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Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz (R), political correspondent Tal Schneider (second from L), diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman (L) and US correspondent Jacob Magid (via Zoom) interview US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (second from R) at the US Embassy in Jerusalem on January 7, 2022. (David Azagury / US Embassy to Israel)
Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz (R), political correspondent Tal Schneider (second from L), diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman (L) and US correspondent Jacob Magid (via Zoom) interview US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (second from R) at the US Embassy in Jerusalem on January 7, 2022. (David Azagury / US Embassy)
Interview'My north star is to strengthen the democratic Jewish state'

US envoy to Times of Israel: ‘My job is to calm things down, not to jazz things up’

Two months in, Ambassador Thomas Nides sets out his approach to the role, explains why he won’t visit settlements, hails the ‘beautiful’ government, insists Biden ‘gets it’ on Iran

Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz (R), political correspondent Tal Schneider (second from L), diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman (L) and US correspondent Jacob Magid (via Zoom) interview US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (second from R) at the US Embassy in Jerusalem on January 7, 2022. (David Azagury / US Embassy)

For decades, the United States has been Israel’s closest ally. The relationship runs both deep and broad, from military and national security to trade, culture, and innovation.

At the same time, the two allies face distinctly different domestic and international pressures, and there are core disagreements on important issues.

United States Ambassador Tom Nides, who assumed his post in December, is no stranger to the US-Israel relationship. As deputy secretary of state in 2011-2013, Nides built effective working ties with several key Israeli officials and played a major role in the Obama administration’s approval of an extension of loan guarantees for Israel worth billions of dollars. He also helped implement Obama’s opposition to congressional efforts to limit US support for the UN agencies seen as hostile to Israel.

Now he is again a central player at a time when a number of issues have the potential to strain US-Israel ties: nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna, the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state in international forums, West Bank Jewish settlement growth, the lack of a long-term Hamas-Israel ceasefire, and Jerusalem’s robust relationship with US rivals Russia and China.

Nides, 60, sat down in his Jerusalem office on Monday to discuss these topics, and much more, with The Times of Israel.

Nides’s north star

With his imposing frame, Upper Midwestern accent, and gregarious style, Nides is unquestionably a Minnesotan. But steel lies behind the easy smile and quips. He has the commanding presence of a man who managed Morgan Stanley, one of the world’s leading investment banks, served at the top levels at State, and wasn’t afraid to make his feelings known to Israeli officials during the Obama administration, as former Israeli envoy to the US Michael Oren made crystal clear in a book on his tenure in DC. Oren noted, nonetheless, in a 2015 Times of Israel interview, that he considered Nides to be among Israel’s “dear friends.”

In our interview, he stated unequivocally that he is a Zionist, and repeated that his “north star” (perhaps not coincidentally, the name of Minnesota’s beloved but long-departed hockey team) is the strengthening of Israel as a democratic, Jewish state. He was equally adamant that part of that identity means that he — and the US as Israel’s friend — must work diligently to improve the lot of the Palestinian people, and keep pushing toward a two-state solution.

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

Nides described a close, well-functioning relationship between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US President Joe Biden, and between their two governments.

He downplayed concerns that international abuse of NSO spyware could rock the US-Israel relationship, emphasizing that the Commerce Department’s blacklist of the firm marks a response to an individual company’s actions rather than a problem with Israeli technology more broadly.

On areas of disagreement like Russia, China, Palestinians, and of course the Iran nuclear talks, Nides painted a picture of open and frank discussion, with inevitable disagreements but without any surprises.

There were no major surprises in our interview, either, but plenty of fascinating passages. Notably, for instance, Nides took pains to praise the Trump administration for the Abraham Accords, admired the current Israeli coalition as “a beautiful thing” while stressing that he can’t get involved in internal Israeli politics, and both defended and elaborated on his explicit policy of not visiting settlements.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: You’ve said several times since being appointed, and possibly even before, that you’re coming into this position with no ideology. On the other hand, you’ve also talked about identifying yourself as a Zionist. And you’ve talked about your Jewishness and how that’s influenced you. We’re curious to hear how your personal connection to Israel and your religion and your background are impacting your approach to this job.

