The Biden administration’s ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has a tough act to follow. Predecessor David Friedman was the Trump administration’s point person for major U.S. policy shifts in Israel’s favor, including the move of the embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, and the signing of the historic Abraham Accords by Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

For Israel’s center-right majority, the Trump administration provided a momentary high point in recent U.S.-Israel relations. The Biden administration’s positions represent a turn back towards the policies of previous administrations, including the tenure of Barack Obama, in which President Joe Biden served as vice president. Those years were often highlighted by the oft-contentious relationship between Obama and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Unlike Obama, Biden has long-expressed deep sentiments towards the Jewish state, even if the policies he supports don’t stray far from Obama’s and other former presidents. Yet, with Netanyahu currently out of the premier’s chair—albeit vying to return in the upcoming election—the U.S.-Israel relationship has by and large proceeded without serious diplomatic incidents during Nides’ brief tenure to date. It is Nides’ job to make sure that the critical strategic relationship between America, the world’s most powerful nation, and Israel, its strongest ally and an emerging Middle East superpower, remains constructive.

In many ways, Nides represents the strength and bravado of much of the American Jewish community. A Reform Jew from Minnesota, he was a successful banker holding high-ranking positions at Fannie Mae and Credit Suisse First Boston, and ultimately serving as chief operating officer, and then managing director and vice chairman, at Morgan Stanley.

Nides has also been a Democrat Party power broker for decades, working on the presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale and Al Gore. He is close to former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and was reportedly being considered for senior roles including chief of staff had Clinton been elected.

As ambassador, Nides is cordial and enjoys conversing, often saying things career diplomats might be too cautious to say, in a neighborhood where media coverage of such statements is almost guaranteed. He is learning on the job while staying true to the character traits that have helped him land and succeed in his previous high-ranking positions.

Nides sat down with JNS at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem for a wide-ranging interview.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides in his office, Oct. 2022. Credit: David Azagury/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem.

Q: What is it like serving as the ambassador in Israel, where anything and everything that you say publicly is going to get put under a microscope and may offend one party or another?

A: People have treated me relatively well. Everyone knows I’ll meet with anyone. I’m not ideological, you know what I mean? And I spend a lot of time with the haredi community because I enjoy the company. It’s not how I grew up. I’m a Reform Jew from Duluth, Minnesota. I did services, the High Holiday services. We lit the candles on Friday night, and that was basically it. I grew up as a cultural Jew. Father was head of the UJA [United Jewish Appeal], head of the temple. My mom was the head of Hadassah and the sisterhood. That’s how I grew up.

And so the way I grew up is you treat people with respect and dignity even if you disagree. For example, I’ve met with people like [former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.] Ron Dermer. I find him enjoyable. Do I agree with him? No, not really. [Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel under President Trump] David Friedman, I’ve had multiple lunches with him. Do David and I have two separate, different political ideologies? Yes. Do I believe he cares about Israel being a democratic Jewish state? 100 percent. Do I think he acts in accordance with his values? Yes.

I’m not trying to pretend I’m something I am not. I don’t speak Hebrew very well. [Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel under Obama] Dan Shapiro did. And I just think it is that people want people who are being authentic. I’m not a religious guy. I care deeply about keeping this place a democratic, Jewish state, and the defense of this country is what I care about.

I’ll meet with anyone. I’m not ideological

And I work for Joe Biden, I work for the United States of America, I articulate the position of this administration. But the only way you can do that is you’ve got to talk to everybody and you got to have real conversation.

Jerusalem embassy

Q: We’re sitting here in the embassy in Jerusalem. The embassy used to be in Tel Aviv. The previous administration moved the embassy, recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights and repealed the [1978] Hansell Memo, which officially changed the administration’s views regarding the legality of settlements in international law. At the same time, they shuttered the consulate to the Palestinian Authority on Agron Street [in Jerusalem], they expelled the PLO mission in Washington, D.C., they cut off funding for UNRWA and UNESCO and others. Is there the feeling that Israel got too much from the last administration and that the balance got shifted at the Palestinian Authority’s expense in an unfair way?

