US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides says the Biden administration is urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “pump the brakes” on his government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary, as the coalition looks to power forward with the contentious legislation despite a lack of broad support from the public.
“We’re telling the prime minister — as I tell my kids — ‘pump the brakes, slow down, try to get a consensus, bring the parties together,'” Nides told former Obama administration official David Axelrod during a wide-ranging podcast interview, which aired Thursday.
The comments against the government’s effort to significantly restrict the power of the High Court of Justice were the most forceful yet from the Biden administration, which has gradually taken a more active role in pushing back against the overhaul since it was introduced last month.
Nides also offered frank comments about the attention Netanyahu is giving to the warnings from economists against the overhaul, US efforts to advance measures to improve Palestinian livelihood in lieu of a major peace initiative, and the administration’s frustration with Israel over settlement activity. The envoy also expressed his disappointment in some Gulf countries for their failure to condemn such actions, his concerns about the deadly cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and about National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s “provocative” recent visit to the Temple Mount.
On the issue of the judicial overhaul, Nides reiterated that the US was not going to “dictate” specific parts of the proposed legal shakeup, such as how judges should be appointed to the Supreme Court. (The Knesset is set to vote in a first reading Monday on the coalition’s controversial bill that would grant it a majority on the Judicial Selection Committee, replacing the current composition where neither the government nor the judiciary has a majority on the panel.)
“However,” Nides clarified, “the one thing that binds our countries together is a sense of democracy and a sense of [the importance of] democratic institutions.”
“That is how we defend Israel at the UN,” he said. “When we believe that those democratic institutions are under stress and strain, we’re articulating [our concern]. That’s what we’re doing now.”
He admitted that the US “has to be careful in how [it] tells countries what to do,” but said that the “unbreakable relationship” that Washington has with Jerusalem gives the former the “space to try and tell Israel when we think they should be working toward better goals than they’re currently [working] on.”
The ambassador noted that 50 to 60 percent of Israelis oppose the government’s judicial makeover plans and that the feeling “certainly” extends to American Jews — “and not just liberal Jews like me, but Modern [Orthodox] and Conservative [Jews] are quite worried.”
Even as the government works to advance the first components of the overhaul in the Knesset this week, Nides said he was optimistic that the coalition would agree to pull back.
“I think they have to. The one thing that is getting the attention of the prime minister — as it should — is the economic impact this could have,” Nides said, referring to the growing list of prominent global economists who have warned that implementation of such drastic measures could harm Israel’s financial well-being in addition to its democratic nature. A growing list of Israel’s most successful companies have already begun pulling billions of dollars from Israeli banks amid concerns from investors.
Nides gave credit to Netanyahu for his efforts to grow Israel’s economy over the past several decades before arguing that the prime minister “should be concerned — which he is — about the perception that this judicial reform will have… among businesses and investment here. That is getting his attention and justifiably so.”
Despite the disagreements, the ambassador insisted that the US would continue to have “Israel’s back on security and at the UN.”
“We’ll get through this period of time. It’s going to be rough, but… you can have a great relationship with your ally, and when you disagree, you disagree,” he offered.
‘We will not roll over’
Pressed on another area over which the US has found itself at odds with Israel — settlement activity in the West Bank — Nides said the administration would continue to push back against moves that damage prospects for a two-state solution. However, he did not say whether the US would take any action against Israel if it continues to ignore its warnings.
Nides said US President Joe Biden “cares deeply about this bilateral relationship, but we will not roll over, we will not ignore actions that we think are against our values.”
The Biden administration has issued several statements expressing its displeasure with Israel over its decision last week to legalize nine outposts — many of which on private Palestinian land — in addition to advance plans for some 10,000 new settlement homes in the West Bank — the largest-ever batch to be green-lit in one sitting. However, the US has also spent the past several days trying to block a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate halt to Israeli settlement activity. The measure could be voted on as early as Monday.
“This issue around settlement growth and outposts has been a vexing issue for our country — as by the way it has been for the Arab countries as well, who tend not to speak up as much as they should vis-a-vis some of the actions that are going on in the West Bank,” Nides said in revealing comments about the extent of US frustration with Abraham Accords signatories United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, whose leaderships have yet to speak out against the Israeli moves as have Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and much of the Western world.
Nides also reiterated his opposition to the visit far-right lawmaker Ben Gvir made to Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount last month. Nides has called the move “unacceptable,” noting Ben Gvir’s history of support for upending the fragile status quo that governs the site, but he went even further in his comments last Thursday.
“I was the first person out there when Ben Gvir went up to the Temple Mount to stir up trouble. You do not need to do that,” he said before expressing his appreciation to Netanyahu for publicly declaring afterward that Israel intends to respect the status quo, under which Muslims may pray at the holy site they refer to as the Noble Sanctuary while non-Muslims can only visit under strict conditions.
“It lights up the Middle East when they do provocative acts. We were very aggressive, as well as the rest of the [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, when this occurred. This is the kind of nonsense that lights things on fire,” he added.
‘Average person doesn’t wake up thinking about two states’
Nides appeared to get the most animated when discussing his and the administration’s effort to improve Palestinian livelihood.
“I spend 60% of my time trying to help the Palestinian people,” he declared, citing the administration’s efforts to increase aid to the UNRWA agency for Palestinian refugees and the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, in addition to coaxing Israel to expand the operating hours of the Allenby West Bank-Jordan crossing and allow Palestinians access to 4G cellular coverage. The latter two initiatives have yet to be implemented.
The ambassador asserted that he believes deeply in a two-state solution but appeared to criticize those who focus too much on the larger scale effort, claiming they lose sight of the day-to-day challenges facing the Palestinians.
“What frustrates me the hell out of this job is that we chase around this idea of a two-state solution, [but] at the end of the day, it’s all about… taking care of the Palestinian people without compromising the security of the state of Israel.”
“And they say, ‘Oh, Tom, it’s incrementalism.’ I don’t care.”
“The average Palestinian wakes up every day, just like the average Israeli, and all they want is security, a job, and freedom and opportunity,” Nides continued. “America’s job… is to do the best [it] can to provide that. Yes, we need to have a vision [to preserve] a two-state solution, [but] In the meantime, I don’t want everything falling apart.”
“So I’m trying to spend my time getting things done that are real, that the average person can wake up and say, ‘Okay, I’ve got something. I can go to school, I have decent healthcare, I’ve got an opportunity.’
“The average person does not wake up every day and say, ‘Where is my two-state solution?'” Nides claimed.
Defending the administration’s decision not to launch an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, the ambassador said, “Former administrations have come up with big peace plans. Sadly, [if] we chase that rabbit down the hole, we’re not focusing on the things that need to happen on a day-to-day basis for the Palestinian people, and for the security of the State of Israel.”
He went on to lament the latest uptick in violence between Israelis and Palestinians, which since the start of the year has taken the lives of 11 Israelis in terror attacks and nearly 50 Palestinians — most of whom in clashes with soldiers but some in more questionable circumstances.
“Every action creates a reaction,” Nides explained. “The IDF soldiers come in [to a Palestinian village] and they’re under attack, they kill an innocent Palestinian. Terrible. The Palestinians react to that, and they create another act. It’s just how these things unravel. It’s tragic.”