US President Joe Biden’s visit to east Jerusalem, without Israeli accompaniment or an Israeli flag on his car, was not meant to send a political message about the status of Jerusalem, US Ambassador Tom Nides said on Monday.
“The capital of Israel is Jerusalem,” Nides said. “The president said it, I said it, it is the position of the US.”
Biden’s visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem on Friday was “a healthcare event, nothing to do with politics,” the ambassador said. “It had nothing to do with the status of Jerusalem. We could not have been clearer about it. Those who want to make it political, that’s their problem. It was about giving money to these hospitals.”
“Those who want to make it political, that's their problem, it was about giving money to these hospitals.”US Ambassador Tom Nides
Biden’s remarks during the hospital visit were about his first wife and daughter who died in a car accident, and his son who died of cancer, not about Jerusalem or political issues, Nides pointed out.
“It was about helping sick families,” the ambassador said. “We didn’t want to make it political, and we did exactly what we said. We gave $100 million for the Palestinian people who use that hospital. And 20% of those who use it are Israeli.”
The ambassador was unsure why Biden’s armored vehicle had two American flags on it when it carried an Israeli and an American flag during other stops in Jerusalem, suggesting the flags had not been changed after his visit to Bethlehem earlier that day. However, in Bethlehem, the car had a US and a Palestinian flag.
The change in flags and the refusal to have Israelis accompany the president sparked interpretations that Biden was unwilling to view the part of Jerusalem that he was visiting – near the 3,000-year-old Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives – as Israeli.
In addition, Biden in his remarks at the hospital compared the Palestinians to the Irish, who were under British occupation for 400 years, and quoted an Irish poem about hoping for a “tidal wave of justice,” which critics viewed as a political remark.
Looking back on Biden’s two-day visit to Israel last week, Nides assessed it as “a complete home run. The objective was to project the idea that this guy really loves Israel. I think that was quite clear. We wanted to make sure the unbreakable bond between the Biden administration and Israel was loud and clear. We wanted comfort around security issues, around what we’re doing for Israel and our commitment to push back on Iran, and that was quite clear.
“When he says you don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, he really means that. I think it’s pretty hard for anyone to disagree it was a good trip.”
Nides said that the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and he noted the unscripted moments, such as when Biden knelt before two Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem and stayed at the memorial to hold a conversation with them.
“That wasn’t planned,” said Nides. “The idea was going to be to say hello and move on, but that’s Joe Biden!” Like when Biden spent close to an hour talking to American athletes at the Maccabiah Games. “He just loved it.”
Challenges of the trip
Asked about the challenges of the trip, Nides pointed out that Israel had just recently switched prime ministers from Naftali Bennett to Yair Lapid.
“There was a debate if [Biden] should come or not,” Nides admitted. “I said that we’re not coming for any particular government; we are coming for the Israeli people.”
The Jerusalem Declaration that Biden and Lapid signed is mostly declarative, he said, meant to highlight the “unbreakable bond between the US and Israel.”
“It’s the whole package, security commitments, culture exchanges, to just the romantic relationship we have with Israel and its history. It was a reiteration of what this administration has said about Israel, including a lot about the MoU [memorandum of understanding on defense aid], the importance of having the ability for us to have Israel’s back, and the importance of making sure Iran didn’t have a nuclear weapon.”
Israel made numerous gestures toward the Palestinians at the Americans’ behest ahead of Biden’s visit. These included opening the Allenby Crossing to Jordan 24 hours a day, seven days a week; reviving the Joint Economic Council between the Palestinians and Israel; setting up the infrastructure for 4G cellular connections; authorizing Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank; and more.
Nides said he had “worked on this day and night” and was “very happy” with the outcome. He was also pleased that Lapid spoke to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and that Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with Abbas shortly before Biden’s visit.
“We have no doubt how difficult the situation is, but we want to keep the vision of a two-state solution alive,” said Nides. “President Biden is committed to a two-state solution and the security of the State of Israel.”
Asked whether the US demanded that the Palestinians make any gestures toward Israel, Nides spoke of a need to show appreciation for Israel’s gestures.
As for the “pa-for-slay” program in which the Palestinian Authority pays terrorists who attack Israelis, Nides said the US “has not been shy about our demand to end the practice. We are working all the time on these issues. They are important to the US and to Israelis, as they should be. It is morally wrong, and we will continue to work on it.”
The US also announced an additional $201 million for UNRWA, the agency for Palestinian refugees of the 1948 War of Independence and their descendants.
Asked about the many documented cases of anti-Israel incitement and antisemitism in the learning materials used in UNRWA schools and on teachers’ social media accounts, Nides said, “UNRWA is not perfect. They need to continue reforming themselves. I met with the head of UNRWA and we continue to push them.”
At the same time, “they do a lot of good work, and it is very important that they are funded. There is a massive need in the West Bank for refugees’ healthcare and education. We need to look at the totality of what they do.”
Nides said that Saudi Arabia opening its skies to all civilian flights – meaning that Israeli airlines can fly in Saudi airspace – is “one step forward” toward open relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh.
“The president talked publicly about the desire for normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Nides said. “We will take it one step at a time. This is a huge deal. We will continue working with the Saudis and Israelis to try to make gestures and work with both parties to move things forward.”