A: I’m not going to question the previous administration. Elections have consequences. I’m not questioning anyone’s commitment to the democratic, Jewish State of Israel. I’ve spent many an hour with David Friedman. I think he cares deeply and passionately about the importance of the security of the State of Israel. I’ve met with Jared Kushner, I’ve met with [Senator] Lindsey Graham three or four times when he’s been here. I meet with Republicans, Democrats. Everyone has different views on how they believe this stays a strong democratic, Jewish state.

As it relates to this office, the capital of Israel is Jerusalem. That is the position of this administration and it was the position even when the offices were in Tel Aviv. Democrats, Republican administrations signed waivers [to delay moving the embassy to Jerusalem]. That was the policy of different administrations. We’re not moving the embassy. The embassy is here. I’m sitting in this luxurious office. David Friedman sat in these chairs. He picked this furniture.

Some things we have not changed since the Trump administration as you know, including our position on the Golan.

Maritime negotiations

Q: The United States just brokered a maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon centering around the ownership of the Qana Natgas reservoir in the Mediterranean Sea. Originally, Lebanon had claimed their territorial waters extended to “Line 23.” Later, Lebanon extended their claim down to “Line 29.” Israel was claiming a line further to the north. For close to 10 years, Israel and Lebanon were negotiating a compromise, a split between the competing claims, without much progress. All of a sudden, a new caretaker interim prime minister, Yair Lapid, comes in just a few weeks before an election. Very quickly the entire scope of the deal changed and a snap deal was signed along the basis of the original Lebanese claim, “Line 23.” How did that happen?

A: Well, let’s step back. I don’t think it’s as dramatic as you just laid out, but we’ll just say for the sake of this conversation you are right. People have been working on this for years, including former prime ministers, former presidents. Much of what has been talked about is what’s in the elements of this deal. One, making sure that a five-kilometer security zone [extending from the coast] is now locked in, which is a security line that will be important to Israel.

No. 2, there’s no question that the Israelis wanted to begin tapping into the Karish site [on the Israeli side of the newly agreed-upon border]. And ultimately that was very important for economics, for Israel and security, and [the principle issue] was the gas. They want the gas. And obviously the threat of potential military confrontation was real. Real on the Israeli side, and presumably real on the Lebanese side.

And No. 3, there was an area of dispute of the other additional gas reserves that are there and who’s going to have ownership of those. None of us know what’s under the ground there. So having an opportunity to make a historic agreement that locks in the five kilometers; which allows Israel tomorrow to begin extracting gas from the Karish site; and having an agreed economic decision around the other reserves, I believe it is a really good deal, not only for Israel’s security and economics but also for the Lebanese. If they ever are able to actually extract whatever gas is in the [Qana] site, it will help the Lebanese and their energy issues as well.

So we believe that this is a good agreement and we would’ve done this agreement six months ago, eight months ago, a year ago, two years ago. And I think, quite frankly, in a moment of honesty, others would have done the same. So we’re very excited about it. We think it’s historic. We brokered it. Joe Biden worked on this when he was vice president of the United States. He’s been focused on Mediterranean issues for almost 15 years.

And I believe history will prove that this was the beginning of something really helpful for Israel and for Israel’s security, and maybe ultimately the Israeli-Lebanese relationship.

Q: In some ways was Israel negotiating with Hezbollah?

A: No. At the end of the day, they were negotiating with the Lebanese government. We are the one who negotiated between the Lebanese and the Israelis. We are the honest broker here. We are the ones who were trying to get this done. We were trying to obviously make sure Israel was comfortable with what we were doing, but we were also working with the Lebanese government to get them to agree to what we believe is not only a fair deal, but it long term will make Israel more secure, both economically and security-wise.

I’m not dreaming here. Hezbollah is terrible. We understand all the potential pitfalls. But we do believe that this is the right deal at the right moment, and we look forward to getting this executed.

The threat of… military confrontation [with Lebanon] was real

Q: The deal is not a bilateral deal. Lebanon refuses to recognize Israel or their border with Israel. And instead, Israel is signing into the deal with the United States, which is providing the guarantees that the terms will be executed. Israel has had bad experiences with international guarantees. Israel was at war with Lebanon, and then UNIFIL was supposed to provide guarantees that southern Lebanon would not become a militarized zone. Now there are 150,000 rockets and missiles pointed at the State of Israel. Watching the Russia-Ukraine war right now, Ukraine was supposed to have guarantees from NATO that if they would eliminate their nuclear weapons, NATO would protect them. How can Israel be certain that guarantees will come into force if needed?

