New US envoy says ‘absolutely won’t’ visit settlements, to avoid inflaming tensions

New US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said Friday that he’d never visited an Israeli settlement in the West Bank and had no plans to do so, as part of his effort as envoy not to take steps that could inflame the situation on the ground.

When pressed, during his first interview with Israeli media since arriving in Israel, as to whether he might make such a visit, Nides told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, “I absolutely will not.”

The interview, while conducted in English, was published in Hebrew. A spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Jerusalem confirmed that the ambassador was accurately quoted. The quotes presented in this story were translated from the Hebrew report.

Nides’ comments represented a return to the pre-Trump era status quo when US ambassadors did not make visits to the settlements. Former president Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, changed that norm, making several visits to Israeli towns across the Green Line during his tenure as envoy.

A long-time backer of the settlement enterprise, Friedman used his close ties with Trump to lobby the White House to back Israeli annexation of the West Bank, though the president ultimately did not allow the move to go through. However, the ambassador did play a role in former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s decision to rescind a State Department legal memo deeming Israeli settlements to be illegal.

Asked to explain his decision not to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps, Nides responded, “Because just like I ask both the Palestinians and Israelis not to take steps that inflame the situation, I don’t want to do things intentionally that would create disrespect or anger among people.

“Now, listen, I’ll make mistakes. I’ll say things that will aggravate people. I’m sure that in this interview, I’ll say something that will aggravate someone. But I don’t want to intentionally anger people,” he added.

Then-US ambassador to Israel David Friedman (4th from right) tours the Efrat settlement with settler leaders on February 20, 2020. (Courtesy)

Nides arrived in Israel in late November after a lengthy confirmation process slowed by the refusal of Senate Republicans to advance many of US President Joe Biden’s nominees.

Explaining his approach to the position, and again subtly differentiating himself from his predecessor, Nides said, “When it comes to Israel, I have no ideology. All I care about is that Israel will remain a strong, democratic and Jewish state.”

He said his support for a two-state solution guides him in his new position.

“My support for a two-state solution — a solution that President Biden of course supports — my support for the well-being of the Palestinian people, all of this stems from the belief that Israel will be strengthened this way,” Nides said.

The envoy said he’ll feel that he succeeded in his new job if he manages to keep prospects for a two-state solution alive, by convincing both parties not to take unilateral steps that further entrench the conflict.

He clarified that the Biden administration’s support for the two-state solution is “in actions, not just words.”

US ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides (R) presents his credentials to President Isaac Herzog at Beit Hanasi in Jerusalem, December 5, 2021 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“Does this mean that we will renew the peace process tomorrow? No. We care about the fate of the region, but we do not raise expectations that something will be able to happen tomorrow,” Nides said.

Pointing to another difference between the current and previous American administrations, the US ambassador said, “The Biden administration believes it must take care of the Palestinian people. That is the difference between us and the Trump administration.”

Nides pointed to Biden’s renewal of hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians that was cut by Trump, amid Ramallah’s refusal to engage with his administration.

Asked if he’s had any meetings with Palestinian officials since his arrival, the envoy said he had yet to cross the Green Line, but that he well might do so in the coming weeks if asked.

While the Palestinian Authority has renewed its ties with the Biden administration, it has maintained an overall boycott of the US embassy, objecting to its relocation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The boycott hasn’t always been maintained though, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas has met with the head of the embassy’s Palestinian Affairs Unit George Noll — which operates in lieu of the Jerusalem Consulate that Trump shuttered in 2019.

Nides repeated the Biden administration’s assertion that the US plans to reopen the consulate that historically served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians. However, he did not provide any additional details, including a timeline for when the matter will be seen through.

The United States consulate general building in Jerusalem, March 4, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Three sources familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel last month that Washington has effectively decided to shelve plans to reopen the consulate amid strong Israeli resistance to the move. The news has deeply angered PA leaders, who warned ToI that the move would have consequences on US-Palestinian relations moving forward.

Notwithstanding declarative efforts to reopen the consulate, Nides stressed: “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the American ambassador works and lives there.”

Beyond that, he said that the US hopes the final status of Jerusalem will be determined through direct negotiations between the parties.

In the meantime, the status of Jerusalem has had ramifications on the ambassador’s lodging situation.

For decades, US envoys to Israel have enjoyed a home in one of the country’s nicest compounds — a deluxe 1.2-acre property on a small Herzliya cliff overlooking the Mediterranean.

But in one of its final acts, the Trump administration sold the property to one of the former president’s biggest donors, the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

The US ambassador’s residence ahead of a Fourth of July party in 2013. (US Embassy)

The sale was seen as an effort by the previous administration to create facts on the ground, forcing future envoys to make their homes in Jerusalem after Trump moved the embassy there in 2018. Friedman would go on to live in a suite in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel for much of the end of his tenure. Prior to Nides’ arrival, Chargé d’Affaires Michael Ratney was based in the old consulate building on Agron Street in downtown Jerusalem.

Nides revealed to Yedioth that he has been living in the nearby Waldorf Astoria Hotel as the embassy looks for a permanent home for him.

“The last thing that should concern Israelis is my living situation,” he said. “In the end, I will find a home, and it will be in Jerusalem. The house in Herzliya was a dream, but they sold it.”

Asked whether he’s met with opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu — who has been a fierce critic of many US policies since stepping down from his post as prime minister — Nides said he had met with the former premier for over two and a half hours.

He also revealed having sat down with Ra’am party chairman Mansour Abbas and heaped praise on the Arab Israeli lawmaker, who made history last year when he brought his Islamist party into the coalition. Nides said he saw in Abbas a politician who cares deeply about the public that he represents and who is determined to bring an end to the endemic violence in Arab communities throughout Israel.

As for the Biden administration’s support for Israel more broadly, Nides characterized it as “unconditional.”

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, left, meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 5, 2021. (GPO/Amos Ben-Gershom)

While he acknowledged that US funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system has been held up by Republican Senator Rand Paul, Nides asserted that “there is zero chance you will not get it.”

He also recognized the differences of opinion on the Iranian nuclear file between the US and Israeli governments, but said the new administration has made a point in constantly keeping Israeli counterparts in the loop regarding the talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Israel opposes the JCPOA while the US believes it is the best option available to place the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program “back in a box.”

“Some of the conversations are meant to calm your anxiety. If I were Israeli, I would be anxious too. I respect that with all my heart,” Nides said.

He noted that after a rockier period over a month ago — during which Prime Minister Naftali Bennett publicized that he had demanded in a call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the US immediately vacate the talks in Vienna rather than succumb to Iran’s “nuclear blackmail” — tensions between the sides have since dissipated.

“The headlines in the media have calmed down because trust has been gained: We believe you and you believe us,” Nides said, adding that the ultimate goal of preventing a nuclear Iran is shared by both sides.

Nides confirmed the existence of a small flank in the Democratic party that is heavily critical of Israel, but he urged Israelis “not to pay undue attention to a handful of people.”

From left: US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, President Isaac Herzog and Israeli Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog meet in Jerusalem on December 21, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

At the same time, Nides, who is Jewish, warned that Israelis should “not bury your head in the sand” regarding relations with American Jewry.

“My children’s friends do not have the same love for Israel and the same interest that my generation [had]. We have to work harder to educate them. What I am not prepared to accept though are statements that smell like antisemitism,” he added.

Before taking on his latest posting, Nides served as vice-chairman of Morgan Stanley. He said the only embassy he was willing to leave his job for was the one in Jerusalem.

“Israel is different in my eyes, first of all as a Jew but also because there are real issues here to promote. I did not come to host cocktail parties,” he said.