US ambassador to Israel 'not a job for the faint-hearted' - Nides to 'Post'

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides talks to the ‘Post’ about his personal connection to Israel, the challenges of the job and his hopes for the US-Israel relationship.

 Ambassador Tom Nides in his office at the US Embassy in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Ambassador Tom Nides in his office at the US Embassy in Jerusalem.

After Joe Biden was elected president of the United States, the competition for the role of his ambassador to Israel was stiff. All kinds of names were floated, including major donors, former members of Congress and a return for former ambassador Dan Shapiro. The job was clearly going to go to someone who really wanted it, someone passionate about the US-Israel relationship, and that person was Thomas Nides.

“If you want to do an ambassadorship, this is the place to do it,” Nides said in an interview at the US Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem. “It’s a real job. It’s not for the faint-hearted. That’s why I wanted to do it. I want to make a difference.”

Nides grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, as the youngest of eight children in a family that was not religious, but was involved in Jewish community life.

“My mother lit candles on Friday night; we went to temple a few times a year; and I had a bar mitzvah,” Nides said. “We were culturally Jewish.”

At age 14, Nides visited Israel on a free trip sponsored by a Reform Movement youth group, volunteered at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, and visited major landmarks, including the Sinai Desert, which was still part of Israel.

 Nides being interviewed by ‘Jerusalem Post’ diplomatic correspondent Lahav Harkov. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Nides being interviewed by ‘Jerusalem Post’ diplomatic correspondent Lahav Harkov. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

As an adult, Nides alternated between positions in government and finance, culminating in roles as deputy secretary of state for management and resources and Morgan Stanley’s managing director and vice chairman. Nides is married to Virginia Moseley, senior vice president of newsgathering at CNN.

When Biden chose Nides as ambassador and the Senate confirmed his appointment, one of the first things he did was visit the kibbutz where he had volunteered. Later that day, he went to the President’s Residence to present his credentials to President Isaac Herzog, and was presented with another reminder of his youth: Herzog invited Nides’s Hebrew school teacher to the ceremony.

“I was panicked that she’d ask me to recite the Hebrew alphabet,” Nides joked.

For Nides, a successful term as ambassador would mean “the continuation of the unbreakable bond between Israel and the US.

“I work for President Biden, who calls himself a Zionist and has said over and over again how important this bilateral relationship is,” he said. “My job is to articulate that in good times and in bad times.... I take it quite seriously.”

Security is a major part of that, Nides noted, highlighting the relationship between the IDF and American defense organizations, as well as US funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system.

“Making people understand that this administration stands ready to help Israel’s security... is my principal job,” he said.

WITH THE ongoing wave of terrorism in Israel, Nides decided to visit all of the families of those killed who would have him.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything as hard as that,” Nides said. He shook his head, lamenting the “senseless loss of life,” as he described the visit to the family of 35-year-old Barak Lufan, an Israeli national kayaking team coach who was killed in the attack on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street, and meeting his wife and mother of his three children.

“I went to Bnei Brak to meet with haredi [ultra-Orthodox] families and went down south to Beersheba,” Nides recounted. “There was a kid there in a medic’s uniform. I introduced myself to him and asked [about] his connection to the family. He said he ran to the scene – because that’s what people do in this country – and he tried to help a victim on the ground. He pulled her mask off and realized it was his aunt. That’s unbelievable.”

Nides visited the family of Druze Border Police Officer Yazan Falah, killed in Hadera in March, and the family of Amir Khoury, the Israeli-Arab police officer killed in pursuit of the terrorist in Bnei Brak.

“When people say it’s Palestinians killing Jews – it’s the whole society that is affected by this, Druze, Muslims and Christians,” Nides said.

The ambassador said he visited the grieving families to say that America is thinking of them.

“This informed how I think about this country, about how small and how important it is, and most importantly, how we can’t let the terrorists win – that’s for damn sure,” he said.

Nides emphasized that the US has “zero tolerance for any support for terrorist activities. That involves “aggressively denouncing people who celebrate or condone violence and anyone who supports payments to the families of those who have been accused of terrorist acts,” as well as showing “appreciation when the Palestinians leadership denounces those acts... as [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas has done in the last couple of weeks.”

 Nides: Making people understand that this administration stands ready to help Israel’s security... is my principal job. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Nides: Making people understand that this administration stands ready to help Israel’s security... is my principal job. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

When confronted with the fact that, despite his statements condemning recent terrorist attacks, Abbas continues to insist on paying the families of terrorists, Nides said: “I don’t think this [administration] can be clearer about this. We condemn the payments.... We are very clear to the Palestinians on this topic, from Secretary [of State] Blinken, to the president, to me, to everyone, about how we feel about these payments.”

Nides courted controversy at an Americans for Peace Now event in March, when he said the PA’s “martyr payments... have caused an enormous amount of problems” in that it gives “haters” an excuse not to support engagement with the PA.

He also said settlement growth “infuriates me,” calling it an example of “stupid things that impede us for a two-state solution.”

The remarks led pundits to accuse Nides of underplaying the problem of “pay for slay,” as the Palestinians’ payments to terrorists have been nicknamed, and portraying settlements as worse.

