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US envoy: Claims Israel is ceding to Hezbollah in Lebanon gas deal are ‘ridiculous’

Ambassador Tom Nides derides criticism of US-brokered negotiations made by Netanyahu, says predecessor David Friedman is ‘wrong’ to assert potential agreement favors Lebanese side

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem on December 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90/File)
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem on December 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90/File)

JTA — Taking aim at claims made by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, America’s top diplomatic representative to Israel shot down claims that the US-brokered deal on gas and maritime borders between Israel and Lebanon was a surrender to Hezbollah.

“That is ridiculous,” Ambassador Tom Nides said of the claims on Friday.

Nides also rejected arguments from his predecessor as US ambassador, David Friedman, who said that dividends from the disputed maritime gas fields would go “100% to Lebanon and 0% to Israel.”

“I have enormous respect for David [Friedman] and I’m not in any way criticizing him,” Nides told The Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “However, it’s wrong. In fact, former prime minister Netanyahu also supported a very similar deal a few years ago.”

The gas deal, now facing last-minute roadblocks, has topped the news in the region in recent weeks. The dispute focuses on the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon in the Mediterranean Sea. Two offshore fields lie in the disputed territory, and both countries seek the right to drill in the area. The US has been brokering talks between Israel and Lebanon, which have no diplomatic relations.

Nides and the US administration see the potential agreement as a “historic deal” that he said “would be good for Lebanon” and “good for the Israelis in particular.”

Despite indications earlier this week that the deal was close to being sealed, it has since appeared to falter as Lebanese negotiators insist on certain changes that have been rejected by Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

The opposition led by Netanyahu has also been critical of the negotiations. Netanyahu said Monday that Israel was giving away “sovereign territory” to Hezbollah in the negotiations.

Lebanese protesters on a motorboat carry their national flag as they sail in front of an Israeli Navy vessel during a demonstration demanding Lebanon’s right to its maritime oil and gas fields, near the southern border town of Naqoura, Lebanon, September 4, 2022. (AP/Mohammed Zaatari)

The US ambassador still believes that it is possible to overcome the differences and reach a deal, though.

“I’m quite confident we will get this done. Obviously, in no way will we ever support something that would create a security risk for the state of Israel or put Israel at a disadvantage,” Nides said.

He stressed that the US is playing the role of an honest broker and flatly denied suggestions that the deal now proposed is significantly different than discussed in the past, while Netanyahu served as prime minister.

“It’s not true,” Nides said. “The reality is that the basis is basically the same and ultimately the benefits will be similar to what it would have been several years ago.”

Nides, 61, took on his post in Israel in December. In a wide-ranging interview in Tel Aviv, he took on some of the toughest issues creating friction between Jerusalem and Washington, including religious pluralism in Israel, settlement expansion, growing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and the upcoming Israeli elections.

Ultra-Orthodox youths interrupt a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

Religious freedom and political extremism

Nides, who grew up in Minnesota as a liberal Reform Jew and went to synagogue only during the High Holidays, is a firm believer in equality at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, or Kotel. Over the summer, ultra-Orthodox Jews accosted American Jewish families who were celebrating their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs at the holy site, causing an uproar.

“I have no tolerance for anyone being hurt or attacked for doing what they believe is their religious belief at the Western Wall. Both on the Orthodox and Reform side, and for women and men. I think everyone should use this religious site for their own spirituality,” he said.

Nides has been involved personally on the issue.

“I have had the opportunity to spend many evenings with the rabbi of the Wall [Shmuel Rabinovich, an Orthodox rabbi]. I go to the Kotel quite often, and I’m respectful, but I make our position very clear vis a vis the importance of observant and non-observant Jews to share this beautiful place,” he said. “I like the rabbi but I disagree with him and some of the people around him on the conditions that should be set up for the non-religious Jews.”

Religious pluralism, a top concern for some Jewish Americans, does not feature significantly in Israel’s upcoming elections, scheduled for November 1. Much of the election debate concentrates on the question of including in a coalition far-right politicians, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former Kahanist accused of inciting violence against Arabs, if Netanyahu forms the next government.

