US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides to The Media Line: We Commend the Palestinian Authority Taking Out Terrorist Cells
US Ambassador Thomas Nides speaks in Tel Aviv with The Media Line's bureau chief, Mohammad Al-Kassim. (Dario Sanchez/The Media Line)

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides to The Media Line: We Commend the Palestinian Authority Taking Out Terrorist Cells

‘We have Israel’s back; we will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. ... Under no circumstances will we tie Israel’s hands in defending itself against Iran, Hizbullah, or the proxies,’ the US ambassador says.

United States Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides joined Mohammad Al-Kassim, The Media Line’s bureau chief in Tel Aviv to discuss the US administration’s ties with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to talk about the latest developments regarding the Iran nuclear deal, and more.

The Media Line: How do you view Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s support for the two-state solution in his speech at the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly]? Is it realistic?

Ambassador Nides: I have an enormous amount of respect for the prime minister. It was a brave speech. As you know, this is not the first time the prime minister has articulated his view of the two-state solution. In fact, when President Biden was here a month ago, he had a press conference, where he reiterated his support for a two-state solution. So, again, standing up at the UN and talking about it is exceptionally important. Obviously, the United States, the president, myself, all those who serve in this administration fully support what he said and we hope over the long term that we can get to where we need to be which is the two-state solution in the ‘67 borders, and we’ll have the ability to have not only a vision of a two-state solution but in reality, a two-state solution for the Palestinian people and the Israeli people –without, by the way – very important – compromising the security of the State of Israel, which is what the prime minister articulated.

The Media Line: Israel has aggressively been making its case against the Iranian nuclear deal. Israeli officials have been going back and forth to Washington and to European capitals in an attempt to persuade Western leaders either to sign a tough deal or not to sign a deal. Have its presentations helped the US formulate a position on the Iran nuclear deal?

The president has said from the beginning, that we have Israel’s back; we will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon

Ambassador Nides: Let me make three points. Number one: The president has said from the beginning, that we have Israel’s back; we will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. He said that over and over again. Number two: The president also articulated that we would under no circumstances tie Israel’s hands to defend itself, be it against Iran, or Hizbullah, or the proxies. And we’ve been very clear about that. Number three: Yes, the president would like to back into the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] under the conditions that he has set up through the Europeans, and ultimately, it’s really up to Iran if they want to accept those conditions, we would seriously consider going back into the JCPOA. So, the reality of this is the president has been very clear – very clear – about the importance of getting into a diplomatic solution here under the right terms. One thing we are clear [about] is the Israelis and the United States are [in] lockstep in understanding what’s going on the ground. I’m in no way suggesting Israel supports going in or the government supports going back to the JCPOA, but there is complete connectivity between the Israelis and the Americans on what’s going on the ground and the communication of what’s happening with the negotiations.

The Media Line: What’s Israel’s main objection to what’s being negotiated? What do they come to the US administration with, saying, “You know what? We hear you are about to sign a deal, but it shouldn’t happen because of this”?

There is no perfect deal here, folks. The important part of this is, we believe, under the right conditions, to slow this program down is in the national security interest for Israel and the region and that’s what we are trying to strive for if the conditions are met.

Ambassador Nides: Listen, you live in this neighborhood, this is a very complicated neighborhood. I have enormous respect for the Israelis and the defense establishment to understand their anxieties. It’s not just about the Iranian regime, it’s about their proxies. If you ask Israelis, they’re obviously concerned about Iran getting to breakout and ultimately having the technology to put the components onto a missile – that’s obvious – but they’re also quite concerned about the proxies, and that’s Hizbullah, and Syria, Hamas in Gaza. They have angst about that which we share with them. So, listen, their concerns are legitimate, I would [not] be the first one to suggest they’re not. There is no perfect deal here, folks. The important part of this is, we believe, under the right conditions, to slow this program down is in the national security interest for Israel and the region and that’s what we are trying to strive for if the conditions are met.

The Media Line: We came so close to signing a deal in the last couple of months. Every time we get so close, on the cusp of signing a deal, it just collapses. Is that Tehran’s fault, Washington’s fault, Europeans, who?

