The following is a transcript of Episode 106 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Wednesday, July 20th, 2022 from Jerusalem. It’s an amazing and strange experience to be in a foreign country as an American when the president of the United States comes on a state visit.
Now for me, Israel’s not that foreign of a country, and a state visit by the president, while a very big deal, is also not a once in a generation. Still, I have to say, I really appreciated being here in Jerusalem last week when President Biden arrived for four intense substantively and symbolically significant days of meetings and appearances. Yet another chapter in the unfolding and complex America-Israel bilateral relationship.
A few days before the visit, American flags started going up all around the city, and one of the fountains in the center of town was suddenly lit up in red, white, and blue. The biggest technical challenge Jerusalem faced last week, as of course you might anticipate was the traffic. I found myself stuck for an hour, trying to walk across Jerusalem to a concert, waiting for the president’s motorcade to go by.
As you, I’m sure know, Israelis are a famously patient people. So it was a kind of hilarious delight to stand in a crowd, trying to get across Azza street to their homes, inconvenienced by the president of the United States, who was on his way back from the Maccabia opening ceremonies, back to where he was staying at the King David hotel.
But I have to say, maybe I’m just a nostalgic, old school, patriotic American. I couldn’t help but feel moved and inspired by the site of a presidential motorcade, the flags fluttering on the side as it sped by. I loved it. But there was a lot more going on than the pomp and circumstance of the visit, including the very moving photo op of the president with Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem, or the official photo with the full Israeli government at the airport.
The US-Israel relationship has always been important and the bilateral relations sometimes warm and sometimes tense. But they seem irrevocably altered by the change in culture that was brought about by the Trump administration. The Trump administration, you’ll recall, relocated the embassy to Jerusalem, something that had been promised for a long time, but never actually executed.
They advanced regional cooperation in the form of the Abraham Accords and the Trump administration severely attenuated, weakened, the bilateral relationship between the United States and the Palestinians, including removing direct consular representation to the Palestinians and insisting, I would argue, implicitly, that the US had to choose between being an ally to Israel and being an honest broker in the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
All this takes place, of course, within a larger partisan American context. And anytime one side moves in one direction on an issue, the other side, ostensibly has to move in the other direction as a means of polarized differentiation. It’s not surprising to see the ways in which the Trump BiBi Alliance besides actually changing American policy on Israel, accelerated the partisan divide on Israel and gave tremendous oxygen to critics of Israel at the same time.
So into this mix comes the Biden presidency. Biden was pretty transparently the most classically, quote, pro-Israel of the democratic candidates for president and not surprisingly as a result, the Biden administration hasn’t made any great agitations or shifts in American policy, vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians, than his predecessor.
So the state visit to Israel then in the midst of a divided American moment is a kind of interesting referendum on Israel in the American political imagination. And like I said, I was excited to have a front row seat to watch it here. So this week, I’m talking to ambassador Tom Nides, the US ambassador to Israel to process the Biden visit and its implications.
Ambassador Nides was confirmed by the Senate in November, 2021. And he split his career between public service and the private sector. He’s also the first American ambassador to arrive in Jerusalem with the embassy and the official US representation actually located. I can’t imagine what it was like to run a presidential visit in country as a US ambassador at the same time, as you might expect, I have a special place in my heart for US ambassadors, especially US ambassadors to Israel.
Um, Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for, for having this conversation with us. I’d love to start with this, you know, it’s a big deal for the president to make a trip like this to any country. Um, and to the region, and maybe you could start by telling us what were the hopes and expectations from the administration for this particular trip to Israel right now.
And did you feel that they were met, uh, over the course of the past week?
Tom: Well, first of all, you could thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Um, again, you know, as, as you can imagine, I’m a huge fan of your family. Uh, I appreciate everything, the service you’ve done. And obviously now you’re a media star, so I appreciate that very much.
Uh, listen, uh, again, I know it’s a bit self-serving, uh, but I think the trip was an enormous success. I think from the beginning to the end, I was enormously pleased with how President Biden was received here. Uh, the messaging that we attempted to try to send was well received. Uh, the single most important thing was for us to make sure the Israeli people understood that there is a deep bond between Joe Biden, uh, and, uh, Israel and the Jewish people.
