Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett greets new U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Dec. 5, 2021. Credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.
by Jonathan Tobin
(JNS) — Thomas Nides may not be able to erase everything his predecessor accomplished. But he’s doing his best. That was the upshot of an astonishing webinar conducted by the U.S. ambassador to the State of Israel earlier this week with Americans for Peace Now.
Israelis and American friends of Israel were aware that Nides and his boss, President Joe Biden, have a different point of view about the Jewish state, as well as the conflict with the Palestinians, than that of former President Donald Trump and his envoy to Israel, David Friedman. But what his conversation laid bare wasn’t just hostility to the views of the overwhelming majority of Israelis, including many in the current government. Nor was it about what Trump tried to do in order to shake the Palestinians out of their intransigence and to help facilitate normal relations between the Jewish state and much of the Arab world. Like others in the administration these days, he is determined to stick with the foreign-policy establishment’s failed Middle East policies of the past to try to force Israel to do things that voters of that democratic nation have repeatedly rejected.
Nides tossed diplomatic courtesy to the winds in the webinar in which he spoke of there being people in the current government to which he is accredited with whom he would not wish to have dinner. The former Democratic Party operative, banker and U.S. State Department official also vented his spleen about Israelis building homes in Jerusalem or those parts of the West Bank that he knows the Jewish state will never relinquish, even in a theoretical peace deal.
In addition to calling such construction “stupid” and “infuriating,” his devotion to restoring the pre-1967 “Green Line” extends to the point of refusing to visit not just Jewish communities in the territories but even to visit the tunnels under the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a stand that validates the disingenuous Arab claim that efforts to restore and reaffirm the sacred site’s Jewish history are somehow a provocation.
Instead of working to widen the circle of peace between Israel and the neighboring Arab states or promoting warmer relations with the United States, Nides indicated that his main agenda was helping the Palestinians. He seemed primarily focused on the idea that granting the brutally tyrannical and corrupt Palestinian Authority formal sovereignty was the only thing that mattered. Anything that might interfere with that, including the P.A.’s notorious “pay for slay” policies (which he tellingly referred to as “martyr payments”) in which it gives salaries and pensions to terrorists based on how much Jewish blood they spill is seen as an obstacle to his goal because it provides Israelis with an excuse not to surrender territory. He refuses to understand, despite a century of evidence, that a commitment to violence and rejection of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn, are inextricably linked to Palestinian nationalism. Indeed, as his talk indicated, that legacy of intransigence, as well as terrorism subsidized by the P.A. and embodied by its Hamas rivals that rule the Gaza Strip, simply doesn’t matter.
This is significant because despite the hostility of many in the Biden foreign-policy team — most of whom are alumni of the Obama administration and took an active part in that president’s long-running effort to “save Israel from itself” — the expectation had been that the administration wasn’t interested in wasting any political capital on pointless disputes with Israel. Yet the ambassador’s comments show that the appetite for conflict is still there. That’s true even if, for the moment, Nides’s superiors are probably more interested in his seeking to deter criticism of the administration’s imminent betrayal of Israel and the Arabs in a new Iran nuclear deal.
His broadsides also show the complete contrast between his view of the duties of an American ambassador to Israel and those of Friedman.
The difference goes beyond the fact that Friedman was a supporter of the settlement movement prior to taking up his post, and Nides’s confession that Peace Now’s efforts to promote pressure on Israel’s government to make concessions to the Palestinians are “where my heart is.”
Rather, it is that Nides understands his position in the same way as every other U.S. ambassador prior to Friedman. Unlike those sent to virtually every other country on the planet, American ambassadors to Israel are not there to foster better relations between the two governments. Instead, they act as imperial proconsuls whose task is to order client states around. Instead of helping Israel, they have sought to treat its democratically elected governments as wayward children who don’t know what’s best for them and to impose harmful policies on them regardless of the will of the Israeli people.
People like Nides and his Peace Now fan club are living in the past, as if the events of the last quarter-century in which the P.A. has repeatedly sabotaged and rejected efforts for peace and fostered terrorism never happened. The truth about Palestinian rejectionism contradicts their ideas about forcing Israel to make suicidal concessions so they ignore it. And demand that the Israelis do the same.
Though derided as an ideologue, Friedman was a realist. He had a better understanding of Palestinian political culture than those who claim to be devoted to empowering them. He rejected the proconsul role and instead sought to help Israel’s government make its case to the State Department and the president. In doing so, he did more to promote U.S. interests than any previous ambassador to Israel.
As his recently published memoir “Sledgehammer” indicates, Friedman was up against a State Department apparatus that was as ignorant (he wrote that staffers had actually given Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a briefing book for a meeting about moving the embassy with Trump that claimed Israel united Jerusalem in 1996, rather than 1967, and the secretary didn’t recognize the mistake) as it was prejudiced against Israel’s best interests. He succeeded in helping push Trump to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to demand accountability from the P.A. for its support of terror, to recognize that the settlements were legal under international law and to uphold Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. Rather than set back the cause of peace, Trump’s moves helped facilitate the Abraham Accords in which the Arab states made it clear they were no longer willing to be held hostage to Palestinian intransigence.
Friedman was, like the overwhelming majority of Americans that he represented in Jerusalem, a friend of Israel. He wanted to help it. Nides is there to tell Israelis who know more about the situation than he does that they are too “stupid” to understand what’s good for them. Rather than assist in moving the region forward to a more peaceful future, he’s intent on repeating the tragic mistakes of the past that Israelis have paid dearly for in blood.
Above all else, Nides’s comments ought to be a wake-up call for Israel’s divided government. Both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have sought to avoid criticism of Biden’s policies even if, as with his appeasement of Iran, they are aiding an existential threat to the Jewish state. But the notion that this administration is friendlier to Israel than that of former President Barack Obama must now be seen as wishful thinking.
For his Peace Now rant, Nides deserved to be hauled into the Israeli Foreign Ministry for a dressing down. That’s what any sensible nation, including the United States, would do to any foreign ambassador who behaved in such an undiplomatic and offensive manner to their host government. But as long as Israelis accept the status of a client state, they must understand that — barring the election of a genuine friend as president — they will be subjected to more such demeaning efforts to undermine their security and sovereignty, from those sent there as diplomats.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.