Pro-Israel Obama Era Official Will Likely Be Next US Envoy to Jerusalem
Thomas Nides’ appointment may be intended to heal relationship between Israel and Democrats, says expert
President Joe Biden is expected to begin nominating key ambassadors as soon as next week, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday. The report included a long list of likely appointees, among them Thomas R. Nides as the next US ambassador to Israel.
Nides had not previously been on many people’s short lists for the position. A former deputy secretary of state in the Barack Obama administration, and currently a managing director and vice chairman at Morgan Stanley, he does not have a record that would make him an obvious candidate to represent the United States in Israel. His background does not include extensive experience in the Middle East or some other connection to Israel or the region.
Rotem Oreg, editor of Washington Express, a Hebrew-language analysis blog on US-Israel relations and American politics, points out that this absence of a past in the region may actually be what makes Nides a good choice for the post. Biden “is truly a Zionist but he knows that there are those in Israel who see him as Obama 2.0, and there are many who have leftover baggage from the [Obama] era,” Oreg told The Media Line.
Because of this, it might have been problematic for Biden to nominate someone with a strong and obvious connection with the foreign policy of the Obama administration, Oreg says. “It may be that Biden is saying that he wants to turn over a new leaf, to put the Obama period’s disagreements in the past, and to nominate a new ambassador who will take care of the new points of contention, because these exist.”
Despite the tensions between Israel and the White House under President Obama, Nides’ activities during that time might make him a better candidate in Biden’s eyes. “He was very attentive to the Israel side during his time in the administration, and Israelis turned to him many times to act as a mediator with” others in the White House, says Oreg.
He also points out that Nides’ past in the Obama administration means that Biden and many of his staff are familiar with him. It has been very important for the president to form a team of people familiar with one another so “they can basically begin [working] from day one.”
Prof. Jonathan Rynhold of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Political Studies, director of the Argov Institute for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People and a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, focuses on US-Israel relations in his research. Rynhold reads otherwise into this selection and told The Media Line that as a rule, “the ambassador can play a bigger role or a smaller role,” continuing that the position’s importance depends on the nature of the relationship between the American administration and the Israeli government.
If relations are good, officials at the highest level can and will simply speak directly, “they don’t really need an ambassador. You know, the president and the prime minister, if they have a decent working relationship, will talk” without the need for a mediator, Rynhold says.
Following on this, if Nides is appointed as ambassador, Rynhold sees it as indicating that Biden and his top staff “feel confident that they have the depths of understanding and long-term relationships with Israel and the desire to work with Israel, that should make it okay,” and that they “will look to manage the relationship more directly.”
The professor notes that Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan all have a good rapport with the Israelis. “They’re starting from a different place” compared to Obama’s staff, he says.
If Nides is appointed, he will be stepping into the shoes of former ambassador David Friedman, who famously had a close connection with the Israeli government, in keeping with the tight relationship of then-President Donald Trump with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his government. Relations between the new administration and the Israeli government have so far been good, but Nides may assume his role as the sides are on a collision course over Biden’s momentum-gathering push to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
In line with this, Oreg sees the prospective ambassador’s larger mission as making clear – to both Jerusalem and Washington – that while the countries may enjoy a close relationship, and while many of their interests are aligned, they are not identical.
Under this umbrella, the expert identifies three key issues. First, there is the Iranian matter “with which we are coming into contact already. … Nides will have to be the one to explain the American stance to the Israelis, but he will also be the one to report back home” about the Israeli perception.
Rynhold, however, believes that the future ambassador will not be an integral part of the debate on this central topic. Iran’s nuclear aspirations are of vital strategic importance to both countries and will likely be discussed directly between the close allies’ leaders.
Second, there are matters relating to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which will likely see more involvement by the ambassador. The professor says that as long as both Palestinians and Israelis avoid drastic measures, and barring a major violent confrontation, the century-old conflict will likely be a relatively minor aspect of Biden’s policy.
Oreg agrees that significant efforts in this area on the part of Biden are unlikely – at least at first. Nides, if appointed, will have to balance the administration’s limited interest in a problem it deems unsolvable during this presidential term, and its outspoken aspiration for the two-state solution to remain viable and on the table.
Looking at peace agreements further afield, though, Rynhold points out that Nides’ business background may make him a good choice for furthering a round two of the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements signed between Israel and three Arab countries in the past year.
“It’s a question of where he will be involved in the regional peace process,” Rynhold says. “It’s possible that his business background might be a bonus. In other words, maybe he will take a role there. … I would see that as a potential area for him to play a meaningful role.”
Oreg sees the improvement of a third relationship as the most important issue on the likely ambassador’s table – that between Israel and the Democratic Party. Support for Israel becoming a partisan issue has been a source of great concern both in Israel and in the US.
“It isn’t a secret that Israel has a problem with the Democrats for a variety of reasons,” Oreg says, “and the main task of the ambassador to Israel, in my eyes, is mediating between the two sides. Explaining the Democratic Party, its criticism and complexity to Israel … while at the same time, explaining Israel to the Democrats, what Israel in its entirety is, where Israel prospers and where it furthers Democratic progressive values.
“Basically creating a more complete image of the relationship to truly preserve the bipartisanship of Israel, which at the end of the day is the cornerstone of the relationship with the US.”
And it appears that Nides, who is deeply connected to the Democratic Party, “has the necessary tools” to accomplish this, and this may very well have been what directed Biden to select him, Oreg says.