And I think, uh, that came across as, as quite frankly, as good as it possibly have been. And it’s, you know, you can’t make this stuff up, you know, he, he cares deeply about it. As you know, he said you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist. We wanted to portray this unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.
Um, obviously, uh, I think 40 years from now, people will be looking at this photograph of Joe Biden, Bennett, on one knee uh, holding the hands of two Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem, uh, it was a beautiful moment for, uh, for anyone, Jewish non-Jewish, old or young. And I think the whole trip was, uh, enormously successful and I, we achieved everything that we were attempting to achieve, uh, both quite frankly, in Israel and in the West Bank. Uh, so we were quite, uh, pleased on the trip.
Yehuda: So, you know, I think it’s one of the interesting things that’s happened in America. And in, in light of our partisan country, is that if you had look back, if you go back even just 15 years ago and said, you know, who are the most pro-Israel, uh, congressmen and senators, uh, Joe Biden, would’ve been near the top of that list. Even going back to his, you know, he tells stories about, you know, his conversations with Golda Meir back in the early seventies when he was a freshman Congressman. I know that story, I’m sure you do too.
And yet obviously the, the political polarization in our country puts everything under a partisan, uh, puts everything in a partisan lens and you come to Israel, following a administration and an ambassador that is viewed by this country as being, you know, the neck, the highest level of quote unquote pro Israel, uh, of all time.
So, one hand, the administration, it seems, has to differentiate itself from predecessors. On the other hand, there’s a desire to create a kind of continuity in the US-Israel relationship. So how do you think about the relationship between those two pressures, which feel at least for me on the outside, like they’re in tension with each other?
Tom: Well, listen, first of all, um, you know, our, this administration’s view of Israel, it’s an unbreakable bond and not only from a national security perspective, but a protection to the, to the people of, of Israel. So, uh, no one, uh, I don’t, I don’t wake up and compare ourselves to the former administration or the former ambassador. Uh, that’s not what we do. We, we are our, uh, we’re our own administration. We have our own connection with, uh, Israel and the, and the Israeli people and obviously the American Jewish community as well.
Uh, that said, listen, I, you know, I I’ve had multiple many, many conversations with my predecessor, David Friedman, who he like me shares one thing in common. We care deeply about, uh, the state of Israel. So I never question, uh, his commitment to the state of Israel, his commitment to, uh, Zionism and his commitment to the security of this place. Um, and nor does he, uh, question mine. So this is I don’t, I really, again, obviously I don’t play politics here. Um, you know, I, I spend as much time with the Ultra Orthodox as I do, uh, with the left.
Um, I care about the security of the state of Israel. I care about keeping this a democratic Jewish state. I speak for Joe Biden who is clearly a guy who is focused on this relationship in a way that was, uh, uh, exemplified by this, what I felt was uh, again, a phenomenal trip. Uh, and so we, you know, we worked together and listen, there, of course there’s always partisan divides, but listen, I’ve been enormously supportive of the Abraham Accords, which obviously, uh, was created by the previous administration.
We look at things that every administration does, uh, and, uh, work at, you know, in a different view than what we might want to have done, uh, but most importantly, we both have the same commitments, uh, to the security of the state of Israel. And that’s what really matters.
Yehuda: Right. So in that context, the, the place where I would’ve thought there would’ve been a significant policy difference between a Democratic and Republican administration is around the, the language of, and the commitment to a two state solution. Um, that’s been, that’s been the American policy position for decades now. Um, the president, when he was here, spoke about a commitment to the two state solution, but then he said something which actually is recognizable in Israeli political discourse, which is, I’m committed to it, but I don’t see it’s imminent.
So what does that actually mean, vis-a-vis American policy? What does American policy wanna see happen to actually advance towards a two state solution? Or does the language of, we don’t think it’s imminent mean that we’re not actually pushing our Israeli partners to make the kind of, uh, policy steps that’ll bring it about?