Tom Nides: I grew up in Minnesota. I was the youngest of seven kids. Some say it’s eight kids; I have a half-sister. I grew up in a traditional Jewish family, not a particularly religious family. We celebrated Shabbat on Fridays, but it was all about culture for me.

My father and mother were both really involved in the Jewish community in Duluth. The community was very small; probably at the height of it, maybe a hundred families. My father was the president of the temple, the head of the UJA Federation. My mother was head of the sisterhood, Hadassah. You’re Jews, you’re in Minnesota, there’s very few Jews. You are involved in the community. And my parents basically instilled in us giving back, being part of a community, being part of something.

My bar mitzvah class was 13 of us. I never was in a place where there was a difference between Jews and non-Jews. I grew up in basically a non-Jewish community. My high school was 99.9% Christian or Lutheran or whatever it was. I knew I was a Jew. But when I went to the University of Minnesota, and I realized a lot of Jewish kids hung around together, and non-Jewish kids hung around, it was kind of an enlightening moment for me.

When I came to Israel for the first time when I was 15, I went to Ein Hashofet [a kibbutz in northern Israel] — which, by the way, was the first stop I made when I became ambassador. I went [back] up to the kibbutz because I wanted to remember this experience I’d had, when I [first came to Israel] and slept in the Sinai and climbed Masada in the middle of the night and did all those things.

I came as a cultural Jew. I really care about people. I care about communities. I care about doing the right thing. And I grew up in this environment: Do the right thing, don’t be a jerk and try to be a nice person. And generally, that’s how I’ve conducted my life, and I’ve been really fortunate.

I came as a cultural Jew. I really care about people, I care about communities

Listen, I’ve spent half my career in government working — fortunately, by the grace of God, someone’s taking care of me — at the highest level of government, and most would say at the highest level of business, having run or been the COO and CFO of a bunch of investment banks. So I’ve been really lucky, and I really believe in the idea of paying forward. I don’t know if that’s a Jewish term or a Christian term. I really don’t care. It’s about doing the right thing.

So I find myself as an ambassador, and when I say I’m not ideological, I really just want to do the right thing, and that means I go from Bnei Brak to Nazareth in the same 48-hour period of time. I go and meet with the head rabbi in Bnei Brak, and I go meet with all the religious leaders in Nazareth.

My first day, I went up to Uri Buri’s restaurant [in Acre] because I thought it was really an interesting story of how he hired Arabs and Jews and they worked together. And a bunch of people burned down his hotel and his restaurant. He rebuilt it.

That kind of stuff for me is what’s really important. And that’s why I’m spending so much time worrying about the Palestinian people as well as the strength of Israel.

Thomas Nides testifies to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 20, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

When I came here I had one north star — to strengthen the democratic Jewish state. And everything I do is within that center of gravity.

So when I say I’m going to work on making sure we get the replenishment of Iron Dome, that we’re going to make sure that there’s this unbreakable bond that Biden talks about between Israel and the United States, that’s kind of priority number one, because that strengthens Israel.

Priority two is to keep the vision of a two-state solution alive, which means helping the Palestinian people, getting [both sides] not to do stupid things. And then three, this whole economic idea around the Abraham Accords, the visa waivers, because it strengthens Israel.

I want people after a couple of years to say, hey, you know what, I don’t know if he got much done, but he certainly wanted to do the right thing. That’s all I really care about

That’s kind of my mantra. It is who I am as a human being. I happen to be lucky to be selected to do this job.

But when I say I don’t have an ideology… Listen, I am a Democrat, I am a liberal Democrat. I wouldn’t lie to you and say I’m not, but that does not mean a thing when it’s here in Israel. Does not mean a thing. It’s who I am as a person. I want people after a couple of years to say, hey, I don’t know if he got much done, but he certainly wanted to do the right thing. That’s all I really care about.

Just a follow-up. I don’t know if it’s so obvious that you didn’t say it: Are you comfortable saying that you’re a Zionist?

Nides: Of course I’m a Zionist! I’ve said it 100 times: I’m a Zionist. I fundamentally believe not only in the State of Israel, but in what it stands for. My commitment here — I’m 100% a Zionist. And you can be a Zionist and also care deeply about the Palestinian people. You can be a Zionist and care about economic security. You can be a Zionist and just care deeply that Israel stays a strong democratic Jewish state.

