Biden’s Man in the Embassy – Interview With Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides
By Sara Lehmann
In the conflict zone of the Middle East, diplomacy is often an uphill battle and a diplomat’s job is a formidable one. But it is a role that Ambassador Thomas Nides, America’s diplomat to the Jewish State, seems to relish.
Ambassador Nides was confirmed as the U.S. Ambassador to Israel in November of 2021. He combined a financial background with a civil one, having most recently served as managing director and vice chairman of Morgan Stanley. Under President Obama, from 2010-2013, Ambassador Nides acted as the U.S. State Department’s Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources, a position which earned him the Secretary of State’s Distinguished Service Award.
Ambassador Nides is a proud native of Minnesota, the youngest of eight children, and he received his B.A. degree from the University of Minnesota. He came to the job with a firm commitment to the two-state solution and a promise not to cross over Israel’s green line. Filling a position in which every word is scrutinized, last March, Ambassador Nides memorably told the Americans for Peace Now, an organization opposing anti-BDS legislation, “Your agenda is where my heart is,” and doubled down on his opposition to “settlement growth,” which, he said, “infuriates me.”
On a Zoom interview over Chanukah, we discussed the challenges that the State of Israel currently faces. In candid conversation, the affable ambassador examined and explained the issues as he sees them through the lens of the Biden administration.
What do you think best prepared you for this role as ambassador?
That’s a good question. What prepared me best is that I’m not an ideologue. When you’re not ideological it helps, because I’ll see and talk to just about anyone. I have spent a lot of time with the chareidi community, with the Reform movement, with Bennett and Lapid. I’m a Democrat, obviously, and a Reform Jew from Minnesota, but I want to see everyone. I’m very interested in talking to all different sides, hearing people’s stories and spending time with people. You need that personality trait if you’re going to do a job that is as political and ideological as this.
I took this job to learn and to represent the U.S. and I think that’s prepared me well. We’ll see what happens six months from now, but at least the first 13 months it’s served me quite well, given the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time with all sides of every issue, trying to get smarter about the issues that affect people.
Before you became ambassador, you made some very public statements about Israel, including opposing settlements and stating you would not go across the green line. Do you think you checked your ideology at the door before you came in?
Yes. I mean, listen, my positions on the settlements are quite clear. But I’ve seen leaders of the settlement movement in my office. I’ve told anyone who wants to see me they can come see me. As you’ve probably seen or read, I didn’t back off [from paying a shivah visit across the green line] because of the most recent terrorist attack. I wasn’t making a political statement. That was a decency statement. That was about passion.
I’ve been to 25-26 shivah calls since I’ve been here. I’ve been to almost every single terrorist victim’s family — Druze, chareidi, Reform Jews, across the political ideology. One happened to be in the settlements. I made the decision to go, after thinking about it very hard. It wasn’t a political decision. It was the right thing to do. Again, my position on settlement growth has been quite articulate. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be compassionate. It doesn’t mean I don’t spend time with people who obviously live across the green line and I’ve done that a lot. People come see me. I don’t need to go to their house if they can come to see me. It’s totally appropriate.
Have all these shivah calls changed your perception about the dangers that Israel faces in terms of its security?
Sure. How can they not? You sit in a home of someone — a mother who lost her son or a woman who lost her husband. When two men got killed in Tel Aviv, I went to one house and he was the best friend of the other victim. It’s heartbreaking. How can you not feel the sense of just passion and concern about the safety of Israel and their people? It’s terrible.
I’ve never done this before. Obviously, I’ve been to shivah calls before, but I never made shivah calls to someone I don’t know in a whole new way. I walk in and people are exceptionally gracious to me. They understand I can’t do anything about bringing their husband or wife or child back, but I can show compassion and decency and express grieving on behalf of President Biden and myself. So, does it make a difference? Sure, it makes a difference. Anyone who doesn’t realize that Israel has threats should do what I’ve done and they’ll have a little bit of a different view of the threats that exist here.