Tom: Uh, the president, uh, has been, uh, as you know, um, has been focusing on this issue of about a two state solution for, uh, for his whole career. Um, there’s not a speech that I give that I don’t articulate, uh, our vision and our views of why the importance of keeping this a Democrat Jewish state is defined by, uh, a vision of a two state solution.
What we are doing is making sure that the parties make sure we’re capable of keeping that vision alive. And what does that mean specifically? It means, uh, this administration has, has dramatically increased the support, uh, to the Palestinian people. As you know, we’ve given almost up to a half, a billion dollars to a variety of different means helping the Palestinian people themselves feel that they have the security and the opportunities that those who live in Israel have as well.
Uh, and that’s something that I think, um, we have focused on principally, uh, and I think that’s important because ultimately you wanna keep people in the game. You wanna keep people feeling that there is a vision and an opportunity. At the same time, obviously, uh, we’re working with both parties to make sure they don’t do things that impede the possibility of a two state solution.
So I’m, you know, my view, this is a little bit of a carrot and a stick. Um, I think this administration has leaned heavily into, uh, with all the constraints we have about, uh, providing assistance, uh, in the West Bank and Gaza, obviously there’s constraints that we have given the Taylor Force Act, but we are trying to work uh, with economists to help people.
That’s the reason why we, uh, dramatically supported, um, uh, helping on the East Jerusalem hospital network is a good example of that. It’s for the people, it’s not politics, it’s for the people. That’s why we do education healthcare programs in the West Bank. It’s for the people. Um, and by the way, that’s the same reason why, you know, why we’ve articulated many times, uh, for us to, uh, dramatically reduce settlement growth, um, uh, in the West Bank, uh, in hopes to, uh, eliminate the opportunity to make sure that we still keep this vision of a two stage solution alive.
So, you know, again, we’re, we’re very clear about it. We don’t want to be, we’re not, uh, delusional. I mean, would it be great to be able to get the Nobel Peace Prize in the, in the, uh, Rose Garden? Uh, well, the president would get it, I’d be able to hold it, uh, but that that’s not, you know, You have to, you have to set the groundwork for that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to make sure Israelis understand the unbreakable bond. And we need to understand, uh, what we’re focused on as an administration.
Yehuda: I mean, unfortunately, as you know, the getting the Nobel peace prize for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not necessarily a predictor of actual Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Tom: Yeah. That’s what I heard that, your father tried to do that too, so it’s good.
Yehuda: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Um, well look, I, you know, I think that there are voices, especially in the American left who would really like to see the role of the US government and your role in particular as basically a neutral mediating party between Israelis and Palestinians.
It’s pretty clear from all of the optics of what of the state visit that that’s not how the president was showing up to be in relationship with Israel. This was a bilateral international relations with a US ally. And the Palestinians are a different story.
And it’s complicated by the fact that now even the question of diplomatic representation to the Palestinians was, you know, was challenged by the previous administration. So how do you respond to that attitude that says the only way that is that America actually uses its full force to bring about a resolution to this conflict is if it acts like more, more like a neutral party, a powerful, neutral party, than an Israel ally?
Tom: I take that exception to that. I think you can be pro Palestine and pro Israel at the same time. The president, uh, made it clear. And when he went to the Uh, West Bank and met with the President Abbas, uh, one, we delivered a lot to the Palestinian people.
You, as you know, when the announcement, was everything from, uh, 4g, which is something we’ve been spending a lot of time on, to opening the Allenby bridge, to a variety of other economic things that we were doing for, uh, the Palestine people, including the articulation of a two state solution. That’s something that the president articulated with Abbas standing next to him.
As you know, um, both, uh, defense minister Gantz met with Abbas before we got, uh, here, like three or four days before, you know, he also made some announcements, as you also know, uh, prime minister Lappid also called Abbas for the first time, which was also publicly, uh, disclosed, much of that was done with our encouragement. Um, so I, you know, I listen again, the, this, you know, diplomacy’s not a straight line folks.
Um, you know, we’re, as, as you know, you’re well aware of this, uh, we wanna put actions where our mouth is. So, you know, there, we went from arguably very little assistance to the Palestinian people from the previous administration to almost 600 million dollars of a direct assistance to the Palestinian people. That matters. Okay. That matters.
