US-Israel ties are 'tense' as new envoys Herzog, Nides take up posts

The two new ambassadors will have their hands full with heavy challenges, including the Palestinian Consulate controversy and Iran's nuclear program.

US Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides (C) talks to South Korea's Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan (R), as US Ambassador to South Korea Sung Kim listens on, during their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul February 29, 2012.  (photo credit: REUTERS/LEE JIN-MAN/POOL)
US Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides (C) talks to South Korea's Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan (R), as US Ambassador to South Korea Sung Kim listens on, during their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul February 29, 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS/LEE JIN-MAN/POOL)

WASHINGTON – Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to advance the nomination of Thomas Nides as the next Ambassador to Israel. With a floor vote expected in the next few weeks, Nides’s arrival – once approved – will end a 10-month period without a permanent ambassador in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Ambassador Mike Herzog is scheduled to depart for Washington in the first half of November to take over from Gilad Erdan, who will nevertheless stay on as Israel’s Ambassador to the UN.

The Nides-Herzog exchange comes on the heels of public tension between Washington and Jerusalem in the past week. It started on Friday, when the State Department said it was not been given a heads-up about the Israeli designation of six Palestinian NGOs as terror groups. Israel insisted that such an update was indeed communicated before the announcement. Later, the administration also publicly criticized the Israeli government for approving some 3,000 housing units in the West Bank. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also reportedly called Defense Minister Benny Gantz to protest the decision.

And while the two new ambassadors will have to deal with these issues, their hands will be full with additional challenges, from the Palestinian consulate controversy to discreet talks on Iran and its nuclear program, and, of course, the visa waiver program, a topic that remains a priority for Israel.

“It is clearly a tense moment in the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington, and both ambassadors have a major role [to play] in soothing these tensions,” says Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to Washington and former deputy foreign minister.

 Ambassador Mike Herzog (credit: Dan Kitri) Ambassador Mike Herzog (credit: Dan Kitri)

He said that the role of an ambassador is to manage the expectations between Jerusalem and Washington, so even if both sides do not agree on a particular issue, there is a clear understanding of what would be considered as a mere disagreement and what could cause a diplomatic crisis.

“With better communication, some of these tensions could have been avoided. The role of an ambassador is to have a direct channel of communications to the host country and keep the disagreements in the room,” Ayalon added.

It is highly important to have a permanent ambassador who has the ear of the president, or the prime minister, Ayalon added. “When a certain ambassador in Washington is known for being close to the leader of his country, the White House definitely takes them more seriously, and that’s going to be an advantage for Herzog,” says Ayalon.

The fact that both ambassadors will take up their posts at about the same time will have a direct influence on US-Israel dialogue, Ayalon noted. “There is a false theory that nowadays world leaders can use Zoom or a secure line, and so ambassadors are not all that important. Of course, that’s not true. An effective ambassador is the eyes, the ears and the mouth of the government in Washington.”

He said that the president and the prime minister do not get to speak every day, and therefore, the ambassador is the one who is doing the diplomatic heavy lifting.

“Before the leaders speak on the phone, the ambassador is the one who prepares the Prime Minister. I remember doing ‘mock conversations’ with Ariel Sharon ahead of a phone call with president [George] Bush or Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice.”

Michael Oren, who served as ambassador to Washington and later as deputy foreign minister, said that 90% of foreign relations are based on personal ties. “In terms of the selection of these two men, I think that the two countries have worked out. I really do, I think that’s two great choices,” he said.

Oren said that the two governments are still going to face serious challenges, but the most important principle to restore is the principle of “no daylight.”

“This is a principle we had for many years, but then we lost it,” said Oren. “We’re going to have differences. They’re not going to like our settlement policy. They’re not going to like our Jerusalem policy. We’re not going to like their Jerusalem policy. But to the greatest degree possible, we’re going to try to keep these differences between us, and quiet behind closed doors.”

What that does, Oren said, “it not only just deprives our enemy of a chance to enjoy. It gives diplomatic breathing space; if you are not beating one another publicly, then privately you have far more maneuverability.”

“They’re going to have issues to deal with, like settlements and the consulate in Jerusalem, which are potentially very disruptive. At least part of the Israeli government and the Democratic Party, the administration, are at odds on that issue,” he continued. “But the big issue is Iran. And here is the issue: The United States can coexist with a threshold capacity Iran. Israel cannot.”

He said that he believed that Herzog is the right man for the job right now, “because he’s not a public ambassador, but he’s a behind-the-scenes negotiator, and we have to negotiate several issues that are essential for Israel’s security and future.”

Speaking about Nides, Oren noted that the ambassador’s identity card says, “extraordinary and plenipotentiary,” meaning: formally representing their head of state with full authority.

Michael Koplow, policy director for Israel Policy Forum, said that Nides and Herzog are both going to have to manage the routine discussions between the US and Israel on Iran’s nuclear program in making sure that everyone is coordinated and that there are no surprises on either side, “and will also have to be the day-to-day managers on the clear emerging differences between the Biden administration and Bennett government on Israeli-Palestinian policy.”

“While Iran is more the province of the defense and security establishments, Nides and Herzog will have to bridge the gaps on disagreements over issues like settlement construction and the reopening of the Jerusalem consulate,” he said.

“The consulate, in particular, is something that Nides will have to deal with on day one, from whether or not it is reopened, to how to handle the Palestinian Affairs Unit, to how to engage with the Palestinian Authority should the consulate reopening be delayed or dropped.”

He estimated that Nides and Herzog “will both help to soothe tensions because they each know their host country well, have years of relationships and contacts upon which to draw, and are both diplomatic in their presentation and demeanor.”

“There will also be no doubt that each speaks for his respective boss, and the combination of authority and experience will undoubtedly lead to reduced tensions and greater clarity between the two sides,” Koplow added.