestinians are hostages. In a sense, these are criminals who’ve taken over the Palestinian people.
SD: And yet, I can’t imagine a situation where, if civilians were being held hostage, where the police or the military would go in, guns blazing—
NT: Well, check the numbers. In Afghanistan, when you had to act against the Taliban, there were much, much more civilian casualties than in Gaza. I would say that when the British hit Dresden in Germany, there were much more civilian casualties. When you hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. . . What I’m trying to say is that eventually, you have to react. You have to send a message to those people who accept this brutality of Hamas. They have to revolt. They have to say to Hamas, “We’re not accepting this.”
SD: But you yourself said that Hamas doesn’t respect civilian lives on either side. So what message does it send when it’s the civilians who pay the heaviest price? That message doesn’t get through.
NT: First of all, that message does get through because right now, it’s quite clear that there are international efforts to stop the rockets and stop the smuggling [of arms into Gaza.] We didn’t have that for eight years. So something is getting through. And the fact that Hezbollah is not shooting at our people in the north proves that that message did get through. So unfortunately, the only way for us to get this message across is to react. I wish we didn’t have to. But I don’t think that we’re left with any choice, because eventually, whether you believe in big government or small government, there is one thing that everybody agrees to, and that is that government has a responsibility to protect its citizens, and that’s what we’re doing.
SD: Israel has prevented international journalists from entering Gaza, making it impossible for anyone to independently confirm or refute casualty figures and other allegations of human rights abuses. Why is Israel doing this?
NT: While you are acting in a military operations, you can’t have civilians running between the tanks. Sometimes you can do it in a controlled way, which is what [the U.S.] did in Iraq and other places. But not in Gaza, where it’s so small that you can’t keep the journalists from being in the line of fire.
SD: But isn’t that the case in any war, that the military cannot guarantee the safety of the press?
NT: In some places you can and in some cases you can’t. But in this case, to let civilians run when we’re fighting there, that means eventually we’ll have to deal with killed journalists instead of dealing with Hamas.
SD: How is that any different from dealing with other dead civilians? Unlike the children or other Palestinians who have no choice whether they leave, journalists would choose to be there.
NT: I wish we could avoid other civilians from being there, but we have no control. At least we control from our side who comes in. If they came from Egypt, I guess they could have asked the Egyptians to come in. If we could avoid innocent civilians from being there, we’d do that, but we have no control. They’re already there.
SD: Couldn’t you just take the civilians out?
SD: Why not?
NT: How, operationally?
SD: Isn’t there a way to have a UN safe haven to get women and children out using Israeli tanks and personnel carriers?
NT: That is exactly what we are doing, which I don’t know if any military ever did in the past. Whenever we go to a certain neighborhood where Hamas is operating, we tell the civilians that we’re going to act there, and if they are there, they’d better leave. We’re calling people’s houses, “We know you’re in a residential building where Hamas is operating. We’re going to attack. Leave.” Many times, that means Hamas also leaves, but it’s a risk worth taking to save civilian lives.
SD: According to several published reports, Israel has made it very difficult for humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza.
NT: That is absolutely not true. Israel made many efforts to open passages for humanitarian aid. We work with humanitarian NGOs on the ground. We have an operating crisis room with them, food is coming in through all the passages. There are two problems. One is that Hanas is controlling whatever comes in. And as much as they are very efficient in distributing guns and rockets, they’re not very efficient in distributing food and medicine and they’re taking it to their own people and not the innocent civilians. The other problem is that many people are too afraid to leave their own homes to get to those warehouses where the food is. So, what we did is, every day we stopped the operations for three hours in order to let people leave their houses to get food and medicine. So, we’re doing whatever we can to get food and medicine into the civilian population. But, of course, there are things that are very hard to control during a war and there are mistakes that have been done, as in any war. I don’t know if you know this, but most of our soldiers died because of friendly fire. So unintentional things happen in war, because wars are ugly.
SD: Is it even possible to protect the civilian population in such a small and densely populated area like Gaza?
NT: It isn’t 100 percent possible, but we’re doing the best we can. Again, we didn’t choose to do this. We were forced to do this.
SD: Do most of the weapons Hamas is using come through Egypt?
NT: Most of them are coming through Egypt, but are sent from Iran, and are coming through tunnels.
SD: Why did Israel prevent the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights out of Gaza?
NT: Because unlike many UN agencies who we work very constructively with, the Human Rights Commission [is biased]. . . And it’s not just Israel. The reason why the U.S. is not sitting on the Human Rights Commission is because your government shares our opinion of it. It’s biased. They have a clear political agenda, so we didn’t want to cooperate with that agenda.
SD: And that agenda is?
NT: That agenda is to vilify Israel. They didn’t do anything about Darfur or about Rwanda but they keep on talking about Israel because they have a majority of the Arab countries who use that. . . vehicle as a diatribe against the Israeli people.
SD: Tell me about the economic conditions in Gaza in the last year or two prior to the current hostilities.
NT: Well, I wasn’t there in the last year or two. I was there in the past. Gaza was always a less developed place than the West Bank. It was ruled by the Egyptians until ’67, when we took it. . . It was always a pretty tough place.
SD: And there’s considerable unemployment and poverty?