We stood up at the East Jerusalem hospital network and pledged a hundred million dollars for, uh, 80% of the, of the patients in the hospitals come from the West Bank and Gaza, 20% come from Israel. That matters. That’s real. That’s actually really helps. And at the same time, we clearly believe long term health of Israel to maintain it as a democratic Jewish state is to have a viable two state solution.
So I listen, I don’t wanna overplay and overextend and, and over exaggerate what we do, we don’t do. But we are focused like a laser, uh, on, uh, the security for the state of Israel and, and assisting the Palestinian people and trying to create the environment to allow us to, to begin and continue to discuss the potential of a two state solution.
Yehuda: So I wanna push on that a little bit because it kind of seems as though it, what what’s happened under prime minister Bennett, and now under prime minister Lapid is a kind of commitment to this language that, um, that some folks are calling shrinking the conflict, um, which is not necessarily making major policy changes around maps or actually building out the infrastructure of either Palestinian state or a long term, uh, viable reality, but doing things like improving Palestinian civil society, making it more tenable to live under long-term occupation.
And it’s hard not to hear investments in a hospital as a kind of a American mirroring of that kind of policy, as opposed to like pushing hard against home demolitions, or against, um, actual settlement growth and settlement building. Is that, would you say that that’s a fair characterization of American policy?
Tom: No, I totally disagree with that.
Tom: I spend every day, you know, obviously is trying to be very clear on our position vis a vis settlement growth and demolitions. I couldn’t be clearer. Uh, number two. Uh, you know, we, we can’t lose sight of the people. Okay. We can, we can do all sorts of maps and conferences and podcasts. At the end of the day, we’re focused on the people. Okay. You may say, well, you know, what is money for hospitals doing? Like what are you talking about? I mean, not you personally, but what are people talking about?
We’re talking about people who are sick, who live in the West Bank or Gaza, have no ability to get healthcare, to come, do, do these people wake up in the morning and say, wait, where’s my map? No, no. They’re like, where is my kidney dialysis machine? Where is my radiology? Where’s my chemotherapy? Okay. Yes. These work permits that, um, this administration is the, the, um, Bennett now the Lapid administration are doing, listen, I don’t get, it’s not the end all to be all. Listen, I, I, I agree with that. It’s not the single, the single most important thing is to have a long term solution. In the meantime, we are foolish. If we don’t take care of people. Okay. We’re foolish if we don’t do that.
So I am, I understand the importance of making sure there is a, uh, a long term solution to this conflict a hundred percent, but I’m not gonna leave this job and say, the only thing I did was do a bunch more peace conferences and nothing happened. I can work to stop demolitions. I can work to stop settlement growth. I can work to make sure there’s money that US AID can do for the Palestinian people. I can make sure that Israel is getting the money they need for the iron dome and security, these things all matter.
And yes, you cannot lose sight of the larger picture. Dang it. I’m not gonna sit around and say, okay, that’s all I’m gonna spend time on. And all the things that need to do to help affect people’s daily existence don’t exist. So, so I I’m, again, I’m, I’m, I’m a practical guy. Maybe it’s because I’m not a career diplomat. Um, no disrespect for career diplomats, obviously, but I do want to focus on the daily life of people to make sure they get what they need to have both for the Jews and for the Palestinians and everyone in between.
Yehuda: So, uh, so one of the things that Oslo had opened up was a direct bilateral diplomatic relationship between the US and the Palestinian authority, which, you know, hadn’t existed prior to that, cause, you know, PLO was a recognized terrorist group. Um, but in the past 10 years, direct representation to the Palestinians has become a contested political position. So now I’m curious, I’m actually curious structurally, are you as the US ambassador to Israel now also, in previous eras, there was a consul general in Jerusalem who was really kind of the de facto US ambassador to the Palestinians.
I’m curious what the nature right now of US diplomatic relations is with the Palestinians. And is there a diplomatic plan to kind of rebuild some version of direct representation to the Palestinians.
Tom: Uh, the, as you know, uh, the administration, our administration, the Biden administration made clear that we wanna reopen the consulate. So that is, uh, the official position of the administration. Um, and we’ve been working both with the Bennett and Lapid governments to achieve that goal.