Ambassador Nides: No, it’s the Iranians’ fault! Listen, number one, as you know, the president was very clear: He was not going to agree [to the suggestion that] we take off the designation of the FTO, the foreign terrorist [organization] designation, off the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]. He said no, that was something we wouldn’t agree with. Number two, if you believe what you read on The Media Line or The New York Times, the reality of this is that the president has said he will not stop the cases being heard by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] as related to the cases which are open, he did not agree to closing those cases and not linking them to an agreement. So, there’s issues like that that are fundamental to the United States’ position, and we will not compromise on those fundamental views.

The Media Line: The current US administration’s position on settlements is very well known, but aside from public statements criticizing the building of new settlements and expanding settlements, what else can the US do to pressure Israel on this issue?

Ambassador Nides: Let’s be clear: Every day. I articulate to my friends, our allies, Israel, about our views around settlement growth. I think it’s well known. It’s President Biden’s well-known position. By the way, Democrats and Republican administrations have also had the same position that we’ve had which basically don’t believe it’s consistent for a two-state solution to do expansions of settlements in the West Bank, and we’ve been very clear about that. So I work with the Israelis every time these conversations come up, trying to get them to either slow down or stop. And they know our positions. And we’ve not only articulated it; we work with all the NGOs….

The Media Line: They understand your position. This isn’t something new. Successive US administrations – Republicans or Democrats – have been clear, with the exception maybe of the last Republican administration, have been clear on the settlements issue. But Israel continues to expand and continues to build settlements. What else aside from public statements and public criticism, that the US especially, which has a great relationship with Israel, can do maybe to change Israel’s view on settlements?

Ambassador Nides: Listen, as we said to both the Israelis and Palestinians, we don’t want to put conditions on the ground that make it impossible for a two-state solution. So, we constantly tell both the Palestinians for their behaviors, and Israelis for their behaviors, that to do things that make it impossible for a two-state solution is not what we think is in the best interest for the Palestinians nor for the Israelis. So, we are very clear, we are very focused on it, and we continue to push both parties to make sure they keep the conditions on the ground to allow for the potential for a two-state solution.

The Media Line: The Palestinians have called on President Joe Biden to fulfill his campaign promise and reopen the US Consulate in Jerusalem. Also, they’ve asked the US administration to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington as well as lifting the PLO from the US terrorist list. Why hasn’t the US moved forward on these issues?

We continually push Israel to open the consulate

Ambassador Nides: Well, it’s interesting you ask this question. We continually push Israel to open the consulate, and again, we’ll continue to do that. But it doesn’t take away the fact that we have 75 men and women in Jerusalem working every single day on the issues helping the Palestinians both in the West Bank and Gaza. Seventy-five people that every day wake up for the sole goal to help those individuals. So, yes, would we like the consulate officially open? Sure! But just to think about this for a second. We are now spending almost half a billion dollars of US taxpayers’ money helping the Palestinian people – not the PA but the people. Education, health care, working with them. We care deeply about the people, we care deeply about giving people the opportunities for the health care, the respect, the security that they need, and that’s what we’re spending our energies on. Yes, obviously we’d like to officially open the consulate, but it’s not stopping the work that we’re doing every day – not only work but money – trying to help the Palestinians have a better life.

The Media Line: Are you still working on convincing Israel to reopen the consulate?

Ambassador Nides: Absolutely!

The Media Line: How advanced are these talks?

Ambassador Nides: When the president was here, he talked about it, Secretary Blinken spoke to the [Israeli] government, I’ve spoken to the government, we continue to speak to the government. I without question understand the importance of it, but I want people to understand, every day we wake up working on this issue, working on the security of the State of Israel and working to make the Palestinian people on the street feel better about their situation on the ground, because I believe, and we believe, it makes Israel a stronger democratic, Jewish state and keeps a vision of a two-state solution alive.

The Media Line: Will we see it open in the next few months, or during the Biden administration’s first term?

Ambassador Nides: I don’t know. Obviously, I don’t know. But again, I want to be clear, it does not stop the efforts every single day that we’re doing to help the Palestinian people, and I think that’s very, very important.

The Media Line: President Biden in his UNGA speech once again stated his support for the two-state solution, without giving a road map on how to achieve this end goal. What is his plan to achieve the two-state solution?

We talk with our checkbook. The Americans are the biggest supporters of the Palestinian people.