President Isaac Herzog (right) receives the credentials of new US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides in Jerusalem on December 5, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

And none of those are ideologies to you?

Zero. Because an ideology, in my view, would be like, I won’t do this because I’ll do this, or I’m blinded by all the other aspects because I’m just singularly focused on this. That’s not who I am.

My only point of view is what I believe strengthens the democratic Jewish state. And I do fundamentally believe that a vision and a two-state solution strengthens Israel as a democratic Jewish state. I fundamentally believe that the things I do around the Abraham Accords – listen, some would say, well, that’s a Trump initiative. Why would you…? Because I do believe, as of course the president does as well, that it strengthens Israel as a democratic Jewish state.

Someone said to me, why would you worry about the visa waiver program? Because fundamentally I think it strengthens Israel. It will also help, my hope would be, Arab Americans who want to travel here.

There is a touchy subject for Americans who live in Israel, people who are trying to get their passports, and Israelis trying to get their visas. With all the difficulties about making appointments, I know from personal knowledge that people are using a macherIf a person comes to the embassy and tries to get in line, he would get a June appointment. But the macher can solve the visa issue in the American embassy for $400. [A few weeks ago,] a person got a June 2022 appointment, but with the help of the macher, he got an appointment in January 2022. People are selling appointments, you understand!

First of all, I don’t know about the macher. I’ll find out; that doesn’t feel right to me.

I want Israelis to come to the United States, and I want to be able to come as often as they can and as often as they want.

Clearly, we have a problem. Almost every embassy in the world has a problem because of COVID. The staffs were limited. Lines were complicated because we can only have a handful of people in the waiting room at the same time. We have a very complicated place here because of the location in this building and the place in Tel Aviv. So I’m very aware. Andy Miller, who runs consular affairs, I talk to him every day about, what’s our backlog? How do we serve people in here? I think they’re going to do something on Sundays. I’m on him all the time about this.

There’s nothing more frustrating than when you want to go somewhere, and you can’t get a visa. That’s one of the reasons I’m focusing on this visa waiver program. I was the number two at the State Department. I’m well aware of how emotional this is, and I care deeply.

I want Israelis to come to the United States, and I want them to be able to come as often as they can and as often as they want.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (left) meets with Alejandro Mayorkas, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, on November 18, 2021. (Shmulik Almani/Interior Ministry)

And where does the visa waiver program stand at the moment?

I talk to [Interior] Minister [Ayelet] Shaked almost every other day on this topic. And as you know, it’s complicated, but I am putting the full energy of this embassy behind it.

There’s things that the Israelis must do as well. And we’re working together as a team, and hopefully we’ll get this done this year. I’m super confident that we can get it there.

And the issue of Arab Americans?

This is my issue. I care deeply about the idea that Americans who have blue passports, who want to come to the West Bank, should be able to go through Ben Gurion Airport. And those who live in the West Bank who are Americans, who want to come to Detroit, should be able to go through Ben Gurion Airport. That is clearly something I am exceptionally focused on beyond, obviously, the help for Israeli businesspeople who want to come to the United States.

Those two things will have to be done beyond all the other technical issues for us to get the visa waiver program. With the support of Minister Shaked and the government, we’ll get it done.

On Ukraine and Russia — Israel’s relationship with Russia is very different from that of the United States. Has there been communication between the US and Israel — either the US trying to warn or move Israel away from certain positions, or has Israel taken positions that the US has not liked? Is the US using Israel’s connections with senior Russian leaders to send messages?

In this photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, February 5, 2022, a tank takes part in a military exercise, in Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Well, I can’t talk about comments between our leaders, between the Israelis and the United States. That said, the Israelis have been enormously helpful on a variety of national security issues, including the issues around Russia.

One thing that is true: The bilateral relationship across all foreign policy issues, including, obviously, issues around Iran and Ukraine and Syria and Lebanon, it’s lockstep. Secretary Blinken has talked multiple times with [Foreign] Minister [Yair] Lapid, the president just talked to Prime Minister Bennett. Russia obviously came up, as you saw by the readout. So the answer to the question is, they’re working closely together. The bilateral relationship is very strong, and any help we can get on trying to defuse this issue is enormously helpful.