A: I’d be lying to you if I said you can be certain. You’re never certain. If the Lebanese decided to back off on this deal and start attacking Israel and Karish, it’s mutual assured destruction, because they’ll never be able to pump any gas [from the Qana site], Israel won’t be able to pump gas, and God only knows what will happen. And the United States is in the middle of it.

You have a deal that provides security, provides the ability to get some of these gas reserves out of the ground. But I think it’s a historic deal. Maybe you and I’ll sit here and have a meeting five years from now—I won’t be in this job, to be clear—and you will say, “Well, I told you.” Or I’ll say, “I told you so.” This is how negotiations go. This is how they work. I wish I could tell you that there’s a thousand million guarantees in everything we do, but I’d be lying to you.

The Abraham Accords

Q: On the Abraham Accords, members of the previous administration suggest that had they been in office several more years, that other states would’ve joined on and signed the Abraham Accords. Has the momentum stalled on the Abraham Accords?

A: No. I spend a lot of time on this. My job is to go deeper with the countries that have signed on, both those in the Abraham Accords, Morocco and the UAE and Bahrain, and obviously Egypt and Jordan, to go deeper with the countries, and to let Washington work on broadening it.

This is about making sure that these relationships are locked. That’s why we did the Negev Summit [last March]. On four days’ notice, all of these countries’ foreign ministers showed up for a meeting in the Negev with [Secretary of State] Tony Blinken to talk about expansion [of the normalization agreements]. A week and a half ago, I had dinner with the foreign minister of the UAE, who was here with the Emirati ambassador at his home. We spent five hours together talking about the importance of the integration, both economically and security-wise. I give an enormous amount of credit to the previous administration for getting the Abraham Accords done. I’ve said that in every speech I’ve given. My job is to keep those relationships alive and growing the importance of the relationships that we have.

Q: Do you think there will be future agreements?

A: 100 percent.

The Israeli election

Q: There’s a common mantra that U.S.-Israel relations were harmed during the administration here of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Here, Netanyahu’s opponents often say that. Some Democrats have said it as well. U.S.-Israel cooperation expanded dramatically during Netanyahu’s tenure including the signing of a $38 billion, 10-year MOU for defense spending. In your view, did Netanyahu help to strengthen or harm the U.S.-Israel relationship?

A: I’ve had many meetings with the former prime minister when he was prime minister, when I was in my previous job, and now. I have an enormous amount of respect for him. I’m not getting involved in that three weeks before an election. I’m not here to comment about the previous stints [in office] that Prime Minister Netanyahu had. Ultimately, Joe Biden will work with anyone who happens to be the democratically-elected prime minister of this country. Because as he has said, our relationship with Israel transcends who the prime minister is.

Q: Senator Bob Menendez and Representative Brad Sherman, both of whom are Democrats and have been longtime stalwart advocates of the State of Israel, have both warned Netanyahu against forming a government together with members of the right-wing Religious Zionist Party, including firebrand politician Itamar Ben-Gvir. Do you agree with those warnings?

A: Again, I’m not getting into who is in what potential coalition. We’re three weeks before an election. Let the Israeli people decide who they want to support and the people that are part of the coalition. I have enormous confidence in the Israeli people, but I try not to engage myself in their election. Whoever the Israeli people decide that their leadership will be, we’ll work with them.

Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria

Q: As ambassador, you have made it a point that you will not go visit Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Why not, and do you think that that decision advances peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

A: It’s a great question. I know you guys have reported on this and I think you probably beat the crap out of me a couple of times for making the comment. I’ve seen almost anyone who wants to see me. The heads of the settlements’ organizations have come to see me. A couple of the mayors have come to see me. I talk to many, many people. I will talk to anyone.