Ambassador Nides: Number one: Words matter but action matters [more]. The president went to see President [Mahmoud] Abbas in the West Bank on this trip. He articulated very clearly that he supports not only a two-state solution but the ‘67 lines with land swaps, which has been the position that the president has articulated many times. Number two: We also talk with our checkbook. The Americans are the biggest supporters of the Palestinian people. The people. That’s about individuals, it’s about health care, it’s about education, it’s about standard of life. The president went to East Jerusalem, to the East Jerusalem hospital network, and announced a hundred million dollars to help – 80% of the patients that go to the East Jerusalem hospitals are from the West Bank and Gaza. These are real, tangible things. I’ve been working with the Israeli government to open Allenby Bridge 24/7. We’re talking about making sure that the Palestinians have 4G – these are real things. Yes, I know. it’s not [that] I’m getting the Nobel peace prize in the Rose Garden for peace in the Middle East, but it’s important and I think the president’s a very practical human being. We want a two-state solution, we want to make sure there’s a vision for a two-state solution that’s alive and moving forward. We want to convince the parties not to do things that make that impossible to achieve. So, I think it’s a very robust agenda. I think we have a very clear vision of where we are and where we are going, and that’s what we’re working towards.

The Media Line: How does Washington view the latest internal Palestinian fighting in Nablus in the northern West Bank, in the city of Nablus?

Ambassador Nides: As you probably know, it’s been widely reported that some of the actions that were done in those areas were conducted by the Palestinian security forces, which, obviously, we commend to getting the Palestinian Authority to basically take out some terrorist cells. The security of the State of Israel is critically important. There are people in those neighborhoods who want to do harm to the State of Israel and those have to be stopped. And obviously, it would be ideal for the Israelis – I can’t speak for the Israelis, obviously – but it would be way better when those things happen, that it be done by the Palestinian security forces and not done by the IDF. So, ultimately, that’s an important part of this, and we have to strengthen the abilities of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian security forces’ ability to take those actions. Our security forces, the joint operation that we have there run by [US security coordinator Lt. Gen. Mike] Fenzel works directly with the Palestinians and the IDF for training in the ability to do the things they need to do. So, obviously, our hope is that the Palestinian Authority, through their security forces, take the actions that need to be taken to secure those neighborhoods.

The Media Line: Don’t you think that the Israeli army raids night after night that has intensified in the last few months, in this year, will lead to the destabilization of the Palestinian Authority?

Israel needs to defend itself. If there are forces in those neighborhoods that are causing or potentially causing Israel harm, terrorist cells, they need to be taken care of. I stand fully in support of that and obviously our hope is that many of those actions are taken by the Palestinian security forces.

Ambassador Nides: Again, my hope is that whatever activities are taking place or are taken by the Palestinian security forces, obviously Israel needs to defend itself. If there are forces in those neighborhoods that are causing or potentially causing Israel harm, terrorist cells, they need to be taken care of. I stand fully in support of that and obviously our hope is that many of those actions are taken by the Palestinian security forces.

The Media Line: Is there an heir apparent to President Mahmoud Abbas that the US would like to see succeed him when his position becomes vacant? Someone that the US would like to work with?

Ambassador Nides: Again, it’s not my determination who the Palestinian people decide their leader is going to be.

The Media Line: Is the US fully satisfied with the Israeli army investigation for the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh? And why did the US drop its demand for Israel to review its rules of engagement in the West Bank?

Ambassador Nides: First of all, let me just step back and articulate, which I have done dozens of times, my sympathy for Shireen’s family. As you probably know, I went to the wake, I sat with her brother five, six times. I spoke with her niece, his daughter. My spouse is a journalist, you’re a journalist, you understand it’s an enormously dangerous occupation, especially those who are war correspondents. My heart breaks for them. As you know, the Israelis came to the same conclusion that we came to, that it was likely that the IDF sadly shot, not intentionally, but shot her. Number three: I think it’s important to understand that we, like many militaries, but ours I think arguably is a pretty sophisticated military, probably the most sophisticated military in the world, we constantly look at our rules of engagement. Always. Even last month, the secretary of defense articulated another review of our rules of engagement. We, which we do to all of our friends, we encourage them when something like this happens – she’s an American citizen – that they always continue to look at the rules of engagement. We’ve encouraged Israel to do that. We’ll continue to encourage them to do that. Obviously, we can’t tell our allies what to do and not to do but it’s something that’s very important to us.

The Media Line: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for your time.

Ambassador Nides: I’m honored. Thank you.

 

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