US ambassador talks Israel policy, Russia-Ukraine, China-Taiwan issues

US Ambassador Thomas (Tom) R. Nides kindly agreed to an interview to explain current US policy on international trouble spots, particularly toward Israel.

 The writer, Walter Bingham, who at 98 is the oldest working journalist in the world, with US Ambassador Tom Nides. (photo credit: WALTER BINGHAM)
The writer, Walter Bingham, who at 98 is the oldest working journalist in the world, with US Ambassador Tom Nides.
(photo credit: WALTER BINGHAM)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Israel’s warm relationship with the United States has been emphasized by every US president since the Jewish state was established on May 14, 1948. It began that same date, when president Harry S Truman made the momentous decision to recognize the State of Israel, much against the strong opposition of the State Department and of course the Arab world. Ever since, the policy of the US has been to cautiously support Israel, which it saw as the only democratic state in the Middle East with moral and ethical values like its own.

In November 1995, the 104th US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act to provide for the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem, and called for Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel, to remain an undivided city.

However, the law allowed the president to invoke a waiver of its application, and reissue the waiver every six months on “national security” grounds. It was repeatedly renewed by presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, and once by Trump. The embassy and residence remained in Tel Aviv.

Then on May 14, 2018, the US Embassy was officially relocated to Jerusalem, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

 Tom Nides, the influential US ambassador to Israel. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Tom Nides, the influential US ambassador to Israel. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The previous two American ambassadors were Jewish, and so is the present incumbent, Thomas (Tom) R. Nides. He kindly agreed to an interview to explain current US policy on international trouble spots, particularly toward Israel.

You were born into a Jewish family and have seven siblings. Where do you fit in, and tell me briefly about your early life.

I am the youngest of my family. We lived in northern Minnesota, where I grew up in a culturally Jewish family. My father was president of the temple and head of the UJA, my mother was the head of the sisterhood and Hadassah. I grew up believing that being Jewish was more than just a religion, it was about giving back to the community and caring deeply about the State of Israel.

As a young man you had quite a career in politics, working in 1983-’84 for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, who lost to Ronald Reagan. Much later you were earmarked to become White House chief of staff, but missed out when Hilary Clinton failed to win the presidency. They must have been great disappointments.

Careers have ups and downs, and I’ve been unbelievably lucky. I also worked for Hilary Clinton when she was secretary of state, and for presidents Obama and Clinton. So I have had a really great career, and nothing better than cap it by being the American ambassador to Israel. To me there is no higher honor.

Now as the American ambassador, I don’t do partisan politics anymore because I am everybody’s friend, both Republicans and Democrats. In this particular job I am bipartisan. But I only care about and see members of Congress who are interested in Israel, and who support Israel’s security and its well-being.

Do you have ambitions for higher office?

I have reached my goal to be behind the scenes and in front of the camera, although it is an unbelievable experience for me personally. It’s hard, but I want to do the best job I can in my position, supporting the United States in our most important ally, that of the State of Israel.

As ambassador, you represent the policies and the interests of the US. In his recent speech at the UN, President Biden said, and I quote: “A negotiated two-state solution remains in our view the best way for Israel’s security and prosperity for the future, and give the Palestinians the state to which they are entitled.” You also subscribe to that. On what historic facts is this entitlement based?

When President Biden was here in September, the first thing he said when he stepped off Air Force One and on to the podium in the presence of President Herzog, Prime Minister Lapid and alternate Prime Minister Bennett was: ”You do not need to be a Jew to be a Zionist.” Joe Biden is a friend of Israel, he has been at the forefront for the security of the State of Israel for the last 40 years, and you will find no better friend of the State of Israel. He believes as I do, that for Israel to maintain itself as a democratic Jewish state, we must not give up the vision for a two-state solution. Every day we spend time helping to ensure that the security of Israel is not compromised. We also hope that for the Palestinian people we give hope and opportunity for the future. So my job as American Ambassador is to work closely with the Israelis and the Palestinians to avoid a situation that makes that vision impossible to attain. So that’s what I and the president work on together.

But you are not answering the question, ambassador. The entitlement, where does this come from?

The president said that he believes that the two-state solution based on the 1967 line with land swaps is a position that we support, our President 43, George Bush, who is a Republican, supported it, and so did President 41, Bill Clinton. This is not an unusual position of a Democrat and a Republican administration. I wake up every day to find a way to make sure we keep that vision alive.