One of the gains that the Moroccans got under the previous administration was the Western Sahara recognition and the promise of a consulate there. But there are two pieces of legislation from the US that seem to be undermining that. There’s the NDAA, which touches on the Morocco-American military relationship, and Leahy’s appropriations bill, which tries to prevent money from being used to open the consulate. Is that something that the Israelis have expressed concern over? Have you been in touch with any congressional members about how that might shake things up here? Do you have a sense of why that’s coming up now?

We’re working very closely with the Moroccans, with the Congress, with the Israelis to resolve these issues. Listen, Morocco as part of the Abraham Accords is quite important to us, very important to the Israelis. I just got off the phone with the Moroccans, right before you walked in. The State Department is very focused on trying to resolve these issues, including Western Sahara, and the issues around the congressional focus. There’s a lot of conversations going on back and forth.

A picture taken in the office of Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita’s (top-R) in the capital Rabat, shows him and his counterparts Israel’s Yair Lapid (top-L) and Antony Blinken of the US (Bottom), take part in a virtual meeting, on December 22, 2021. (AFP)

China has been a sticking point even under the previous administration. Israel’s relationship with China has raised some alarm bells in the United States. Has that conversation changed at all in recent months? Have you been able to present American companies that Israel can approach instead of these Chinese companies?

The good news is that Israel understands our concerns. Because Israel is a technology leader, and they have many dual-use technologies, we’re obviously working closely with the Israeli government to make sure that their dual-use technology is focused on the right levels of due diligence and scrutiny as they do deals. And I think they understand our concern.

We want them to use the same due diligence as we do when we take investments in the United States.

We cannot dictate to the Israelis, nor would we want to, who they can do tenders with and who can invest here. But we express our concerns, and they’re obviously focused on that. They want to continue to get investments from China. We’re not suggesting they don’t. We have no issue with the Israeli vis-a-vis how they think about their internal investment strategy. But we want them to have the same due diligence and the same focus as we do in the United States.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (second from left) speaks at the Fifth Israel-China Joint Committee on Innovation meeting, January 24, 2022. (MFA)

When there was the meeting of the Fifth Israel-China Joint Committee on Innovation forum between the two sides, is that something that they spoke with you about beforehand?

I knew all about it, sure.

The one thing about this relationship, when I say it’s kind of unbreakable — listen, we all have our disagreements, obviously, but in these kinds of things, the conversations are positive. They’re focused. We don’t always agree, but there’s no question there’s complete transparency. No one’s hiding the ball with Israel or the United States vis-a-vis this and many of the other issues. But I find myself very much focused, having come from the business world, on trade issues.

My job is to make sure that we keep the relationship between our two countries as rock-solid and unbreakable as possible. And when there are irritants, my job as the American ambassador is to calm things down, not to jazz things up, and to have that continual conversation between our two countries.

We had the Abraham Accords and the agreement to sell F-35s to the Emirates, but it is stalled in Washington. The understanding is that it’s stalled on the president’s desk. Congress approved, but the president needs to sign and the signature is missing.

The relationships with the United States and the Emirates are very close. I’m not in the Oval Office. I don’t know what signatures are coming. I can just tell you the relationship between the two countries, and Israel and the Emirates, could not be stronger. I have enormous confidence that what we need to get done will be done with the right timeline.

The UAE ambassador here, I speak to almost daily. I have an unbelievably close relationship, especially on the Abraham Accords. Three weeks ago, I launched the first meeting with all the ambassadors. We have three working groups that we’re working with. So we’ve got the Moroccans, the Bahrainis, and the Emiratis.

The Emiratis are focusing on culture and sports and the people-to-people stuff. The Bahrainis are focused on the economics, on technology, health care and specific economic issues. And the Moroccans are focused on travel, tourism. We have very specific goals around the Abraham Accords.

UAE ambassador to Israel Mohamed al Khajah (right), and Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman (left) after their run in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2021 (Maria Troyanker/UAE Embassy)

Obviously, the Jordanians and the Egyptians have their own bilateral normalization relationships, but I’m laser-focused on deliverables, and that’s how I’m focused on the issues around the Abraham Accords. Obviously, there’s bilateral issues between the United States with the Emiratis, the Israelis with the Moroccans. We’ll continue to deal with those issues bilaterally.

