A Bumbling Ambassador in Israel
by Jerold Auerbach
In a striking display of arrogance – and ignorance – American Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides recently told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu what he must do, and not do, to resolve the current political crisis over judicial reform. Furthermore, Netanyahu must accept American policy recommendations regarding other aspects of Israeli governance.
Although Nides insisted that the United States would not dictate changes he made it clear that the Biden Administration prefers the Israeli government to become its deferential clone. Of primary importance is the High Court of Justice (Israel’s Supreme Court). Netanyahu’s intention to restrict its power infuriated Nides. “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.’” To Nides, Netanyahu is merely another “kid,” to be told what must be done to satisfy American wishes.
Then there is the issue of Israeli settlements in Biblical Judea and Samaria – a source of “frustration” for the Biden administration. Nides, oblivious to their place in Jewish history, cannot restrain himself from bloviating about the evils of these Jewish communities, “a vexing issue for our country.” There is no indication that he has ever visited a settlement.
Another irritating issue for Nides concerns the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the most ancient Jewish holy site after the Machpelah burial site in Hebron of the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. He condemned the recent visit of Ben Gvir, Minister of National Security, to the Mount. This, for Nides, was “unacceptable.” It was nothing but a “provocative” act, “the kind of nonsense that lights things on fire.” But it was Nides who seemed to be burning with fury.
Nides proudly claims spending “60% of my time trying to help the Palestinian people” – revealing that his role as Ambassador to Israel is undeserving of his attention. He proudly cites the Biden administration’s commitment to increasing financial aid to UNRWA, the United Nations organization charged with helping Palestinian refugees of the 1947-48 Arab war that was fought to annihilate the fledgling Jewish state. By now, however, UNRWA has become a scam. Nides is oblivious to the reality that there are as many UNRWA employees (approximately 30,000) as there are genuine Palestinian refugees still living.
Given Nides’ evident determination to inject himself into Israeli policy decisions it is hardly surprising that he would be sharply rebuked by Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli. “I say to the American ambassador,” Chikli advised, “slam the breaks on yourself and mind your own business.” It is unlikely that Nides will comply with Chikli’s recommendation.
Nides’ background helped to frame his current stance on Israel. After working for liberal American politicians Walter Mondale and Joe Lieberman among others, he became Managing Director of Morgan Stanley. From there he went to Credit Suisse before becoming Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources in the Obama administration. His talents in the financial world were evident. But Wall Street profits do not translate into expertise about the Middle East, least of all about Israel.
Diplomacy, especially with regard to Israel, is a different chapter in the Nides story. He realizes that the United States and Israel are bound together by “a sense of democracy and a sense of democratic institutions.” That sounds reassuring – until he says that “when we believe that those democratic institutions are under stress and strain, we’re articulating [our concern]. That’s what we are doing now.” He seems to believe that the Biden administration is the appropriate judge of Israel’s behavior.
Nides may have been successful in business. But he has yet to comprehend that Israelis are determined to define and defend their ancient homeland and modern nation – despite his discomfort and without his intrusion. As for Netanyahu’s plans and decisions, Nides should watch and listen before he indulges in more rants. He might even realize that he was appointed Ambassador to Israel, not its critic-in-chief.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of twelve books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019