NT: Poverty is relative. Relative to the West Bank? Yes. Relative to Israel? Of course. Relative to some places in Egypt? No. Gaza is a problematic place. It’s a very populated place. But when we left Gaza, the idea was it could be just like Hong Kong or Singapore, a small place near the sea that we hoped would be a model of Palestinian self-control, that would be able to be implemented in the West Bank as well. We left the civilian infrastructure, greenhouses and stuff like that [in place]. For a while, when Fatah was in control and the passages were under European monitoring, it seemed this could happen. But once Hamas took over by force in a very brutal coup d’etat against the Fatah administration, it started to go downhill.
SD: How do the people of Gaza survive?
NT: At some point, we tried to create industrial parks along the borders where Israeli entrepreneurs could open up industries and investment could come in from different parts of the world and Palestinians could earn. But Hamas went after those industrial parks. They believe that when people are poor, they go to the mosques and join their forces. So, they went after the industrial parks, and the greenhouses. They even shot the passages where the supplies were coming into Gaza. It’s hard to believe what this awful regime has done to the people of Gaza.
SD: When Israeli forces destroy civilians’ homes, schools and public-health facilities, doesn’t it only exacerbate the poverty and desperation that makes it easier for the extremists to enlist new recruits?
NT: In many cases in the Middle East, unlike when you live in Vermont where you have Canada in your north and Maine in your East, we have to choose between some unattractive options. . . . Did you know that the headquarters of Hamas is actually under the biggest hospital in Gaza, a hospital we built? We hope that in the long run, the international community, the moderate Arabs, the moderate Palestinians, will understand that the proxies of Iran — Hamas and Hezbollah — are a threat not only to Israel, but to moderates around the Middle East, a threat to peace. And eventually, they will come to help those moderate Palestinians, which they never did in the past. They always used those Palestinian poor people as a political card against Israel. The day they understand that it’s time to invest in prosperity, in nation-building of the Palestinian people rather than the destruction of Israel, things will change. But in order for that to happen, they have to understand that Israel is going to protect itself. The reason [Egypt’s Anwar] Sadat came to Jerusalem and said, “No more war, no more bloodshed,” was that after trying time after time to beat us by war, he realized he couldn’t. So sometimes, it’s not going to get better before it gets worse. And I think this is what’s happening.
SD: So, are you now seeing Arabs and Palestinians turning on Hamas?
NT: Well, it’s very hard to judge while this bloodshed is happening. But it’s quite clear that there’s no love lost, that the reason the Egyptians are very explicit about who’s to blame for this and very, very tough about not letting Hamas have what they want, which is free passages to pass weapons, is the fact that most of the Arab world is trying to promote the peace process between us and the moderate Palestinians. They understand that the threat in the Middle East is not Israel. It’s Iran and Islamism. They understand that eventually it’s important to solve the Israeli/Palestinian problem and accept Israel’s right to exist because this conflict is being used by those extremists to get public opinion and support. They understand that Israel, in many ways, is on their side of the equation, of those who want a two-state solution, who want peace and reconciliation.
SD: Several humanitarian groups, including Human Rights Watch, have accused the Israel Defense Force of using white phosphorus shells in Gaza, which would violate international rules of war. Is it?
NT: Well, we use munitions according to international law. Phosphorus is being used to illuminate, in order to create smoke screens. It’s not allowed to be used against civilian populations and we’re using it in accordance with international law.
SD: How can it not be used against civilians in such a densely populated area?
NT: There are many open areas in Gaza, even though it’s so densely populated.
SD: So, it’s not being used in civilian areas?
NT: No. I mean, civilians might find themselves in open areas, but we are not targeting civilians. . . or in places where it will intentionally hurt civilians.
SD: How long do you expect this war to go on?
NT: Oh, I wish it were over a long time ago. But it will be over as soon as there is a mechanism in place to have a durable and sustainable ceasefire. We have an Israeli official going to Egypt right now. The Egyptians met with Hamas yesterday, so there are proposal going back and forth. . . . I hope sooner rather than later.
SD: Any idea of a time frame?
NT: It’s very hard to say. I’m not privy to the negotiations. But if you ask me, it’s not rocket science, even though it is about rockets, to stop those 14 kilometers between Egypt and Gaza from re-supplying even larger-range missiles.
SD: How cooperative has the Egyptian government been with Israel to shut down that pipeline?
NT: Well, I think it’s being improved. In the past, I don’t think they realized the danger of spillover. Now they realize it. But still, they have their national honor, and Egypt doesn’t want to see international monitors [in its country]. But when you see how Jordan is controlling a much larger border with the West Bank and nothing goes through, it can be done.
SD: So, it’s a matter of will?
NT: It’s a matter of will and some engineering capabilities, which your administration is willing to provide. So I don’t think it’s that hard to do.
SD: The American press is often described overseas as being more sympathetic to Israel than the foreign press. Have you found this to be the case?
NT: I can’t compare because my professional life has always been about the U.S. I don’t know about Europe. But I feel that in general, in America we have a lot of support because most Americans understand that we have the same values. We’re a peace-loving people but we need to defend ourselves. . . .
SD: You mentioned before our interview that, as consul general, you haven’t had much less interest or demand from Vermont and its officials. Aside from this state’s smaller Jewish population, is there a reason for that?
NT: I’m looking for an answer to that question myself. I don’t know. It’s not about politics always. We have very active [relationship] with Massachusetts in terms of bringing jobs to Massachusetts and Israel. We have a lot of exchanges in life sciences, in renewable energy, in homeland security. We’re doing a lot of arts and culture things, we work in the academic centers. We have very good relations with Rhode Island, and some in Maine and New Hampshire. For some reason, in Vermont we didn’t get a lot of cooperation. But tomorrow I’m going to meet the governor, and I hope that’s a start of some change.