On the Abraham Accords I give the Trump administration an enormous amount of credit. Our job, as I like to say, my job, is to deepen the current relationships with the current countries, the seven. And the White House’s job is to broaden it. They add new countries. That’s their job. But my job as the ambassador is to make sure that we really get more bilateral and trilateral engagement among those countries that sign on to the accords. In fact, I just got off the phone with all three of them 20 minutes ago.

I go back to my north star. Do I think the Abraham Accords are good for Israel? 100%, 100%. And do I think it makes it a stronger democratic Jewish state? 100%. So whatever I can do to strengthen those, and much of those, the deals need to be done bilaterally.

On the Abraham Accords I give the Trump administration an enormous amount of credit.

We don’t have to be at every event with them. But we can be the cajoler. I can be the convener. I have working groups. I have people assigned to each one of the working groups.

Injecting content?

That’s what I do. I drive my staff crazy because I am about, what can we deliver? We want to increase tourism. I want to do this whole cultural thing with the Abraham Accords. My idea is to have, maybe in August, a month of cultural events, rock and dance, Israeli singers. A big cultural thing, because the people-to-people stuff is the single most important thing about the Abraham Accords. I want to do the Abraham Cup — sports for kids, soccer, basketball, among all the Abraham Accords countries. Because if people know people, if people understand the cultures of these countries, all the other stuff goes away.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, stand on the Blue Room balcony during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The previous administration talked about a lot of people who will come to the Temple Mount from the Emirates and so on. Is that something that is on your mind?

Sure. Obviously, with the constraints there in how we do it, but certainly they should be able to come to the cultural centers in Israel and the West Bank. And if we go out to work on all those details. I’m not the tourism minister, but they want Moroccans to come here. Listen, the tourism between Israel and the Emiratis, with all the Israelis going to Dubai, a lot of the Emiratis are coming here. But the religious sites are an important part of the cultural experience. I don’t know all the legal or cultural things that need to get done, but of course, they should be allowed to and to be able to participate in that.

NSO is a huge story here right now. And there was also a big story in The New York Times about how the CIA was using the Pegasus software before the company was blacklisted by the Commerce Department. People here are wondering what is on the table with the company here in Israel, because it is very aligned with the government… It sometimes seems to be almost a diplomatic arm of the government, with achievements regarding Saudi Arabia and Mexico. What is your take on the NSO affair?

The NSO Group logo is seen on a smartphone placed on a laptop keyboard. (Mundissima/Alamy)

I can’t comment on specific issues on the NSO. The Commerce Department is focused specifically on that… NSO was one particular company that obviously the US government was focused on. But there is no desire in the United States to focus on the industry itself.

I’m not in the middle of those conversations around what the use of these technologies are. The Commerce Department has a very clear focus on that, and they have clear boundaries of what we and Israel, the ambassador could do, or the White House can do. So there they will be looking at the totality.

But it’s clear that there’s no agenda to [negatively] focus on Israeli technology. Israeli technology is the backbone of the economy here or certainly part of it, and there’s no interest to do harm to that. Individual companies do individual things. They’ll be looked at in those contexts. But there’s no view that this is a focus on Israeli technology.

On the Palestinians, you’ve made it clear that you want to be involved, and hopefully will go to Ramallah when you can if they’re interested in meeting you, and facilitating Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding. Would you go as far as pushing Prime Minister Bennett to meet with Palestinian Authority President Abbas?

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas adjusts his glasses as he listens during a joint statement with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, May 25, 2021, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool, File)

I’m not in a position to tell the prime minister what he should or shouldn’t do.

All I care about is keeping the vision and the hope of a two-state solution. That means a couple of things. One is taking care of the Palestinian people, which means what the United States has done under President Biden’s leadership. We now are giving almost $450 million directly to the Palestinian people for education, health care, water. We are supporting UNRWA as relates to the issues around refugees. We are constantly working with the Palestinians for economic opportunities. And you’ll see more of that coming from this embassy and the PAU (Palestinian Affairs Unit) about what we can do to strengthen that, because at the end of the day, I fundamentally believe strengthening the Palestinian people will only make Israel a stronger democratic Jewish state. And so I’m focused on it.