I try not to do things by the sake of just symbolism to aggravate people. It’d be a big difference if I told you, “Oh, I’m never going to talk to anyone who lives in a settlement. I won’t talk to the leadership of the settlement community.” If people want to come to see me and talk to me about why it’s important they live in the settlements, I’m more than happy to have those conversations in a very clear way. Anyone who’s called me who has a view can come see me and talk to me.

Q: Why would it aggravate people if you went to a settlement?

A: I think because the people on the left and the position of the administration, whether you like it or don’t like it, the argument around the settlements has been that this administration does not support settlement growth. That’s just been the position of Joe Biden, it was the position of George Bush 43, George Bush 41, obviously Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. That is the position of Joe Biden. So, my physically going there would send mixed messages vis-à-vis our position.

Q: In your view, is the suburban Jewish housing in the settlements the real obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

A: It’s so much more complicated than that. I have spent a lot of time saying I believe fundamentally that if we believe in a democratic, Jewish state, we must have a two-state solution. That’s my view. Because the alternative is not a great alternative in my view, and in the view of the administration. So I work every single day to try to keep the vision of a two-state solution alive.

And I try to get the parties, both the Israelis and the Palestinians, not to do things that make a vision of the two-state solution less possible. For example, I have told the Palestinian Authority that their payments to terrorists and martyrs simply have to stop. Am I successful? Not always.

What I can say is, when there’s discussion around large settlement blocs and growth in the West Bank, it has been the position of this administration to convince and to argue and to oppose large settlement increase in the West Bank.

Two-state vision

Q: What does the Biden administration’s vision of a two-state solution look like?

A: We’re not even anywhere near the conversation of a two-state solution and what a two-state solution would look like—which is the 1967 lines with land swaps. That’s why you don’t hear me laying out a plan for you, or you don’t hear Joe Biden laying out a plan for you for a negotiated peace agreement. Joe Biden has said, as I have said: Our goal is to have both parties live in peace and prosperity, to work with the Palestinian people, make sure that people don’t lose the vision or Israelis lose the vision or the hope for the two-state solution. We have not—as every other president has done for the last 25 years—laid out a vision. Maybe at some point that will happen. Who knows? I’ll probably be long gone as ambassador if we ever get down to the discussion of what, in practicality, what that means.

I only wish that I’ll be in a position where we’re debating what the land looks like for a two-state solution, and who’s there, who isn’t. My job is just to try to keep the vision alive. I know that’s not a Nobel Peace Prize vision, but that’s why I wake up in the morning and try to do things that help people, including Israelis and Palestinians.

Q: Israel is a democracy that shares values and provides intelligence to the United States. Should it be the goal of the United States to do whatever it can to strengthen the State of Israel, even if that might come in some respects at the expense of the Palestinian Authority?

A: That’s a really good question. You can do both. You have to do both. We have to make sure that the Israelis, every Israeli who lives here, believes in their heart of hearts that America’s got Israel’s back, which we do. It’s this unbreakable bond. We do. That we give them $3.8 billion a year, that we have a 10-year commitment, that we’re helping them build all their new defense systems, that we’re in partnership across the board, not only economically, but defense, socially, morally, culturally, we are lockstep with Israel.

You can still at the same time support the Palestinian people. Because the average Palestinian that lives in the West Bank just wants to get up in the morning and have a job and live in peace and prosperity. They don’t wake up and want to do harm to Israelis.

We are trying to do things that are in line with our policies, including assisting the Palestinian people. As you know, we give about half a billion dollars now to the Palestinian people to help them with education and healthcare. We gave $100 million to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network to help kids in the West Bank and Gaza. We’ve worked daily to try to make life a little bit better. These are our policy objectives.

Q: Is there an argument to be made that Israel as a sovereign entity could provide greater upward mobility to Palestinians than a sovereign Palestinian entity?

A: I guess my question to you is the reverse. Is a one-state solution the answer for Israel? And I don’t think it is. As someone who cares deeply about keeping this a democratic, Jewish state, do I believe a one-state solution, which could include half the population being Arabs and half the population being Israelis, do I believe that represents a long-term solution for Israel? I personally do not believe that will be healthy for keeping this a democratic, Jewish state.

That’s why we promote the idea of a two-state solution. But we can’t want it more than the parties want it. We can’t want it more than the Palestinians want it. We can’t want it more than the Israelis want it.