US Democrats have weighed in, sending clear warnings against the move.

Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reportedly told Netanyahu that including Ben-Gvir in his government would harm US-Israel relations. And on Tuesday, Representative Brad Sherman, also a pro-Israel congressman, followed suit, urging Israeli politicians to “ostracize” Ben-Gvir.

Ben-Gvir’s “outrageous views run contrary to Israel’s core principles of a democratic and Jewish state,” Sherman said. “These extremists undermine Israel’s interests and the US-Israel relationship, which I and my colleagues have worked to strengthen.”

Nides, cautiously stressing that he “won’t get involved in the politics of Israel before an election,” stood by the right of American politicians to voice their opinions on the issue: “We are free to articulate our anxieties or concerns vis a vis making sure that the values that we state are played out here in Israel as well as we believe they should be.”

Israeli troops carry out searches following a shooting attack, in the West Bank village of Salem, near Nablus, on October 2, 2022. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

West Bank violence

The military launched arrest operations in the West Bank after a series of Palestinian attacks that killed 19 people between mid-March and the beginning of May.

More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank in 2022, many while attacking Israeli troops, and over 2,000 arrested.

“We are always worried. We worry about the things happening in Nablus and Jenin, and we are obviously concerned about Israel’s security,” Nides said. He articulated a US position that seeks to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and acknowledge its role, at a time when President Mahmoud Abbas’s grip on power is seen as weakening.

“We work with the PA every day, to help them provide the security they want. We want the PA to take their own lead with their own people. The PA has no interest in having terrorist cells exist” in the West Bank, Nides said.

Nides praised Lapid for “his brave comments on the importance of the two-state solution,” referring to the prime minister’s recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly, despite the lack of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We are under no illusions here that I will be standing in the Rose Garden [at the White House] receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for getting the two-state solution, but it’s important that we create the conditions on the ground for a two-state solution,” Nides said. “And that includes helping the Palestinian people.”

On the issue of the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Nides reiterated the Biden administration’s policy, saying, “We do not support settlement growth. Period. I work every day behind the scenes, with the Israelis, to try and eliminate, slow down or avoid that.”

“This is a sovereign country. We can’t dictate to them what they can or can’t do, but I can put as much pressure as I can to make sure they understand our position,” he said.

President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, center, is escorted after arrival at UN headquarters, September 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Israel’s neighbors, including Iran

The Trump administration deserves praise for the US-brokered Abraham Accords, which normalized ties between Israel and several Arab states, Nides said.

“They created a startup and we want to grow it into a real company,” he said of the accords.

Israelis have emphasized their wish to expand the Abraham Accords to include other Arab nations, primarily Saudi Arabia, which has not openly reciprocated. Nides is cautious.

“Ultimately, in sort of a dreamy way, it would be great if the Saudis normalized relations with Israel. It’s obviously the big prize. But this is not just about collecting countries, but about going deeper on security and taking this to a whole new level,” he said. “It’s imperative that we focus on what’s in front of us instead of chasing the next shiny object.”

Nides mentioned Jordan and Egypt as examples of countries that deserve Israel’s focus. Ties between Israel and Jordan have deteriorated in recent years.

While nurturing and striking new friendships in the region is a goal for Israel, Iran’s nuclear program remains a top priority. With a breakdown of the nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran, the threat of escalation between Jerusalem and Tehran looms.

Conditions for returning to the nuclear deal with Iran “haven’t been met,” Nides said.

“The ball is in Iran’s court,” he said.

But whether a deal is reached, as the Biden administration hopes, or not, as Israel wishes, Nides said the United States won’t dictate Israel’s behavior toward Iran.

“We will not tie Israel’s hands,” Nides said. “They don’t tell us everything but we have a pretty good security cooperation with them. We are not going to tell them what they can or can’t do. There’s full transparency between the US and Israel,” he said.

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