Sure I like to noodge. I’m a big noodger. I’ll noodge all day long. Noodge, noodge, noodge. I don’t have any issue with that. I just think it’s important that we, the United States, put our money where our mouth is. We can’t say that we are supportive of a two-state solution and then not help the Palestinian people, because helping the Palestinian people gets us closer to that

I applaud Defense Minister [Benny] Gantz’s meetings with Abbas. I applaud anything people are doing to strengthen the Palestinian people, because I think it helps the region, helps the Palestinian people, and helps Israel. In every meeting I have, in every conversation I have, I talk about the importance of the vision of a two-state solution and to do things to make sure that we move forward.

You don’t see your role as noodging the parties closer together?

Well, sure I like to noodge. I’m a big noodger. I’ll noodge all day long. Noodge, noodge, noodge. I don’t have any issue with that. I just think it’s important that we, the United States, put our money where our mouth is. We can’t say that we are supportive of a two-state solution and then not help the Palestinian people, because helping the Palestinian people gets us closer to that.

I am a big believer in confidence-building measures, doing things that actually make it easier for the Palestinians to live in the security and freedom that they believe they deserve, and I believe they deserve. So I’ll noodge every day.

I applaud anything people are doing to strengthen the Palestinian people, because I think it helps the region, helps the Palestinian people, and helps Israel

My first meeting was with Arab businesspeople, when I got here, to talk about business opportunities. I look for our PAU people to come to me with ideas of what I can do, vis-a-vis technology innovation, opportunities for using these 500 work permits that Shaked had and how we can use those effectively and even more, 500, 1,000, 2,000, whatever the number will be — looking for opportunities to help the Palestinians feel that we are doing things to strengthen their abilities and hopefully getting closer to a vision of a two-state solution.

When Bennett talks about not wanting to meet Abbas, is that something worth noodging him on?

Again, I’m not in a position to tell the prime minister who he should or shouldn’t meet with, but I will say that I certainly applaud people who work as Gantz has and other people have.

This is a coalition, okay? And obviously, I’m very supportive of this coalition. I think this coalition, as the prime minister says, is a beautiful thing. If you would have told me three years ago you’d have a coalition of this group of people: Bennett, Lapid, Gantz, Shaked, Mansour Abbas. It is something that I’ll do anything we can to — obviously, I can’t get involved in internal politics of Israel, but certainly I can say the following: We are enormously supportive.

I think this coalition, as the prime minister says, is a beautiful thing.

The prime minister has a spectacular relationship with President Biden. I have an open door to every one of the leaders of this government. They’ve welcomed me since I’ve gotten here with open arms. President [Isaac] Herzog had a dinner for me on Wednesday night with my wife. The four of us broke bread together and just spent time together as friends. I’ve had meals with every one of the leaders of this country.

My job is to do everything I can to preserve that relationship and continue to build upon it.

A vineyard owner near the West Bank settlement of Shiloh inspects damage to his vineyard from suspected Palestinian arsonists, May 27, 2018. (Courtesy Yesha Council)

Am I right thinking that you said you won’t visit settlements?

Yeah. What I said in an interview is I take upon myself exactly what I’ve asked other people to do — try not to do things that agitate and inflame the situation. So it’s not about ideology. I think for me to go to the settlements right now would, in my view, agitate people, and I’m trying not to do that. Same thing: I try not to do things at the Western Wall that might agitate people.

But that said, I’ll spend time with people. Anyone who wants to see me. I’m more than happy to see them here. If someone wants to come and talk to me, I’ll talk to anyone. I’ll see anyone. But do I think it is necessary for me today to go to the settlements? No, I don’t.

Doesn’t that send a signal that you think they’re not legitimate?

No, absolutely not. It has nothing to do with that.

I think for me to go to the settlements right now would, in my view, agitate people, and I’m trying not to do that

My view is very simple. I have a clear message. Try, as best I can, not to do things that agitate people. There’ll be plenty of times that I’ll be forced to do that. I don’t need to do it intentionally.

I care deeply about people’s views. I want to be respectful of people. If someone wants to come meet with me here, I’ll meet with anyone. As proven by the facts, I’ve been very clear about that.

I’ve generally been exceptionally open — from the Haredi community, which I’ve spent multiple days with, to the Christian community, to the Arab community. I don’t want to say I’m the people’s ambassador, because that’s a little hokey, but again, I just want to do the right thing. And I don’t need to do things that intentionally agitate people if I can avoid it.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) lights a candle to mark the first night of Hanukkah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 29, 2021 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Just explain what you meant about ‘things at the Western Wall.’

