Settlements in East Jerusalem and West Bank 'infuriate me'

US envoy looks to bolster West Bank economy with 4G service, tech offerings

Ambassador Tom Nides says he will ‘pound tables’ with Israeli minister to get ball rolling on extending 4G service to all Palestinians, wants PA to have role at Allenby crossing

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US Ambassador Tom Nides is interviewed by The Times of Israel at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, on January 7, 2022. (David Azagury/US Embassy)
US Ambassador Tom Nides is interviewed by The Times of Israel at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, on January 7, 2022. (David Azagury/US Embassy)

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides on Tuesday revealed several of his initiatives aimed at improving the West Bank economy, while also insisting that Palestinians are ultimately most interested in self-determination and cannot be “bought off” with plans requiring them to forgo political sovereignty.

Speaking to a virtual event hosted by the left-wing Americans for Peace Now, Nides spoke candidly, and sometimes even undiplomatically, about his work and goals as ambassador since arriving in Jerusalem late last year.

He said his plans include ensuring access to 4G mobile networks for all Palestinians, granting the Palestinian Authority jurisdiction at the Allenby Crossing between the West Bank and Jordan and convincing major tech firms to open offices in the West Bank.

Nides was particularly critical of Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, while also sounding off on the PA’s welfare policy, which includes payments to security prisoners convicted of killing Israelis as well as to the families of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks.

He doubled down on his pledge not to visit any settlements and indicated that the policy extended to the Western Wall tunnels, which are located underneath the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

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)

Nides insisted that the Biden administration still plans to reopen the US Consulate in Jerusalem, which served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians before it was shuttered by former president Donald Trump in 2019. The envoy argued that both Israelis and Palestinians have inflated the importance of the issue, however, and that he did not want to invest all of his political capital in fulfilling the Biden campaign promise if it meant not being able to see through more tangible improvements for Palestinians.

The envoy shared that he tipped off his colleagues back in Washington of the potentially dangerous period that lies ahead next month, which will feature a rare confluence of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Jewish holiday of Passover and the Christian holiday of Easter. Nides said the State Department answered the call and has been engaging with parties across the region in order to lower tensions.

He also lauded Israel’s efforts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, acknowledging that they are “not risk-free” for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who he said has been working in complete coordination with the Biden administration on the matter.

West Bank initiatives

Nides told attendees he had held a meeting with a West Bank figure, identified by a US official as a prominent Palestinian business leader, and laid out “four or five by things I think we need to do to move forward on our agenda to make life better for the Palestinians.”

“I have a handful of things that I’m trying to execute in the West Bank,” said Nides during the event.

Among those priorities is securing 4G cell phone service for Palestinians.

Nides said he toured Palestinian areas of the West Bank recently and was dismayed to see that there had no 4G service.

A vendor offers mobile phone contracts from a booth on a street in Nablus in the West Bank on November 15, 2016. (Sebi Berens/Flash90)

“Who the hell has 3G? It’s ridiculous,” he said. He added that he would be “pounding the table about the importance of every Palestinian having the same 4G or 5G on their phones” at a dinner with Israeli Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel later that evening.

Last November, Israel tentatively agreed to permit Palestinian cellular companies to set up 4G networks as part of a series of steps meant to strengthen the PA.

But the approval has yet to be finalized and Jerusalem has been dragging its feet since, much to the frustration of the PA and the UN.

Palestinians in the West Bank were only permitted third-generation telecommunications in 2018, four years after Israel had already transitioned to 4G. And in Gaza, where Israel has not allowed 3G equipment to enter, Palestinian carriers only offer 2G — a service initially introduced in the 1990s.

The lack of access to faster cellular service speeds poses a serious hurdle to Palestinian economic development, according to observers.

Nides noted that he met Monday with representatives of major American companies, including Google, Microsoft and Intel to push them on expanding opportunities for Palestinians.

“I basically said, ‘I need you to open offices in the West Bank. I need you to do this… and I’m working with them to set up a pathway to do that,” he said.

“None of these things on its own is magical, but if we don’t do these things, we’re going to wake up… with [a] catastrophe,” Nides said.

Still, he clarified that economic initiatives for the Palestinians cannot take place in a vacuum.

The Allenby Crossing, the main route from the Palestinian West Bank into neighbouring Jordan, is pictured on March 10, 2020 after it was partially closed over coronavirus fear. (Photo by ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

“You cannot buy off the Palestinians. It’s not happening,” Nides said, referencing the Trump administration’s peace plan, that offered the Palestinians billions in economic aid from countries abroad in a precursor to a political plan that envisioned them having a sub-sovereign, non-contiguous state demarcated to prevent the evacuation of a single Israeli settlement.

PA officials have thus far avoided public meetings with Nides and have largely maintained a boycott of the Israeli embassy since Trump moved it to Jerusalem in 2018. Ramallah used to work closely with the consulate before it was folded into the embassy in 2019, but has all but severed contact since then.

“I’m not suggesting that money isn’t important, but that’s not exactly all the Palestinians want — quite the opposite. They want to control their own destiny. They want to control their own future. They’re not to be purchased, Nides said. “If we think we [can] just lead with our checkbook, it doesn’t work.”

Nides said he was aiming for Ramallah to be granted authority at the Allenby Crossing between Jordan and the West Bank, which is currently operated exclusively by Israel and Jordan, despite mostly serving Palestinians.

Under the Oslo Accords, Israel agreed to grant the PA some jurisdiction at the crossing, but those stipulations were never implemented.