Nides tried to clear the air, saying that “these are two completely separate things; I’m not in any way equating one with the other.... If anyone somehow interpreted my comments to equate one with the other, that is not the case.

“I was trying to articulate – not well – that we are very focused on things that make the possibility of a two-state solution [less likely],” he said. “One has nothing to do with the other and to equate the two is terrible.”

At the same time, the ambassador said the US position on settlements is consistent with most past administrations: “We do not support settlement growth, full stop.”

As for Blinken repeatedly listing terrorist payments, settlements, Palestinian home demolitions and settler violence – but not terrorism – as obstacles to a two-state solution during his visit to Israel in March, Nides once again said the formulation is not meant to create an equivalence.

“As a new ambassador, I have to understand that words matter and be careful in what I say, but make no mistake, we are serious about keeping the hope of a two-state solution alive, period. We want to make sure the parties try not to do things that make that more impossible to do,” he said.

Nides offered his own example of where he was “sloppy,” which was when he said he would not visit settlements.

“I got a note the next morning from someone who said he was offended... so I picked up the phone and called him,” Nides said. “Now I talk to him multiple times a week. I’m learning that everyone has a different view and I should be more careful with how people interpret my words. The goal was not to insult people who live in settlements.... I can’t change my principles but I need to be careful with my words.”

Asked if he would pay a condolence call to a family of a victim of terror who lives in a settlement, Nides said “absolutely.”

Nides was very supportive of Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s meetings with Abbas and other Israeli ministers’ meetings with Palestinian officials.

“We always love Israelis and Palestinians to talk,” he said. “More conversations are better than less conversations.”

The ambassador praised the government for increasing work permits for Palestinians and keeping the Temple Mount open to Muslims during Ramadan.

The US has also asked Israel to increase the Palestinians’ access to 4G mobile Internet, among other items.

“To the credit of [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett, [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid and Gantz, they want to do those things. And we will never advocate for things that will compromise the security of the State of Israel. We focus on things that can potentially help the Palestinian people as best as we can,” Nides said.

Biden promised to reopen the consulate for the Palestinians, which the Trump administration closed. Israel opposes the move, saying Jerusalem is only the capital of Israel and no other entity.

“We’re still working on it,” Nides said. “We are desirous to open it and [are] working continually to get it done.”

ISRAEL AND the US don’t see eye to eye about how to handle the Iranian nuclear threat, with the current government speaking out against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear deal to which the US hopes to return. At press time, talks had been frozen for weeks, after the parties came close to reaching a deal.

“The US government will not stand by and let the Iranians obtain a nuclear weapon and has been unbelievably clear on that,” Nides said. “The administration also stood by the idea that we’d like to solve this by diplomatic means, which is something we’ve been pursuing.”

The Biden administration has made sure to constantly update Israel on the negotiations in Vienna, Nides said, adding: “It’s not as if the Israelis like what they’re hearing, but they know what’s going on. There are no games, no secrets.

“With or without an agreement we will stand by to assist the protection of the State of Israel. More importantly we are not tying Israel’s hands on any action they believe they need to take,” he stated.

“Israel is very good at protecting itself and no one should question those capabilities,” the ambassador added.

At the same time, Nides emphasized that the US will continue a strong defense partnership with the IDF.

Another item on Nides’s agenda is to promote the success of the Abraham Accords. To that end, he initiated the Abraham Accords Festival and Games earlier this year, which included a soccer match with players from Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, and a meal by chefs from those countries.

Nides emphasized the importance of “getting everyone in the room” to build people-to-people ties.

The next event he hopes to plan will be a video games tournament with players from across the Middle East.

“I am a huge believer in the Abraham Accords. It is of enormous importance and unbelievably successful,” Nides said. “I give the former administration plenty of credit for it, and our job is to grow them deeper and wider.”

Nides expressed hope that more countries will normalize relations with Israel now that they can see it has been beneficial to those that already did so: “It’s a cool club to be a member of.

“I think the idea of the Abraham Accords as a tool for diplomacy, peace and economic prosperity is huge, and every day I am working on projects and activities,” he stated.

NIDES SPOKE to The Jerusalem Post at a time when Israel’s governing coalition had lost its majority and seemed to be very shaky.

The Biden administration, the ambassador said, is “very supportive of this government.”

“As the prime minister says, it’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “As a Jew... it makes me proud that the government represents a whole variety of views, from Right to Left to Arab. We are supportive and have a great working relationship with this government and hope it continues.”

Asked if pressure from the US over settlements could contribute to the government’s downfall, since some of the demands made by MKs from Bennett’s Yamina Party to stay in the coalition are related to the topic, Nides said he’s “not getting involved in what they believe or not.”

“Our position is clear on settlement growth. We have a great working relationship with the prime minister, justice minister, defense minister, foreign minister, interior minister, the head of the Ra’am Party. We like the government; the government is doing a really good job,” he said.

At the same time, Nides said he has “no illusions about how difficult it is to manage a government with 60-60 votes. We have the same thing in the US Senate.”