Has that shifted your perception about the two-state solution, especially since the Biden administration was recently quoted as being “fully committed to a two-state solution … along the ’67 lines,” which Israel views as the Auschwitz borders? Also, in addition to the fact that Israel was repaid with terrorism whenever it ceded land, recent polls point to support for a two-state solution dropping equally among Israelis and Palestinians to 32%, for different reasons — Israelis because they believe it will endanger Israel and Palestinians because they don’t recognize the existence of a Jewish state. Why is the Biden administration continuing to push for it?
Well, first of all, my position, our position, is very clear. We support a two-state solution. I tend to say I support a vision of the two-state solution because I think I’m under no illusions how difficult that is. And it’s part of what you just stated. We understand how difficult that is to achieve, but we can attempt to try to keep the vision of a two-state solution alive. I wake up every day trying to do that. The way to do that is, number one, support the security of the State of Israel. Nothing should compromise its security.
Secondly, we can also work to help the Palestinian people. The vast majority of the Palestinian people wake up every day and all they want is an education, health care, opportunities for their kids. That’s what the American position has been — to support the Palestinian people to help them achieve that. Our desire is to keep a vision of hope.
I believe in helping people. I am not ideological about this. None of the things I suggest to do is, in any way, to compromise the security of the State of Israel. You can’t have been to all the homes I have been to and ever support anything that potentially can do that. But I fundamentally believe that if we give hope and opportunity to the Palestinian people, that will hopefully over time benefit the State of Israel, limit the amount of terrorist attacks, and keep this place a strong democratic Jewish state. That’s my objective. I’m not delusional about how difficult this is, but I do wake up every day and try to help both Israel and the Palestinian people and keep the vision alive for our children.
The same December poll that showed low Palestinian support for the two-state solution also pointed to 72% support among Palestinians for terror organizations like the Lions’ Den. You might want to help the Palestinian people, but what if they don’t want your help?
Well, again, our position on terror is quite clear. I am disgusted by the Pay to Slay. We’ve said over and over that the practice needs to end. Obviously, no one has been stronger in our views about stopping all the terror groups that exist both in Gaza, Hamas, and the West Bank. We’ve been very supportive of the State of Israel taking the actions they need to protect themselves. That said, I firmly believe, and you might disagree with me, but the vast, vast majority among the average Palestinians doesn’t wake up in the morning wanting to kill someone who happens to be Jewish. They want to live just like you and I do.
Regarding the small percentage of people who exist who do want to harm Israel, we need to do everything we can to make sure they don’t exist and can’t cause harm to the State of Israel. I am very focused on having Israel’s back and protecting Israel’s security. I’m on the phone daily with security agencies in the State of Israel, the IDF, the leadership of this government, and we work to make sure that we have Israel’s back.
You mentioned Pay to Slay. The Trump administration moved away from funding the Palestinians for precisely that reason under the Taylor Force Act. Just yesterday, the America First Legal organization filed a lawsuit against President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken for violating the Taylor Force Act and giving hundreds of millions of [American taxpayer] dollars to the Palestinians without a guarantee that the money is not going to terrorists or their families. How can the Biden administration defend themselves?
Let me correct you on that. Let’s be clear. The Taylor Force Act is the law of the land. The U.S. government cannot be giving money to the PA or anything associated with the PA. Look, I assure you one thing. The U.S. aid money is going to Palestinian people, not the PA, not the political organization, but the people, for education, health care, water, all things humanitarian.
We are fixated on the fact that none of those dollars should be slipping to any of the terrorist organizations. So, I take exception to the question because it would suggest that that’s happening. There is no evidence that we see. It’s against the law. This is not a game. I assure you, we are focused on this. We are not going to go against the rules of the Congress or the stated laws of where these funds should go. We are very clear about this. Pay to Slay needs to stop. The Taylor Force act is the law of the land. Any of the money that goes to those organizations is going directly to the Palestinian people and not going G-d forbid in any way to fund the terrorist organizations.
Then how would you suggest Pay to Slay gets ended?
The Palestinians need to step up and end the program. They need to end the ability for them to be paying for families whose family members commit terror in the State of Israel.
Is there any incentive for that?
Well, the incentive is very simple. First of all, they’re getting no money from the U.S. government, right? There are hundreds of millions of dollars they could be getting if they ended the practice. They could be getting those funds that they desperately need, but they’re not getting those funds.
