Interview'They agreed to things they never thought they would'

Ex-envoy Nides: Visa waiver success proves Israel can make concessions when it wants

Jerusalem agreed to reforms regarding Palestinian travelers that it initially thought were ‘nuts,’ former ambassador tells ToI, offering lesson as Saudi normalization moves forward

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

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides attends a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides attends a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — Israel’s entry into the US Visa Waiver Program demonstrates that it is capable of making difficult compromises, former US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said on Tuesday.

“What I take away from this is very simple. If Israel wants to do something, it can do it,” Nides told The Times of Israel shortly before US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that Jerusalem had been accepted into the program.

Nides, who was US President Joe Biden’s ambassador to Israel from late 2021 until July of this year, was seen as the driving force behind Israel’s admission into the program. Israel had long sought to join the waiver program, which will allow Israelis to travel to the US without needing to first secure a tourist visa, but consistently fell short of various stipulations formulated by Washington, until a renewed push to negotiate the necessary reforms was kicked off with Nides’s arrival in Jerusalem.

Among the stipulations that needed to be met was a demand for reciprocity, which requires all US travelers to be treated equally.

“Israel wanted the Visa Waiver Program, but we put on very clear conditions for it to happen — conditions, which at the beginning of this, they thought were all nuts,” the former ambassador said in his first interview since stepping down. The former Morgan Stanley executive began a new role as vice chairman of Wells Fargo & Company on Wednesday.

Israel’s security protocols at its borders have long included discriminatory procedures for Palestinian travelers as well as those of Arab and Muslim backgrounds. Jerusalem justifies the constraints it places on some travelers as necessary for thwarting terror.

But the Biden administration made clear that it would not make Israel the program’s 41st member country unless it eased its travel restrictions on US citizens.

Israel eventually complied, signing a memorandum of understanding with the US in July in which it committed to the reciprocity requirement. It subsequently began allowing tens of thousands of Palestinians from both the West Bank and Gaza to apply for travel permits to enter Israel for up to 90 days, including to fly out of Ben Gurion — an airport all other Palestinians are barred from using.

Illustrative: Travelers seen arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, on September 7, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

“They ultimately agreed to things that they never thought they would agree to. It’s a proven lesson that when Israel wants something, you can negotiate something,” said Nides.

Nides did not immediately try to apply that lesson to the ongoing US effort to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but he did not reject the premise.

As part of those negotiations, the US and Saudi Arabia are asking Israel to make significant concessions to the Palestinians that would help revive prospects for a two-state solution, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Such concessions appear all but impossible, given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current coalition, which is almost entirely made up of lawmakers who oppose Palestinian statehood.

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on October 16, 2019, shows King Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) receiving Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) in the capital Riyadh. (AFP / Saudi Royal Palace / Bandar AL-JALOUD)

But during the interview in the living room of his Washington home, Nides noted that with the Visa Waiver Program, Israelis were able to soften attitudes once considered unshakable.

“I will say that in this particular case, [Israel] came to the conclusion that Americans who happen to be living in the West Bank are not a security threat to the residents of Tel Aviv. They got very comfortable with that, and the Shin Bet [security service] got very comfortable with it. To me, that’s a pretty good lesson,” he said.

Nides declined to speculate as to whether Israel would ultimately comply with Saudi demands for concessions to the Palestinians as it did in order to secure admission into the program.

“But they’re going to have to understand that the Palestinian piece is going to be a very important element to getting the deal done,” he said.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (left) and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked at the US Embassy in Jerusalem on December 8, 2021. (Ayelet Shaked/Twitter)

The former envoy was quick to hail Mayorkas and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as critical for the initiative’s success.

He offered additional accolades to former prime ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, who moved the effort along during their respective tenures, but was the most effusive in his praise of former interior minister Ayelet Shaked. “As conservative as she was, she’s the one who I worked with from the beginning of this… to get this done.”

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