Tom Nides and the small steps towards peace

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: US envoy to Israel Tom Nides is a believer in encouraging small steps forward to achieve an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians

 US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, as seen on January 23, 2023. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, as seen on January 23, 2023.

One of the stalwart guardians of hope for a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be found in the American Embassy’s stone compound in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood overlooking the Judean Hills.

“I am trying to keep the flame going,” Tom Nides told The Jerusalem Post during an interview this week in his office.

A tall man with a blunt and colorful style of speaking, he has been the United States ambassador for just over a year, at a time when West Bank violence is rising and few Israelis or Palestinians have any hope of resolving the conflict.

Nides said that his goal on a day-to-day basis is not to finalize a peace deal or even to help the parties resume negotiations.

A self-described incrementalist, Nides said his role is to move the situation forward in small steps while keeping hope alive.

 US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, as seen on January 23, 2023. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, as seen on January 23, 2023. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

“I am not really a big dreamer. I am a practical guy trying to do a practice job, which is really not simple.”

Nides spoke with the Post after a visit to Jerusalem by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and an anticipated trip to Israel next week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

He held fast to the Biden administration’s position that now is not the time to launch a peace process, but that it is important to keep the option open and to ensure that conditions exist to allow for two states when the time is right.

“My goal is to try and make sure that we do not do things that preclude that option,” Nides said.

He is not focused on attending a grand peace signing ceremony in the White House’s Rose Garden, preferring to leave larger policy designs for his superiors.

“That is where my incrementalism comes in,” explained Nides, adding that his vision is “not grand. It’s not bands and flowers.”

“Maybe we will get there at some point, but in the meantime, the blocking and tackling that we are doing every day is what I want to do.

“By the way, it’s not easy. You cannot want peace more than the parties want peace,” he said.

He bristles at the use of the word “frozen” to describe the peace process, even though US-led talks have not been held since 2014.

“That’s your word, not mine,” he said.

“Keeping a vision alive is not frozen. Frozen is doing nothing,” he said, explaining that he and his staff are working every day to improve the situation on the ground.

“Sometimes your strategy is keeping [the vision] on track.... That is not as simple as you think when the parties are moving to the Right.”

Ultimately, he said, he believes Israelis and Palestinians seek the same goals of jobs, healthcare and opportunities for their children and themselves.

To that end, he works on improving conditions in the day-to-day lives of Palestinians, with the Biden administration donating over $500 million a year to that endeavor.

“The reasons I spend so much time on this, is that I think it’s good for the security of the State of Israel” and there are “lives at stake.”

Among the issues on his priority list have been easing Palestinian travel through the Allenby crossing and making a 4G Internet network available for the Palestinians.

Nides has been in Israel at a time of governmental instability, having gone through three prime ministers in a short year, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, who led a centrist government, and Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads an extreme right-wing one with values that put it on an automatic collision course with the United States, particularly on the issue of the Palestinian conflict and a judicial overhaul which has sparked concerns about whether Israeli democracy is in peril.

Nides was careful in speaking of the judicial reform, focusing instead on the importance of democracy as a shared value between the two governments, noting that it is an important talking point for the Biden administration in defending Israel.

He was much more ready to state his opposition to the possibility that the new government could oppose a Palestinian state and support settlement building, the legalization of outposts and the annexation of portions of the West Bank.

“We have been very clear with this government. We do not support settlement growth. We do not support legalizing outposts,” Nides said.

“More settlement growth makes it more difficult to keep that two-state solution alive,” said Nides, explaining that on that issue and on any others that provide a stumbling block to that vision, the US “will be very clear” in its opposition.

The US-Israeli relationship is akin to that of a family, he said. “You can have disagreements with your family members” and still love your family.

“One of our disagreements with our family, that being Israel,” is with respect to settlement activity.

Another point of conflict that he spoke about was steps Israel had taken or could execute that would weaken the Palestinian Authority.

The United Nations

He pointed to the economic sanctions Israel imposed on the PA to penalize it for its role in swaying the UN to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of the “occupation.”

The US, he said, understands Israel’s anger on this point.

“We were very clear publicly and privately to the Palestinians that they should not go to the UN. We voted against it in the UN. We feel very strongly that the UN in many of these cases is biased against the State of Israel,” Nides said. The US strongly supports Israel at the UN, he added.

However, he said, “We do not believe that it makes the situation better to weaken the PA.” The US, he said, “never supports weakening the PA,” particularly given the role its security forces play in helping maintain calm in the West Bank.

Nides said he does understand Israel’s additional frustration with the PA policy of paying monthly stipends to terrorists and their families, dubbed “pay-for-slay,” underscoring that the Biden administration opposes this policy as well.

“There is no one, in no organization, and in no country that has been more aggressive with the Palestinians as it relates to the pay-to-slay program, which we think is abhorrent. They should stop it immediately.... No one can justify the payments, and certainly we don’t.”

Nides said that maintenance of the status quo on the Temple Mount – known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif – is also critical. He has been assured by Netanyahu, Nides said, that no changes will be made to the site, which is holy to Jews and Muslims.

The Biden administration’s focus, he explained, is not on what members of the government say their policy will be, but on what Netanyahu ultimately does.

“The prime minister has assured me he has his hands on the wheel. Hopefully, they are very tight on that wheel. He knows our views on this” and that such steps only inflame the situation, he said.

“The prime minister wants to do big things. We want to do big things. You cannot do big things if your backyard is on fire.” Netanyahu “understands the things that we want to work on together; he understands the things that are important to us,” Nides said,

One of the larger visions the two governments have prioritized is the possible normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and the Jewish state.

“It is clearly a priority for Netanyahu. He has made it clear to us in our private meetings, in our public meetings, that he is very much focused on normalization, and we want to support it, and we believe that this is an enormously important thing. It just makes Israel safer and the region safer. It is a huge priority for us in the months ahead,” Nides said.

He recalled that when US President Joe Biden visited the region during the summer, he flew from Israel to Saudi Arabia, stating that one of the reasons for the trip was that it was “good for Israel, good for the Jews... and good for the security of the State of Israel,” with an eye to a future point in which “we can do a normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“Saudi Arabia is a very important country regionally and globally.... Over time we will be able to get to a place where normalization is possible,” but “it’s not overnight.

“We hope that Netanyahu can help that along because he obviously cares deeply about that as well,” Nides said.

He lauded the former Trump administration’s creation of the Abraham Accords, under whose auspices Israel normalized ties with four Arab countries, noting that Saudi ties would expand those accords and add to their power both economically and as a strategic alliance against Iran.

“The Abraham Accords is definitely an important element [in standing] against Iran,” he said.

“WE HAVE common goals on Iran to make sure Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. That is about Israel’s security, about regional security,” Nides said.

The United States has Israel’s back on Iran, he said, adding that “all options are on the table, as it relates to America and Israel working to make sure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon,” he said.

US determination to prevent a nuclear Iran was true during the Biden administration’s attempts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran deal, and it’s still true now that the deal is “on life support.”

That deal, designed to curb Iran’s nuclear power, a deal Israel has opposed, believing it did not go far enough, had been a source of tension between Jerusalem and Washington.

Now that the revival seems unlikely, Israel and the US have focused on strengthening a joint strategy.

Nides said that there were many opportunities for cooperation between the two countries and underscored the Biden administration’s support of Israel’s right to self-defense.

“Israel needs to do what they need to do to defend themselves,” said Nides, without going into details as to what that meant. “I am not going to talk about what actions Israel may or may not take,” he said.