Number two, the State of Israel itself is holding back about $15-16 million a month (maybe it’s shekel — I don’t know what the number is). There are all sorts of European money. The financial incentives for the Palestinians to end this practice is quite clear, beyond having a horrific practice.
So, you don’t see any basis for this lawsuit?
I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer. There are lots of people who are lawyers who will look into lawsuits. As the American ambassador, I am committed to make sure to follow the letter of the law. I guarantee that the men and women from the U.S. who are representing most of these funds are as focused as I am to make sure we follow the letter of the law. These monies cannot and should not and will not go to terror.
I’ll switch gears now.
(Laughing) Can’t you give me any easier questions, like what my favorite color is or how old my kids are?
I wish there were easier questions! I’m not sure the next one is any easier. Let’s talk about the new Netanyahu government and its relationship with the Biden administration. Democrats have expressed alarm about dealing with members of the new government. Secretary of State Blinken recently said, “We will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities.” And a Politico piece indicated that Biden officials plan to deal exclusively with Netanyahu to bypass other ministers. Which approach do you think the Biden administration will take?
First of all, since I’m the American ambassador, I’m supposedly held responsible for some of this. Number one, we should be applauding the people of the State of Israel; 72% of Israelis voted in the fifth election in two years. That is quite something. It’s a robust democracy here. In the U.S., if we get over 58% every four years, we’re all applauding that.
Secondly, Prime Minister Netanyahu is a skilled politician and a skilled leader. I’ve known him for a long time, because we worked with the Prime Minister as he got to form his government. Number three, President Biden has said in his conversations directly with Netanyahu that they have a strong work relationship, that they’ve known each other for 40 years, and they’ll work on goals with mutual interests. Fourth, we want to work with them on the values that we share, which is obviously a vibrancy of democracy and, most importantly, on the security of the State of Israel, including the continuation and insistence of $3.8 billion dollars, working hard to make sure we don’t let Iran get a nuclear weapon, and all things around the proxies.
I am one of these guys who wants to work with the government trying to get things done because the bilateral relationship between our countries is too important. We will disagree; there’s no question about it. But I disagreed with the Bennett and Lapid government. We disagree with governments. That’s what friends do, but we can do it in a constructive way. We must work together and maintain the unbreakable bond between our two countries.
That bond also runs along bipartisan lines. Can you talk about the deterioration of support for Israel among many Democrats, as reflected by the recent demand by one quarter of Democratic House members and one half of Democratic senators to open an FBI investigation into the death of the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, despite acceptance by the State Department and the Department of Defense of the IDF’s report that the death was an accident?
There are a couple questions there. First question is about bipartisan support. I think it is very strong. It is very alive and well. Joe Biden came here and stood up at Ben Gurion airport and said you do not need to be a Jew to be a Zionist. Joe Biden cares deeply in his kishkes about the State of Israel and the importance of this relationship. He’s the president of the U.S., who also happens to represent the Democratic Party, so I feel very comfortable about the bipartisan nature of this relationship. It will continue as long as Joe Biden is the President.
Number two, the Justice Department and the FBI run a completely separate and independent investigation, nothing to do with the State Department or the White House. I learned of their opening of the investigation just when you all did, in the press, maybe a few hours before. Members of Congress don’t have any role in it. It’s a decision made by the FBI and the Justice Department. We’ll see where it goes. Again, I have nothing to do with it. No one’s discussed it with me. At the end of the day, the relationship is strong.
Is there a history of such investigations with other American allies?
Again, I’m not an expert on that. I know it’s frustrating for people to hear me say this. I didn’t know anything about this. The State Department or the White House didn’t know anything about this. In our democratic system, the FBI and the Justice Department work independently of the political people in those departments. I know that might not be satisfying but that’s the reality.
Going forward, do you see continued robust support for Israel among the Democratic Party, including those on the left?
Yes. Stop worrying. I’ll remind you all — the head of the Democratic Party is Joe Biden. Joe Biden looks in the camera every day and says you do not have to be a Jew to be a Zionist. This is a guy who went to Yad Vashem and met with those two 85-year-old-plus women and looked in their eyes, with tears going down his face, and talked about how he too had a tragedy in his life. This guy cares deeply about it. He is the President of the U.S. And is also the head of the Democratic Party.