This is probably the most important bilateral relationship our country has, certainly in the Middle East, and arguably in the world

Q: If Israel looks around the Middle East, there are not many if any neighbor states that operate like pure democracies. So why is it so important for the U.S. administration to hold Israel to such a standard?

A: Because that’s what makes Israel great. We can’t screw that up, in my personal view. It’s a democracy. It’s a democratic, Jewish state for Jews. That’s why I walk around, and I see religious Jews and basically secular Jews hanging out together. And I see Arabs, 22 percent of this country are Arabs. And by and large, they get along just fine. That’s what makes Israel great. We don’t want to change that. This is a beautiful place.

It drives me nuts when I see what’s going on in [U.S.] college campuses. People don’t understand this place. They don’t understand that 22 percent of the people who live in Israel are Arabs. And by and large, they live relatively peacefully. Now, we can have some discussions about east Jerusalem and conditions. We can debate all that and lots of other issues too.

Unbreakable ties

Q: Do people really truly understand how embedded the cooperation is between Israel and the United States, and has anything about the relationship surprised you as ambassador?

A: If people don’t understand, they’re living under a rock, because it is really close. It’s an unbreakable bond. One of the big surprises for me here is how close the IDF is with the U.S. Defense Department and how close Israeli intelligence operations are with the CIA. Israel has a long-standing, positive relationship with the United States defense and intelligence organizations that goes back to the birth of this nation in 1948.

And it’s not just the leadership. That’s one of the things that has really surprised me. It’s embedded in the psychiatry of all these organizations. People really care. This is probably the most important bilateral relationship our country has, certainly in the Middle East, and arguably in the world.

And it’s not just one way. It’s not just the United States handing Israel a bunch of goodies all the time. Israel provides intelligence and information for us in the Middle East beyond anyone else’s cooperation. But nonetheless, it was a surprise to me how close it is throughout the organizations.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides walks with Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, during his visit, Dec. 2, 2021. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

Q: What do you do to make sure Israelis understand how important the relationship is?

A: We try to make sure that the Israelis understand there is an unbreakable tie with security. It is having Joe Biden come here [this past July] and walk off the plane and say, “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.” It’s Joe Biden going to Yad Vashem and getting on one knee, and holding the hands of Holocaust survivors. I can’t get anything done here unless people believe, which happens to be true, that there’s an unbreakable bond between this president—who happens to be a Democrat—and the State of Israel.

Experience as ambassador

Q: What are some of the things you do that most Israelis don’t know about?

A: I go to the Kotel probably a couple of times a week. I don’t make a scene of it. I go there, I have a very sick friend, I put a note at the wall, and I leave.

Yesterday or two days ago I went up north to the funeral of [Military Police Sgt.] Noa Lazar, the 18-year-old girl who got killed [in a shooting attack in Jerusalem on Oct. 8]. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t make a scene of it. I just felt it was important to go at 11 o’clock at night and just show up. I’ve done every shivah call [to a house of mourning] and I don’t make a scene of it. I don’t. And I’ll go to Bnei Brak and spend time with [haredi Jews of] Bnei Brak, and I’ll go see a Druze family in Nazareth. I’ll also meet with [members of the left-wing NGO] Peace Now.

So, I’m trying to walk the walk. Will I get burned? Sure. Someone will be upset with me. That is what it is. But it won’t be because I’ve got some ideology here where I’m trying to prove something and it’s my agenda. I don’t need this job for my next job. I care deeply about this country and I want to do the right thing.

Q: And in terms of just your experience here, what’s been the biggest surprise? What’re the greatest learning experiences that you’ve had here?

A: I guess one of the things I knew intellectually is how much people care about this place. I knew it intellectually. I’m now watching it in practice. And there’s a level of interest and concern and passion on all sides. There’s not another country in the world that has this level of unbelievable love, passion, focus and demands that Israel has.

And as the American ambassador, we are the most important ally to the State of Israel. This is literally the greatest honor I’ve ever had. This is a huge, huge honor. And I wake up every day, every single day, just trying to make a little bit of a difference. I wake up and say, “Okay, what can I get done?”

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