Being the United States ambassador to Israel today is not a simple job – and that might be an understatement.
The election results – that will likely lead to the formation of what will be the most right-wing and religious government in Israeli history – puts Israel on a collision course with the White House, especially at a time that it is occupied by a Democratic administration and the president is Joe Biden, a longtime advocate of a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within a majority of the West Bank.
It is also no secret that the Biden administration does not support the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria, no different than past administrations that were either Democratic or Republican.
For decades – under Republicans like George W. Bush or Democrats like Barack Obama – the US tried to get Israel to curb construction in the West Bank and to sit and negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict that has plagued the Jewish state since its establishment almost 75 years ago.
The political instability has made the situation all the more complicated in recent years. Non-stop elections forced the Trump administration to repeatedly delay the rolling out of its peace plan, which, while hailed by the Israeli Right for dismissing the long-held notion of settlement evacuations, was essentially a two-state solution that called – with certain restrictions and limitations – for the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The last year alone has been a microcosm of this instability. Until July, Naftali Bennett served as prime minister. Then, he was replaced by Yair Lapid who is very likely just weeks away – or maybe days – from leaving office and being replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu, who emerged victorious from Israel’s fifth election in less than four years on November 1.
Since the results of the election have become known, it seems that the tension between Jerusalem and Washington has been on the rise. The Americans have not hidden their frustration and concern with the rise of the far Right in Israel – and particularly the participation of Itamar Ben-Gvir in the emerging government in charge of the police and domestic security.
Ambassadorial shiva call
Nevertheless, it was heartwarming to see US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides visit the settlement of Ariel on Thursday and pay a shiva mourning call to the families of the Israelis who were killed in the terrorist rampage just outside the city on Tuesday. It was Nides’s first visit to a Jewish community in Judea and Samaria.
Three people were killed in the attack – 36-year-old Michael Ledigin, a father of two who moved to Israel five years ago from Ukraine; 59-year-old Mordechai Ashkenazi, both of Bat Yam; and 50-year-old Tamir Avihai, a father of six from Kiryat Netafim, a settlement near Ariel.
The shiva call to Avihai’s family was Nides’s first visit to a settlement, though the US Embassy clarified that it does not reflect a change in his or the American position opposing settlement growth.
Rather, this was a continuation of Nides’s policy of visiting families who lost loved ones to terror, as he has done 20 times throughout the country following attacks on Israelis since he began his time as ambassador last year. One of the victims of the terrorist attack on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv this year was an off-duty guard for the embassy’s branch office in the city.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov earlier this year, Nides decried the “senseless loss of life” to terrorism, and said regarding visiting victims’ families: “I don’t think I’ve done anything as hard as that… 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.”
The visits, he said, are meant to tell the grieving families that America is thinking of them. And he illustrated that on Thursday by showing that political differences and doing what is right do not need to contradict one another.
US policy on settlements is well known – but what Nides showed is that it can still be possible to disagree and also be a mensch. We commend him for that.