And can I remind you about the critical vote on the funding for the Iron Dome, that I think 99.8% of congressmen voted for. But this is not about partisan politics. The relationship with the State of Israel is bipartisan, strong, and vibrant. I have 100% confidence it will continue to be that way.
Do you think this is displayed in other policies, such as the push by the Biden administration to reopen the Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem that the Trump administration closed? In Israel, there is a fear that such a move will indicate a desire for a divided Jerusalem, which Israel completely opposes.
The capital of Israel is Jerusalem. Any decision about Jerusalem will be decided by the parties.
Is the capital an undivided Jerusalem?
It will be decided by the parties. It will be up to the State of Israel and the Palestinians. I hope we come to a point where we have a negotiated two-state decision with the last decision being about Jerusalem. But we are surely nowhere near there. I would hope that we would get to that point, but I’m not holding my breath. We would like to open the consulate. I’ve said that many times.
We have a very robust staff that’s working on Palestinian issues every day. We try to work with the Palestinian people and provide assistance. Regardless if there’s a sign on the door or not, those people work every day and are committed diplomats to try to do the right thing.
If there’s currently sufficient staff, then why is there a push to reopen the Palestinian consulate?
Again, the office exists. There’s not a sign on the wall. If a sign went up on a wall that said this is a different consulate, it’s not like there’s going to be 500 new people around. The people who are there are there. Again, we’d like to reopen the consulate. I said this with Bennet and Lapid. I’ve been very consistent. This is not a Netanyahu conversation.
So, you don’t think there are any optics here in terms of promoting a divided or undivided Jerusalem?
No. I do not believe a sign on the door would make any suggestion one way or the other. Again, this is something that we care deeply about, but it hasn’t been done. In the meantime, we will continue to do the work that needs to be done.
You talk about not being near the point of negotiations. Would you agree that’s because Abbas is not a viable peace partner?
There’s a lot of interest on the Israeli and the Palestinian sides. But we can’t want peace more than the parties want peace. It’s up to them to decide when they want to come to the table. We can help, we can cajole. In the end of day, the Palestinian people, the Palestinian leadership, the Israeli leadership, need to decide if and when they want to have a discussion around a two-state solution. We can’t force anyone. Ultimately, it’s up to the people. We can only try to make life a little better for people, secure the State of Israel, and help the Palestinian people with opportunities, education, and healthcare.
The Abraham Accords evolved because the Palestinian people were not interested in the Trump Peace Plan, even though there were many financial incentives involved, and they proved that Middle East peace does not run through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Is the Biden administration working to expand them and perhaps include Saudi Arabia?
There’s no bigger supporter of the Abraham Accords than me. Every speech that I give, every conversation I have, I talk about the importance of the Abraham Accords. I give the former Trump administration lots of credit. They deserve the credit. I don’t always agree with the former administration, but the Abraham Accords has made Israel a stronger democratic Jewish state, without question. I spend a lot of time with the Emirates, the Bahrainis, the Moroccans. And the Jordanians and Egyptians. It’s very important to keep this region stronger and safer.
The Abraham Accords was a huge success. Would we like to grow them? Without question. I am working every day on that. The State Department is working every day on that. One hundred percent, we would like to have the Saudis in the Abraham Accords. That’s going to take some time. I know Netanyahu has articulated his desire. It makes Israel stronger and safer, and the region safer.
The region did exhibit anti-Israel sentiment during the World Cups at Qatar. However, we’re also seeing a rise in antisemitism in the U.S., a lot of it stemming from the left in the form of anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses, the media, corporations. In addition to conferences about this issue, what can we do to halt it?
I certainly agree with you. It’s the thing I’m worried about the most. What’s going on at college campuses is terrifying. I don’t believe that everyone who criticizes Israel is antisemitic. You can criticize Israel; you can criticize a democracy. But I do believe that it gets very close to the edge, that strong anti-Israel feelings can easily bleed into antisemitism.
We have to do everything we can do to educate young people on college campuses. You can be pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian people. You can support the State of Israel, a vibrant democracy, and say good things about the Palestinian people. You don’t have the be one or the other. But people who espouse anti-Israel feelings, you have to educate them. If saying things about Israel tips into antisemitism, we have to crush it like a bug. It’s an epidemic.