I went to the wall to light [Hanukkah] candles at the Kotel, and I’m going to be going again tomorrow. Do I necessarily go and spend a day walking around the [Western Wall] tunnels? Probably not tomorrow. My point is, I just want to be respectful of the rabbi at the wall. I want to be respectful to the folks who care deeply about it, but I don’t need to then take it to another level and attempt to try to agitate people intentionally. It’s not my goal.

I mean, obviously, anything I do, anything I say, will agitate someone. But I don’t intentionally wake up in the morning and say, oh, why don’t I do X, Y and Z and see how upset I can get Jews here or Arabs there? I don’t do it. That’s not how I do my job. I want to get things done that help the democratic Jewish state get stronger.

On Iran, we have this very warm relationship where we agree on the destination, and big differences on how to ensure that Iran, never mind doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, doesn’t get close to a nuclear weapon. Are you concerned about this gulf? Are you concerned that it might be on the watch of this administration that Iran becomes a threshold state and potentially puts Israel in terrible danger? There’s such concern, even from a prime minister who has such a great relationship with the president, that you guys don’t get it, basically.

An Iranian woman walks past a large poster of slain top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani (R) and senior Hashed commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis ahead of the second anniversary of their deaths, in the capital Tehran, on December 31, 2021 (AFP)

Oh, we get it. We get it.

The president of the United States has been very clear we will not stand by to let the Iranians have a nuclear weapon. I don’t know how much clearer we can get. And there’s no question that the Israelis and the United States are working collectively together on the Iran issue every single day. Every single day. It’s been very clear from the get-go, the United States would like a diplomatic solution to this crisis. But the president has also been very clear about it: he will not stand by and let the Iranians get a nuclear weapon.

I’ve been involved in the middle in discussions across the board, and I think most Israelis will say, certainly the leadership will say, that the relationship with the United States and Israel on this issue has been rock-solid.

I’m not suggesting that everyone is happy with every issue, but we are very focused collectively, we’re information sharing, communicating every day. There are no surprises. There’s no waking up in the morning [to a surprise]. That does not occur with this administration.

The Israeli response would be this concern that you don’t get it, because they see this administration seeking to return to a deal that they’ve all said here, in the positions of power, doesn’t do the job. So how do we explain that contradiction? The Israelis are wrong?

The US and Israel are working side by side, on information sharing, on the focus on what we need to get done…

Hopefully we can get to a diplomatic solution. But it’s been clear, as the president has said multiple times, we’re not going to stand by and let the Iranians get a nuclear weapon.

FILE – Mohammad Eslami, new head of Iran’s nuclear agency (AEOI), left, and Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharib Abadi, leave the International Atomic Energy’s (IAEA) General Conference in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

Can I ask you a question that springs from something that was said to me and my colleague when we interviewed your predecessor in this office (in 2018). He said, ‘There’s no question Republicans support Israel more than Democrats. The Democrats… have not been able to create support within their constituency for Israel at the same levels that the Republicans have.’ I don’t know if you think that’s true.

And I have a more substantive question, which is whether you’re concerned that Israel, which has moved to the right in the last few decades, and America, which, certainly the Democratic Party, seems to be in a different place politically, shall we say, are you concerned that the worlds are moving apart?

Not one iota.

I think the support among Democrats and Republicans is rock-solid as relates to Israel. The vast, vast, vast majority of Democratic members of the House, the Senate, and the vast members of the Republican Party support a strong democratic Jewish state. They fully support the replenishment of the Iron Dome. They support the defense, the MOU between Israel and the United States.

Israel is a bipartisan issue, full stop, and my job is to continue making that case for that

In my view, this is very simple. Israel is a bipartisan issue, full stop, and my job is to continue making that case for that. So I have respect for my predecessor, Ambassador [David] Friedman. We may not always agree, but I don’t doubt his commitment to the United States or his commitment to Israel. But I don’t get myself involved in politics. My view of this is what’s good for a democratic Jewish state is what I am in support of. And there’s no question that this administration is fully committed to strengthening Israel at every turn.