Uh, in the meantime, as you know, George Noll, or you may not know George Noll. Uh, works, uh, with the PAU or now called the OPA, the office of Palestinian affairs, uh, here in Jerusalem, it’s 60, 70 individuals who spend every day and night working on behalf of those who live in the West Bank and Gaza on the issues then maintain it.
Uh, they now report, um, uh, they report from a cabling perspective and directly to Washington to the state department, giving them direct access to uh the state department. In the meantime, I am the, um, obviously the head of the mission, meaning that I’m the chief of mission control, but they have direct access to the state department. They don’t have to do cables directly through me. They can communicate directly to the state department, which is important, cause their views need to be heard directly without being filtered through me.
But obviously, you know, I’m a guy who cares deeply about this. So I work, I spend probably a lot of my time working on these issues. Cause I care. I do believe it’s important for the American ambassador to be involved in the issues as it relates to the West Bank and Gaza if for no other reason, if you believe like I do, and this administration believes that the goal here is ultimately to have a two state solution because, be clear, I do believe it makes Israel a stronger democratic Jewish state.
And if I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t spend my time on it. So yes, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can actually work on behalf of the Palestinian people. You can work to help better their lives and oh, by the way, you don’t have to compromise security for the state of Israel. And you can be a Zionist, a strong supporter of Israel. You can walk and chew gum at the same.
Yehuda: Co-sign, co-sign to that. Um, one of the things that I remember my dad did when he was, uh, serving in your role 20 years ago is, and one of the things that diplomats do in general is they kind of tell the story of America overseas. Um, and so for him, his big metaphors regularly were talking about how you can’t really understand America unless you understand Civil War and baseball.
I’m curious when you, what’s the message around America that you feel that you’re bringing to the Israeli people. Um, and what kind of story are you trying to tell about America that you think is important for Israelis to hear?
Tom: I just, you know, I tell through the eyes and the mouth of Joe Biden, you know, here’s a guy who knows more about Israel than probably any president in history. Here’s a president of United States who’s just visited Israel for the 10th time. The 10th time. When you spoke at the beginning of the podcast about his story about Golda Meir, he deeply cares in and is passionate about that.
When Israeli people hear that they. Wow. You know, we’ve got a president of the United States who loves us, who loves us. Right. Who cares about us. I try to articulate the views of this president as it relates to Israel is exceptionally important, and I’ll say, by the way, his vice president, his vice president who cares deeply about and his vice president’s husband’s a Jew. Okay. And who cares deeply about Israel and the importance of Israel and the community of Israel and the Jewish community in the United States.
So you’ve got, you know, it’s sort like surrounds town. Okay. It surrounds town. And at the same time, a president of the United States who articulates the importance of the two state solution for the Palestinian people, to someone who, who cares not only about Israel, uh, but the Palestinian people, the importance of the bilateral relationship. So, you know, I try to tell that story cause then people say, nah, okay. You know, remember, just a record. It was Barack Obama and Joe Biden who gave us the iron dome. Okay. I shouldn’t say that. Gave Israel iron dome. I can’t remember where I’m working. One of the problems of being an ambassador is sometimes you use, I start using the word we, I can’t use that word. I just, this administration that basically gave, is working on almost five to 600 million for assistance to the Palestinian people. So I’m, I’m all about action. I’m about getting things done. I’m about doing things and driving change, but that’s what I try to tell people.
Yehuda: I guess I’m curious whether your Israeli counterparts, besides our interest in them and both in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and in a secure Jewish and democratic Israel, I wanna know what they’re curious about around the major tensions going on in America right now. Um, because that’s, it’s not just us here to help them. It’s also, you know, I’m sure their curiosity about some of the major issues that are pulling apart America.
Tom: Well, listen. I mean, I, I’m almost careful when I start lecturing Israelis about, you know, you know, right and wrong. I mean, listen, we have a clear view of what we believe they should be doing and they should behaving, but we gotta be careful from the United States. We are not perfect either. And I don’t mean to equate. These are democracies. Okay. There’s a democracy in Israel. I, I joke with them about the fact that I’ve now been here, we’re now going to another election. We switched prime ministers in the middle of this trip. Right.
