US envoy on diaspora minister: 'I don't know who he is'

Clapping back at minister, envoy Nides says US won’t stay out of Israel’s business

After his call for Israel to ‘pump the brakes’ on its judicial overhaul led to angry pushback from Chikli, Nides says Israelis don’t want US to get out of their affairs

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

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides speaks at an Institute for National Security Studies Conference in Tel Aviv on February 28, 2023. (Yair Valer)
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides speaks at an Institute for National Security Studies Conference in Tel Aviv on February 28, 2023. (Yair Valer)

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides on Tuesday hit back at Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli, who said earlier this month that the envoy should “mind [his] own business” after Nides called on the Israeli government to slow its controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary.

“Some Israeli official — I don’t know who he is, I don’t think I’ve met him — suggested that I should stay out of Israel’s business,” Nides said during a live interview at a conference hosted by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“I really think that most Israelis do not want America to stay out of their business,” he said, ostensibly referencing the security, political and diplomatic support that Washington has provided Jerusalem for decades.

The comments were part of a back-and-forth spat that escalated on February 16 when Nides gave the initial recommendation to slow down the judicial overhaul effort, after a rare statement from US President Joe Biden himself urging the government to “build consensus” for the “fundamental changes” the coalition seeks to implement.

It was Nides’s comments that struck a nerve with Israeli ministers though.

“As I tell my kids, pump the brakes,” Nides said of the government’s legislative push during a podcast interview with former Obama administration official David Axelrod.

“Pump the brakes yourself and mind your own business,” Chikli shot back during an interview with Kan public radio several days later.

Chikli said he was happy to discuss diplomatic and security issues with Nides, but insisted that the envoy should “respect our democracy.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli in Herzliya, January 5, 2023 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Later that day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a conference of American Jewish community executives, “All democracies should respect the will of other free peoples, just like we respect their democratic decisions.”

In the Tuesday on-stage interview, Nides reiterated his call for the coalition to “slow down a little bit” and “try to build some consensus,” rather than bulldozing its proposals through the Knesset.

He pointed out that President Isaac Herzog has made the same request, and highlighted the importance of maintaining a strong judiciary.

“Last week, when we were defending the State of Israel at the UN, the things we always harkened back at” are Israel’s independent institutions, Nides said.

Nides then appeared to then make an effort to downplay the disagreement.

“Make no mistake,” he said. “We stand by Israel. We work with Israel. It’s a very beautiful democracy. And [that’s] been shown every day, in every way, and it will continue,” he said.

Responding to the ambassador, Chikli tweeted, “The US is our closest ally and a beacon of democracy. I’m confident it will stand by our conviction that Israeli citizens should run their own affairs and enjoy — in the words of Thomas Jefferson — ‘a government that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.'”

IDF soldiers patrol the main road in Huwara in the West Bank, on February 27, 2023. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

What happened at the UN Security Council?

Nides was also asked during the on-stage interview about US efforts to de-escalate tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The ambassador said the two sides held negotiations themselves earlier this month at the encouragement of the Biden administration, which led the Palestinian Authority to withdraw a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt to settlement activity.

But senior PA official Hussein al-Sheikh shared a different account of how the Security Council initiative got shelved, telling Palestine TV Monday that the US had pressured the members of the top UN panel to drop the proposal.

Al-Sheikh said the Biden administration had sought to coax the PA last week into holding off on having the resolution submitted by 24 hours. When PA President Mahmoud Abbas refused, the “US exerted pressure on all 15 members of the Security Council so that the resolution wouldn’t be brought to a vote,” al-Sheikh said.

Asked to elaborate further, al-Sheikh said he didn’t want to “get into details that are embarrassing for any party.”

He insisted the PA wasn’t the party responsible for the UAE-drafted resolution’s withdrawal and suggested that members of the Security Council caved amid pressure from the US.

Rather than passing a binding resolution, the Security Council sufficed with issuing a joint statement condemning Israeli settlement activity. While this Presidential Statement was largely symbolic, it was the first one regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the panel had issued in nine years.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, is accompanied by King Abdullah II of Jordan, during a conference at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The significance of Aqaba

Despite the ongoing uptick in West Bank violence coupled with the strained relationship between the PA and the new hardline Israeli government, the parties attended a regional summit in Aqaba, Jordan, on Sunday along with American, Egyptian and Jordanian officials.

While two officials involved in the planning of the Aqaba summit told The Times of Israel that the US was the one urging the parties to attend, Nides on Tuesday claimed Jordan was the country that “pushed this aggressively,” and downplayed the conference’s significance.

“Let’s not get carried away, folks. This is not the Camp David Accords. This is not peace in the Middle East. This is small steps to try and avoid actions, which [are] hurtful for the US, Israel, for the Palestinian people,” he said, ostensibly referring to the commitments Jerusalem and Ramallah made in a communique published after the summit.

While the joint statement was vague about the commitments made by the PA, it said Israel agreed to hold off on advancing plans for new settlement homes for four months and on advancing the legalization of outposts for six months.

Illustrative: A view of the Israeli settlement of Ariel, in the West Bank on July 2, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

But Israel said the pledge would not extend to its announcement earlier this month that it would approve the legalization of nine outposts and authorize plans for nearly 10,000 settlement homes. Moreover, Netanyahu explained to his Likud party last week that the Defense Ministry body that authorizes settlement construction only convenes on a quarterly basis anyway and will continue to do so as planned.

Nides noted that the summit took place on the same day as a terror shooting that took the lives of two Israeli brothers driving through the Palestinian town of Huwara, followed by a deadly settler rampage through the community that killed one Palestinian, seriously injured four others and torched dozens of buildings and vehicles.

“We have huge problems in the West Bank. We have settler violence, which is causing an enormous amount of pain,” Nides said. “I don’t think any Israeli [was] proud to see Israeli settlers burning cars and smashing windows.”

“That [violence was] going on at the same time, but to get [the parties] into a room for 24 hours and come out with a document that said anything is progress,” he said. “I know that’s not Nobel peace prize winning [material], but it was helpful.”

“This is going to be a very complicated period of time we’re about ready to walk into. We’ve got to keep things as calm as possible to [prevent] things from getting out of control, which could easily happen,” he said.

Iranian drones in Russia mean no nuclear talks

As for Iran’s nuclear program, Nides said the Biden administration would uphold its commitments to Israel that it would not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon, that it will not “tie Israel’s hands” as Jerusalem seeks to defend itself against the threat and that it “has Israel’s back” if it decides to act.

He acknowledged that there are differences of opinion and that the US still prefers a diplomatic solution to the problem as Israel continues to call for Washington to threaten military action against Iran.

However, Nides said that a return to the long-moribund nuclear talks was off the table as long as Tehran continues to crack down on protesters against the regime and sell drones to Russia to be used against Ukraine.

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