US ambassador walks a post-Trump tightrope in Israel

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly identified the location of Bnei Brak.

TEL AVIV – U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said his main mission in the region is to “keep the waters calm.”

Another view is that Nides is tasked with preventing any major waves for President Biden’s relationship with Israel, following the Trump administration’s ripping up of decades-old conventional policies.

The ambassador, dressed casually in a white T-shirt and blue khakis, sat for an interview with The Hill in Tel Aviv. Nides, who is Jewish, wore a red string around his wrist, a marker of the Jewish practice of Kabbalah. He described himself as “not ideological” in terms of who he’ll visit with and see.

“I do a lot of stuff here … I see people, I work all week … because I’m not ideological, I’ll go anywhere. I’ll go to Bnei Brak,” Nides said, referring to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Tel Aviv. “I’ll go to Nazareth,” he added, referring to an Arab-Christian city. “I did an Arab business tech conference yesterday.”

The conversation covered a wide range of issues, from the Israeli government’s reticent stance on the Russia-Ukraine war given Jerusalem’s strategic relationship with Moscow; threats from Iran and its proxies; U.S. relations with the Palestinians; and points of tension between Israel and the Biden administration.

“I got one North Star, keep this a democratic, Jewish state. Anything that falls within that category I’m in, I’m in,” Nides said.

Tom Nides, U.S. ambassador to Israel, in Tel Aviv on September 18, 2022. (Laura Kelly)

Nides arrived in Israel in November 2021, after Biden had already established that he would not seek to dramatically reverse most of former President Trump’s policies.

Biden committed to keeping the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, did not launch a new peace effort with the Palestinians and acknowledged the success of the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords — the normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The president further sought to steady the relationship that had soured between former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama — closely consulting with Israel over the administration’s plans to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran. Biden is also credited with helping to achieve a relatively quick cease-fire during an outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip in May 2021.

Domestic turmoil in both countries during 2021 — multiple elections in Israel that ousted Netanyahu and the crisis surrounding the U.S. pullout of Afghanistan — largely put the U.S. and Israel relationship on auto-pilot.

Decades of tending the field by Israel and the U.S. has created a relatively stable status quo in the region. But the threat landscape against Israel and U.S. interests are both urgent and existential – from conflict with the Palestinians to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“The West Bank gives me an enormous amount of anxiety,” Nides said, referring to what Israeli security officials and regional watchers are warning is a quickly approaching explosion of conflict between Palestinians and Israel.

“I probably spend more time on Palestinian-related issues. I would say 60 percent of my time is spent on Palestinian [issues].”

While Biden withheld launching a new peace process, the president resumed aid to the Palestinians that was cut by Trump and announced in July $100 million to the east Jerusalem Hospital network, which largely treats Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Nides said the point is to help the Palestinian people live a better life. He believes this will in turn strengthen Israel by reducing the threat of violence against Israelis.

“The Palestinians know we’re their closest friend — closest friend with money, right? … And I think they believe we want to help them … They would like, obviously, a roadmap to peace, but, you know, I wake up every day trying to figure out how we can make their life a little better,” he said.

“The Palestinians know we’re their closest friend. … They would like, obviously, a roadmap to peace, but, you know, I wake up every day trying to figure out how we can make their life a little better.”

— Tom Nides, U.S. ambassador to Israel

“You have to be an incrementalist in this business … but that’s what we try to do.”

The West Bank feels like a tinderbox amid deep resentment in the largely lawless cities of Jenin and Nablus with the Palestinian Authority and its 17-year leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is 87. It is further enflamed by increased counterterrorism operations in these territories by Israel.

“First and foremost security of the state of Israel is utmost in our minds, but also, we don’t want innocent people killed,” Nides said. “We don’t want the cycle to get out of control, which we’ve seen over and over again. We’re trying to stop the cycle before it gets out of control.”

Nides’s focus on the Palestinians is the source of the few cracks in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

While the administration has not pushed back on Israel’s demands to keep the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem closed, even though it acted as a de-facto embassy to the Palestinians, Nides said that the 70-member staff operating from that building, but under the title “Office of Palestinian Affairs,” are in essence the consulate.

“We still want to open it. Secretary Blinken has talked to [Israeli Prime Minister Yair] Lapid multiple times. We want to keep pushing them,” he said, adding “it’s totally operating. But you know, symbolism matters, and we want to open it.”

Another point of tension is Israel’s opposition to the Biden administration’s withholding of support for Israel labeling six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations. “They’ve been unhappy with us, that we haven’t come out aggressively in support of the actions they took,” Nides said.

U.S. pushback on Israel to exercise “accountability” in the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist for Al Jazeera, is another sore point.

Abu Akleh was shot and killed in May while covering an Israeli security raid in Jenin. An Israeli investigation concluded that she was likely killed by unintentional gunfire from the Israeli Defense Forces.

Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides helps package food for needy Israeli-Jewish families ahead of the celebration of Rosh Hashana, the New Year, during an event with the organization Leket Israel on September 20, 2022. (Courtesy)

State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel set off a brief firestorm on Sept. 6 when he said that Israel should “closely review its policies and practices on rules of engagement,” triggering intense pushback from Lapid, alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who all said Israel alone dictates its security policies.

Nides said he sticks by Patel’s statements and has reinforced that message in his conversations with Israeli leaders.

“We can’t tell Israel what to do, they are a sovereign country, but to say, ‘you should look at your rules of engagement,’ we stand by that position,” he said, adding that it’s the same standard the U.S. holds.

While the ousting of Netanyahu as prime minister in 2021 allowed for a bit of a refresh in the relationship between Israel and the Democratic Party, the new coalition government includes many figures that had earlier served with Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party.

On Iran, Nides said it is clear Israel opposes the administration’s pursuit to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, but reinforced that the U.S. is not going to prevent Israel from taking unilateral action to address its security threats.

“We’re not here to tell the Israelis what to do and we’ll continue to support Israel and the actions that they believe they need to take,” he said.

Lapid previewed as much during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday.

“We have capabilities and we are not afraid to use them. We will do whatever it takes: Iran will not get a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Lapid, who comes from Israel’s center-left political wing, has received support from Biden and the administration for his endorsement of a two-state solution with the Palestinians and positioning himself as rhetorically tough against Russia, despite the Israeli government rebuking requests to aid Ukraine with military equipment.

“We’ve said that we’ve been — pleased is maybe the wrong word — but we’ve been fine with Israel’s complicated relationship [with Russia],” Nides said.

“Lapid has been pretty strong about this verbally, about the importance of Ukraine and its independence. It’s a little complicated for Israel obviously, but we push them every day.”

Still, Nides said he is visited by the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel every Friday in his office, emphasizing Ukraine’s imperative to bring every country fully on board to its resistance campaign against Russia.

“I mean literally every Friday. He’s a very nice guy, he’s trying really hard, but this is people’s lives. I know I’m sounding like this weeny liberal, but a lot of this other crap,” he said, referring to the geopolitics of the region, “is interesting, but this is people’s lives. This is not like some simple game of chess here, that Putin wants to take more land and reconstitute the USSR – how many people have died?”

Israel is going to elections in November, its fifth vote in four years. Lapid’s turn as premier was only the result of an agreement with Bennett, that he could have a chance to serve when their coalition inevitably fell apart — which it did in July.

Despite the uncertainty of the next elections, Nides said the most important thing in his ability to do his job is that the Israeli government, and other regional governments, understand that Biden is fully behind the “unbreakable bond between Israel in the United States.”

“I couldn’t get anything done if anyone didn’t believe that we supported that unbreakable bond. OK? Everyone gets that.”

–Updated at 8:24 a.m.

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