You know, I, I, I try to have a little fun with it, but it’s, you know, when you look at our policies in the United States, you know, it’s complicated. So I try, I try not to be holier than thou. But somehow, you know, why just behave more like the United States and you’ll be, you know, you’ll be a perfect nation. Well, that’s foolish in my view. So I think it’s important for, to understand that we too, in the United States have vulnerabilities. We certainly aren’t perfect. We have, we have the, a political situation in the United States where the country is basically 50, 50, you know, half the country believes in one set of ideas. Another half the country believes in another.
And, and I think not dissimilar to what’s going on here in Israel right now, where the country is politically divided. So I try to. I try to be, uh, constructively, uh, helpful without being arrogant. Uh, and that’s not an easy thing to do, obviously in the United States of America, we’re really important allies to this country and they’re really important, uh, allies to us. So I try to be able to put it into the right perspective.
Yehuda: So you’ve been generous with your time and, and I know you have to run, I’ll ask you one last question. It kind of seems that you’re having fun here, Ambassador. Um, I, I know that based on, um, people who hang around coffee shops on Emek Refaim who see you pretty regularly and, um, and you always seem to be in good spirits.
Maybe tell us a little bit, what’s it been like for you to, to be living in Jerusalem and in that, like what’s the long term plan for the embassy and hopefully a more noble residence for the US ambassador.
Tom: Well, you see, first of all, I love the place. I mean, you know, I, this is like, listen, I am so honored that Joe Biden would let me become the ambassador to Israel. Listen, I, again, I’m not a career diplomat. Obviously I’ve spent half my career in government, half my career on Wall Street. Uh, I care deeply about the place.
As you know, I am not a religious Jew. I’m a, uh, I’m a, a secular Jew. I’m a little Jewish kid from Minnesota. I was the youngest of seven kids. I came here for the first time when I was 14 years old. I’ve been many, many, many, many times. Uh, I care deeply about the people here and I like being with the people. And, and, you know, I go to, you know, Bnei Brak and hang out with the, you know, the Ultra Orthodox or I, I go hang out in, you know, up north with the Druze, or I hang out with the Jews in Tel Aviv and the Jews in Jerusalem. I don’t really care. I like people, I enjoy this place that you, you, you get turned on by it. And so, yeah, I’m trying to have fun. Um, and I think it’s important.
As where I live. You know, there’s not a person who’s listening to this call right now who’s gonna give a damn where I live or quite frankly, care that I, you know, listen, I get well taken care of. I get good food. I like using the Wolt, the app that actually gets the carry out. It’s like the Uber eats, drives the people who work in my house nuts, but you know, a nice falafel by Wolt. Nice and warm.
You know, listen guys, I’m a, I’m a very lucky guy. Um, I, you know, I’ve been blessed by having this opportunity. I wanna do the best I can. I don’t really have, you know, a, an agenda vis a vis a political agenda. I just want to do as best I can and help people, right. Help, uh, Israelis, making sure they feel secure about this relationship, help the Palestinians making sure they understand we care deeply about a two state solution. And if I get that done and have some fun at the same time, so be it.
Yehuda: Well, Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for your time. Thanks for being with us and, um, keep, you know, keep up the good work and um, I hope you continue to enjoy the, the Wolt delivery. That’s a pretty great message for our people.
Tom: Yehuda, thanks, buddy. Peace. Bye-bye.
Yehuda: All right, take care. Thank you.
Thanks so much for listening to our show this week and special thanks again to ambassador Tom Nides and to all our friends at the US embassy here in Israel who helped make this possible.
Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon with assistant from Miri Miller, Shalhevet Schwartz, Yoav Friedman, and Tzachi Cooks with music provided by so called.
Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs, to find them to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at shalomhartman.org. We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. So if you have a topic you’d like to hear about, or if you have comments on this episode, you can write to us at [email protected]. You can rate and review our show on iTunes to how more people find it. You can subscribe to our show, everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week. And thanks for listening.