“I’m trying to convince the prime minister and the Israelis to give more control at the Allenby Bridge,” Nides said.

“What does equality mean? Having 4G! That’s what equality means,” he said later. “What does equality mean? It’s being able to go to the Allenby Bridge and feel like there’s a connection to the Palestinian people. [It’s] going to Ramallah and seeing the Apple Store, or seeing Google around.”

‘We can’t do stupid things’

Nides did not hold back when asked about Israeli settlement expansion, saying it “infuriates me.”

“We can’t do stupid things that impede us from a two-state solution. What I mean by that is we can’t have the Israelis doing settlement growth in East Jerusalem or the West Bank,” he said.

The ambassador admitted that he has “can’t stop everything” and has to “pick his battles.” One of those was on an Israeli plan to build thousands of housing units in the E1 corridor between East Jerusalem and the Ma’ale Adumim settlement.

Opponents argue that allowing settlement construction there would mark a death-knell for the two-state solution by barring Palestinian contiguity from where they hope to place their future capital to the West Bank.

“E1 was a disaster. I went full bore on E1,” Nides said, revealing the role the US played in Israel’s decision to shelve the plan earlier this year.

A picture taken from the controversial E1 corridor in the West Bank shows the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the background, Feb. 25, 2020. (Ahamd Gharabli/AFP)

Asked about his pledge shortly after arriving in Israel that he would not visit West Bank settlements, Nides acknowledged that he didn’t expect the remark to make the noise that it did.

“This was not like I thought this through. This wasn’t [supposed to be] my initial go-after-it issue. But I just thought… saying I’m not going to go to the settlements was the right thing to do. Why upset everyone,” he said, clarifying that he is happy to visit settlers elsewhere.

He noted, however, that he had visited the Western Wall, situated in East Jerusalem, dozens of times since arriving last year, but was not publicizing the visits.

“I’m not gonna make a big deal of it. I’m not going to bring the cameras in,” he said.

Members of former US president Donald Trump’s administration broke with decades of US policy by making official state visits to the shrine, considered the holiest place Jews may pray. US officials in the past visited the site only in a private capacity, without an Israeli escort.

Nides said he turned down an offer to tour the tunnels beneath the Old City that run along the Western Wall because doing so would “aggravate people.”

The opening of the excavated tunnels in 1996 sparked days of deadly rioting in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

Despite disagreeing over settlement policy, Nides said he was enamored by the diversity of Israel’s new government.

“Yes, they’ve got a one-seat majority, and there are some people in the government who I’d probably prefer not having dinner with, but it’s a pretty amazing democracy that’s here,” he said. “We can complain… about different people and different things they say, but we have an opportunity here with this government to do things vis a vis the West Bank and the Palestinian people that actually puts action to these words and that’s what I focus on.”

“When they do something that I’m aggravated about — let’s use settlements for example that I think are wrong. I try to [respond] quietly first. I pick up the phone and call the prime minister, the foreign minister or the defense minister. But if that doesn’t work, then I get a little more creative and use the public pressure,” Nides said.

Nides also criticized the PA and its welfare policy, which critics say incentivizes terror and have branded as “pay-to-slay.”

To many Palestinians though, solidarity with those imprisoned for various acts of opposition to Israeli rule, including violence, is a key tenet of the national movement. The payments are also seen as a crucial form of welfare for families where the breadwinner is imprisoned in what they view as an unjust military system.

“These martyr payments… have caused an enormous amount of problems,” the envoy said, adding that he’s working with Israeli and Palestinian officials to reform the policy. Ramallah has pledged to do so, but has yet to make any changes to that effect.

Palestinian Fatema Taha, 40, the mother of Maram, 24 and Ibrahim Taha, 16, displays a poster with their pictures and Arabic that reads, “Islamic Jihad in Palestine celebrates the martyrs of Jerusalem’s uprising,” at the family house, in the West Bank village of Qatana, near Ramallah, Thursday, April 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Making a mountain out of a building

Pressed on where things stood with the Biden administration’s pledge to reopen the US consulate, Nides gave a somewhat non-committal answer.

“We want to open it. And people say, ‘well, why don’t you open it.’ As you know, it’s not as simple as that. It’s a government that’s got [a] one seat [majority]. I’d prefer not to tip over the government,” he said.

He acknowledged the symbolic importance of such a move for Palestinians looking to have their political aspirations validated and suggested that this has led to fierce opposition from the Israeli government.

“Both the Palestinians and Israel have made way too big a deal of this particular building… I don’t want it to distract me from meeting with Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, [from] working on things to keep the two-state solution alive and viable,” Nides said. “We want to open the consulate. [But] I don’t want to spend all of my energy every day trying to open a consulate and [have] everything else go to hell.”

The ambassador said the only cable he sent back to the State Department since taking the job regarded the potential for violence at the Temple Mount posed by the confluence of religious holidays next month, after being briefed on the threat by dovish Jerusalem expert Danny Seidemann.

Israeli security forces and Palestinian Muslim worshippers clash at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, at Temple Mount, on May 21, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

“I left that meeting and I … said ‘wake up everybody. This is really potentially a problem,'” Nides said, confirming reporting from The Times of Israel last month on US officials urging their Israeli counterparts to take steps to lower tensions as the holidays approach.

“To the credit of the State Department, everyone is now fixated on what could potentially be a really serious issue,” Nides said. “The hope is that [by talking about it] the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Israelis [will] attempt to try to calm things down and make sure it doesn’t blow out of proportion.”

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