Biden announces nomination of Thomas Nides as US ambassador to Israel

Former State Dept. official with ties to Blinken and Obama still needs to be confirmed by Senate, though no major opposition expected

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Then-Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides (center) talks to South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan (right) in Seoul, South Korea, on February 29, 2012. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man, Pool)
Then-Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides (center) talks to South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan (right) in Seoul, South Korea, on February 29, 2012. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man, Pool)

The White House on Tuesday announced that former State Department senior official Thomas Nides is the US administration’s nominee to serve as the next ambassador to Israel.

The former deputy secretary of state for management and resources, who most recently served as managing director and vice-chairman of Morgan Stanley, will still need to make it through a Senate confirmation hearing, but no significant opposition is expected to Nides — a lesser-known figure than previous ambassadors.

Nides was offered and accepted the position privately several weeks ago though it was not made public until Tuesday.

The White House has been relatively slow in announcing its ambassadorial picks, preferring to focus more heavily on domestic policy matters coming out of the gate. However, it has exposed the administration to scrutiny over its decision to leave positions vacant in the meantime, and this was particularly noticed during last month’s Gaza fighting, during which the US had no ambassador and no special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Evidently recognizing the lack of manpower, US President Joe Biden dispatched former Jerusalem Consul General Michael Ratney to Jerusalem less than two weeks after the war to serve as interim mission head until a full-time ambassador is confirmed.

US Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, right, and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns testify at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee on December 20, 2012. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan was the first government official to welcome Nides’s appointment, saying that he “look[ed] forward to working with him to further the special relations between Israel and the United States and enhancing our cooperation on the many issues at hand: expanding the circle of peace in the Middle East, Israeli-US partnership on the fight against climate change and COVID-19 and countering the growing threat of antisemitism around the world.”

Media reports in April named Nides as Biden’s top choice for the job, but the weeks that followed saw several Jewish groups and a handful of Jewish Democrats reach out to the administration, imploring him to pick former congressman and head of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, Robert Wexler, who was seen as better versed in the subject matter.

Ultimately though, Biden went with Nides who was likely aided by his close ties with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and former US president Barack Obama.

But Nides is no stranger to US-Israel relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict either. As deputy secretary of state, Nides built effective working relationships with several Israeli officials and played a key role in the Obama administration’s approval of an extension on loan guarantees for Israel worth billions of dollars.

He also helped carry out Obama’s policy against congressional efforts to limit US support for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNWRA) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In this file photo taken on February 2, 2020, a child stands next to a sack of flour as people come to receive food aid from a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) distribution center in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

In 2012, Nides sent a letter to the US Senate’s Committee on Appropriations, arguing against legislation that sought to distinguish between Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948 and those refugees who are their descendants, reducing the number of refugees from 5 million to just 30,000 (the Trump administration toyed with similar measures). Nides wrote that the legislation would undermine American ability to act as a peace mediator, “and generate very strong negative reaction from the Palestinians and our allies in the region, particularly Jordan.”

Former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren wrote in his book “Ally” that in 2011, Nides had argued passionately against congressional efforts to defund UNESCO after the body admitted Palestine as a member state.

“You don’t want to f***ing defund UNESCO. They fucking teach the f***ing Holocaust,” Oren quotes Nides as having told him.

View of the site of the US Embassy in Jerusalem ahead of its inauguration, May 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Reflecting on the heated encounter in an interview with The Times of Israel, Oren clarified that he viewed Nides as a friend of Israel and a “very funny guy.”

“That’s been quoted as an example of an anti-Israel bent for Tom Nides. It’s not like that. That’s the way they talk,” Oren said.

A recipient of the secretary of state’s Distinguished Service Award, Nides was reportedly considered by Hillary Clinton as White House chief of staff had she won the 2016 election. He has longtime relationships with both Biden and Obama. He also served as former senator Joe Lieberman’s campaign manager when he ran for vice president in 2000.

Nides serves on the board of many nonprofits, including the Atlantic Council, International Rescue Committee, Partnership for Public Service, Urban Alliance Foundation, Council on Foreign Relations and Woodrow Wilson Center.

Born in 1961 to a Jewish family in Duluth, Minnesota, Nides is a banking executive and if indeed picked, would bring both government and private sector experience to the post. If confirmed, it will be the second time in three administrations in which a native of the Duluth Jewish community lived in the ambassador’s residence. Obama ambassador Dan Shapiro’s wife Julie Fisher is also from Duluth.

His father, Arnold Nides, was the president of Temple Israel and the Duluth Jewish Federation, as well as the founder of finance company Nides Finance.

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