I think we have a real problem on our hands. We have to recognize it’s a problem and recognize what’s happening on campuses and make sure it doesn’t in any way get so out of control. Democrats and Republicans understand this. There is bipartisan push to make sure this doesn’t get carried away.
What more can be done at the political level?
We have to talk about it, educate people. We have to get the Justice Department involved. We need to do a much better job at educating college campuses. There’s a lot of activity on college campuses and we need more investment there. Hillel, Birthright, the UJA all come to see me; everyone has programs. We need to make sure the programs work and stay diligent.
We cannot give up because ultimately that is where it all begins — on college campuses. There are jerks out there like Kanye West who spew nonsense and have huge constituencies. But at the end, we have to make sure that young people are educated early on to understand the importance of keeping a strong, democratic Jewish state.
There’s Kanye West, but there’s also Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and other anti-Israel progressive political figures. Is there pushback?
I am very clear about this. If people want to criticize Israel, that’s their right. But if they tip over into spewing hatred for the Jews and the Jewish people, I don’t care if they’re a Republican, Democrat, a singer, songwriter or even a former President of the U.S. We have to speak up and speak out loudly on this to make sure people understand how important this is. This is not a political statement on my part. I don’t care who you are. If you criticize Israel and tip over into basically spewing antisemitic rhetoric, we need to be very clear about smacking it down.
Earlier, you mentioned Iran. Amid the political unrest there and Iran’s supplying of drones to Russia, is the Biden administration still pursuing the JCPOA?
Obviously, with the current situation going on, there is very little room currently for diplomacy. The President has said that all options are on the table. We will not stand by and let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon.
Let’s talk about the Visa Waiver Program. There’s been push from leftist Democrats in Congress to keep Israel out of the program, insisting on Israeli reciprocity in terms of allowing more Americans into Israel than Israel is comfortable with security-wise and lifting Israeli travel restrictions on Americans in Yehudah and Shomron.
I have spent an enormous amount of time to get Israel into the Visa Waiver Program. Israel is our most important ally in the Middle East and, quite frankly, in the world. Israelis should not be standing in line waiting for months and months to get a visa to come to their very important ally. I fundamentally believe we should get Israel in the program, but there are some things you have to do to get into the program.
First and foremost is the rejection rate of every country that needs to be under a 3% threshold. Meaning, less than 3% [of travelers to Israel] should get rejected when they come to the window. We don’t know yet if Israel will qualify for that this year. I hope they will.
Secondly, Israel needs to pass a bunch of laws in the Knesset. We are working very hard to get that legislation done, but it’s very complicated. Thirdly, if Israel is going to be in the Visa Waiver program, yes, you are 100% right about people who have an American passport. Let’s say you’re an Arab-American citizen living in Michigan and you also happen to have been born in the West Bank — yes, under this process you could get on an airplane, fly to Ben Gurion airport and drive to the West Bank. If you are an American citizen and have a blue [American] passport and are living in the West Bank and want to go back to the U.S., yes, you could go through the same security and screening process as everyone else. Blue is blue. If you have a blue passport, you will be able to travel just like any Israeli who travels to the U.S.
I assure you one thing — I will work with the security folks in Israel and our security folks and we will not compromise the security of Israel, but that’s what we do for every country. Israel is no different than any other country.
But Israel is different in its need for more security.
Let’s be clear — no one is going to get through without going through security. Americans will be treated fairly, but there’s no compromise on security. It is the first and foremost view of what I stand for and work on every day.
Finally, with the rise in antisemitism, Israel is looking more and more like a safe haven for Diaspora Jews, in addition to being the Jewish homeland. Would you encourage aliyah?
Oh, yes. I want this to be the homeland of any Jew, anyone who feels a connection with this place. I’ll end where I began. I come from a Reform Jewish family from Minnesota, the youngest of eight children. I came here for the first time when I was 14 years old. I care deeply as a Zionist about the State of Israel. As someone who lives here in Jerusalem and is with the Jewish people every day, I want everyone to feel they’re welcome here. I want them to visit, live, participate, and see what this magic is all about.
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