From left: Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Democrat-Michigan, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Democrat-Minnesota, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat New York, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Democrat-Massachusetts, speak at the Capitol in Washington, July 15, 2019 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Can we go a little further into the essence of your philosophy and your understanding and your approach? You were very dismissive of the Amnesty report last week [that accused Israel of enforcing apartheid against the Palestinians]…

Just to be clear, I’m never dismissive of people who have views. I am dismissive of people who use language that is inflammatory. Obviously, I have respect for people who have views and want to express their views. But using words such as apartheid, I find, is an appalling word. I don’t believe that is the case here. And so I responded to the use of that word, as the State Department did as well.

Let me phrase the question more effectively. I looked at that report and I thought, you’re talking about apartheid in Israel? That’s ridiculous. The Gaza Strip – that’s run by Hamas. We don’t have a single civilian there. We don’t have the army there. They even accused us of practicing apartheid outside of those territories, I assume Lebanon and so on. But in the West Bank, the situation is more complicated. And I sense from you also an awareness of the complication of Israel’s ongoing presence in the West Bank. What are your thoughts about that?

There’s been a US focus on an American-Palestinian who was killed, and a desire to find out about the aid worker who’s been in jail pending trial for many years. These are obviously issues that are of concern to the United States, about where Israel is headed regarding the Palestinians and especially in the West Bank.

I want to spend time helping the Palestinian people, which means emphasizing the need for assistance, convincing the Congress about the importance of assistance to the Palestinian people for basic health care and education and programs that help the Palestinians, because I think that ultimately helps strengthen the Israelis.

I’m not sitting here to sit and question people’s motives. Our motives are very simple, which is to really send a very strong message to the international community, to Israel, that we fully support a two-state solution.

We’ve been very clear — not to do unilateral stuff that makes it difficult to have a two-state solution, including settlement growth, outposts. There’s no question but that the Israelis understand where we’re focused on. Every time one of these issues come up, they get calls from me

I’m under no illusions that tomorrow I’ll be signing a peace agreement at the White House. That would be interesting to do, but I don’t think it’s going to be happening anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean I can’t get stuff done.

It’s okay to be an incrementalist. I’m fine with that. If every day I can wake up and I make it a little bit better for people, be it the West Bank or East Jerusalem or anywhere in Tel Aviv, that’s great. My job as an American ambassador is to keep focus on the north star, which I am, and try to put the pieces together that will help us move this relationship forward.

Some Palestinians might say while the sentiment is key, and you want to improve Palestinian lives, the opportunities to do so are on things like settlements, or more specifically outposts. There’s the case right now of Evyatar, where the government is committed, at least on paper, to legalizing this outpost, because part of it was found to be built not on private Palestinian land…

We’ve been very clear — not to do unilateral stuff that makes it difficult to have a two-state solution, including settlement growth, outposts. There’s no question but that the Israelis understand where we’re focused. Every time one of these issues comes up, they get calls from me. We work with them quite closely. We’ve been very clear about our position vis-a-vis the issues around settlement growth, and issues that make it more difficult to keep a vision of the two-state solution alive, including those issues you just mentioned… You’ll judge us based on actions — what we say and what we do.

Agnes Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International (L), speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, on February 1, 2022. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

Let’s end with your sense of the well-being of Israeli democracy. We’ve had major news, which is unproven right now, about NSO technology being used, spyware being used, against Israeli citizens. We’ve got a former prime minister on trial who has asserted that the hierarchies of law enforcement have conspired against him. Are you confident about the well-being of this democratic Israel that you are now serving in? Is Israeli democracy flourishing and something that you are feeling good about?

Yes! Listen, is the United States perfect? No? I fundamentally believe that Israel is a flourishing democratic country that, just like any country, obviously has issues. The United States has issues. Europe has issues. It’s not perfect. My job is to continue focusing on the things that make our relationship with Israel, as President Biden has said, unbreakable, and work with them, and when there are issues that we care about, [ensure] that we can have clear understanding.

The good news about Jews is we can be very frank with each other. And as you probably pick up, I can be very frank. And you know what? That’s great.

I don’t stand here and say my point of view is so narrow-minded that everything that I have comes through a single lens; that’s just not who I am. When I think things are going off-track, I’ll be more than happy to articulate to our friends. Because I think they respect the United States. And we certainly respect them.

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