Throughout history this country has been ruled by numerous groups including Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Fatimids, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Egyptians, Mamluks and from about 1517 to the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire ruled much of the region. Then the League of Nations issued a mandate that gave Britain administrative control over the region that included provisions for establishing a Jewish national homeland in what was then called Palestine. But a Palestinian nation never existed here, and never came into the picture until Yasser Arafat started a national movement in 1964 in response to Zionism. The historic foundation for this Palestinian nationalist claim is unclear because research into the history of this land did not uncover even one Palestinian king, ruler, government or evidence of a national Palestinian entity. Your response?

My job is to represent President Biden’s view to keep Israel a strong democratic Jewish state. We believe one of the ways to do that is to have a two-state solution. Some people may disagree with that, but arguably public opinion has changed both in Israel and even among the Palestinian people. We believe that the solution here to maintain itself as a strong democratic Jewish state is the two-state solution, and that’s what we work toward.

Just one last point on this before we move on. It’s a fact that Jerusalem is mentioned 669 times in the Torah, and the alternate Hebrew name “Zion” appears countless times in the Hebrew Bible and even 142 times I believe in the Christian Bible. But in the Quran, Jerusalem is not even mentioned once. Some pious Muslims even refer to Jerusalem as Bayt Al Muqaddas, city of the Jewish Temple. Does all that not place doubt on the veracity of the Arab claim?

Let us be clear: the capital of Israel is Jerusalem. I as American ambassador now live in Jerusalem. I have a home in Jerusalem. The question of the future of Jerusalem will be decided by the parties at the appropriate time. Whether a two-state solution actually comes to fruition will be up to the Israeli and the Palestinian people. We cannot impose our desires and our sanctimonies about the future of Jerusalem. But the capital of Israel is Jerusalem.

Let me now touch on US policy on Taiwan. President Biden has on numerous occasions said that the US will defend Taiwan militarily if attacked by China. We heard him say it again in his address at the United Nations, and each time the White House tried to change the meaning effectively contradicting him. Who is in charge, the commander in chief or the unelected officials? 

Joe Biden tends to be exceptionally honest and forthright. Our position has been the same for 40 years. The relationship between the US and Taiwan is strong, we provide military assistance and observe how the situation on the ground evolves. Joe Biden is the president of the United States, make no mistake about that.

But surely, when the president says something four times, he means it. That is, to say the least, confusing, and underscores the allegation from some quarters that the president may have memory problems.

You’re nearly 99 years old, and I’ll sign up for your memory, your articulation, your focus and your world view. Joe Biden is only 79 years old, but I’ll say the same about him. He knows the issues of the region probably better than anyone. He is in control and knows what he is doing. The White House speaks on behalf of the president, and often clarifies what presidents say.

Now I’d like to get your thoughts on Ukraine. The Russian unprovoked attack has dominated the news for the past six months. The Western powers, having realized that Putin’s ambitions go beyond Ukraine, are supplying the weapons to halt the Russian offensive. Now Putin has conscripted 300,000 men for his army, has annexed more than 15% of Ukraine into his Federation, and threatened to use all means within his power, and “I’m not bluffing,” he said, probably meaning if those parts are attacked. So now the war may enter a new phase. Do you think that Putin would use WMD’s and would that bring NATO into the war?

Putin is a madman. Putin’s atrocities will forever be in the history of mankind. He’ll be judged not by what he has done for the Russian people, but to the Russian people and to Ukrainians. My heart breaks for the innocent men, women and children who had to flee or been killed by this crazy ambition of Putin. No one would have predicted six month ago that NATO would be so collectively engage in trying to stop this. The level of co-operation, countries coming together, we have not seen this since WW II, to stop someone who in my view is acting ill-advised and irrational as Putin is showing today. It’s been very clear in messages sent by NATO and President Biden – that using weapons of mass destruction will have an enormous price he would have to pay personally and by the Russian people. This is sad and he needs to be stopped.

Since January 2021, the US has committed more than $13.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. How long will the US and NATO be able to support Ukraine to the tune of millions of dollars every day?

President Biden has made very clear that we are in this for the long haul, as long as it takes. We are surprised and hardened by the commitment of the European leadership to pay that price. I’m confident that President Biden has bipartisan support of Mitch McConnell, and I’m sure that will continue regardless of the outcome of the midterm election. ■