In a special interview with Arutz Sheva - Israel National News, US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides speaks about his role as ambassador, the new Israeli government and the FBI investigation into the death of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Aqleh.
Concerning the recently revealed FBI investigation, he stresses that the White House has nothing to do with the FBI’s decision to open a probe.
“The White House and the State Department where informed after [the FBI] had already made a decision. We weren’t involved. There has been no involvement by the State Department or the White House,” he says.
While agreeing that the United States saw the results of the Israeli investigation and was part of the investigation, Nides explains that the Justice Department makes decisions to open investigations as an independent agency.
“The United States and Israel have an unbreakable bond, one hundred percent. But our Justice Department and our FBI work independently from the White House and the State Department. Consequently, we are abiding by what they decide, [whether] to launch an investigation or a preliminary investigation. I don’t know the details at this point. But we have no influence over what an independent Justice Department does.”
Addressing Defense Minister Benny Gantz's comment saying Israel would not cooperate with any investigation by the FBI, he mentions the fact as an independent country, that choice belongs to Israel.
“[Israel] is a democracy. This country will decide what they want to do. We’re not going to dictate to them what they can and shouldn’t do,” he says.
Nides visited the Knesset this week, meeting with MKs, some of whom he already knew and some who he had not met before.
“When I came here I promised myself I would meet with and talk to everyone. I wanted to spend time with everyone. Consequently, a lot of those faces I know. The election was a huge turnout in Israel,” he says.
Commenting that Netanyahu will be his third prime minister in a year, he explains: “The most important thing for me is this had a huge turnout, over 70 percent. Both Jews and Arabs. The turnout was significant. It should be a beacon for everyone in the world to look at what vibrant democracy means. You may not like the results or love the results, but people show up for the fifth election. The number of people who showed up was remarkable.”
He comments on reports that the White House is concerned regarding some of the members of the new government, explaining that his role is to be a diplomat and not to get involved in that matter. But he nonetheless notes his longstanding relationship with Netanyahu.
“You haven’t heard me say that. I am the voice of the Americans here. I’m the president’s representative in the State of Israel. I’ve been very clear. This is a democracy. We have an unbreakable bond with the State of Israel. I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who I know and who I have spent time with many, many times. I look forward to working with him. We will agree and we will disagree and we can still have an unbreakable bond.”
As ambassador, he explains, he will continue to work to strengthen ties.
“My intention is to work day and night with the next prime minister on strengthening our bilateral ties. As Joe Biden said to Bibi Netanyahu in a phone call last week: ‘Bibi, I’ve known you for 40 years. We’re going to work together on big issues. I look forward to it.’ And that is I feel about this relationship.”
When asked if MKs Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich concern him, he replies that he has never met either one or talked to them before.
“We’ll see what ministries they have. They have said some things during the campaign, people say a lot of things during a campaign. Let’s see what happens, let’s see what ministries they have. If the prime minister wants us to work with people, obviously we’ll work with the people the prime minister asks us to work with.”
On the topic of whether he will work with Ben Gvir if he’s a minister with a position that’s relevant for dialogue with the US, Nides takes a wait and see approach.
“Let’s see what positions he has and what he says about those positions," he says. “If he gets positions and he makes declarative statements about those positions that are contrary to the values that the United States holds dear, I’ll have some second thoughts. I’m confident that these men and women [in the new government] understand the importance of this bilateral relationship and understand that we have shared values and everyone wants to achieve the same thing.”
Nides also touches on the two-state solution, making it clear that “the United States supports a vision of a two-state solution.”
“We want to make sure that the opportunities are available at a time that the parties want to come to the table to negotiate a two-state solution,” he says. “We can’t dictate to the Palestinians or the Israelis what they should or shouldn’t do. My view of this is we have to keep the conditions on the ground to allow to opportunity for the two-state solution to survive.”
Responding to the fact that many Israelis feel it is dangerous to go ahead with a Palestinian state when they see the flourishing terror infrastructure in Gaza, Nides believes there is no alternate to the two-state solution that provides sovereignty and security for both Israelis and Palestinian Arabs.
“These are zero-sum games. My assumption is we want to keep a vision of a two-state solution alive for when the opportunity comes when Israelis and Palestinians want to come to the table and have a discussion, at least there’s an option on the table to do so.”
He adds that the White House views the option as still currently being “on the table,” explaining that was why outgoing Prime Minister Lapid gave his UN speech.
“We’ll work with the government to push forward as best we can to try to keep the vision of a two-state solution alive,” he says. “We think it’s critically important.”
Early on in his tenure, Nides said he would not travel to communities in Judea and Samaria. With regard to if he would meet the residents of those communities for a dialogue, he answers that he’s met with leaders and rabbis from those communities, and that everyone is welcome to come meet with him.
“If your goal is to educate me and explain to me why you believe that settlement growth is good and it’s healthy, I’m open. You cannot find a person who’s asked to see me who I haven’t been willing to see.”
He notes that he’s spend time with communities on all sides of the spectrum and that his position as ambassador is not ideological.
“If your goal is to educate me, come educate me,” he says, but adds he was not and is still not interested in visiting communities in Judea and Samara “for the sake of symbolism.”
In terms of the visa program, which didn’t get solved during the Bennett/Lapid era, Nides has already spoken to Netanyahu about accomplishing it.
“We’re going to get it done. I’m very confident,” he says. “I am trying to do this for the Israeli people. I think it’s outrageous that an Israeli trying to visit the United States takes six months or a year to get a visa. Hopefully through a variety of ways we are going to get this done. It’s very important to me.”
He adds that there are 30 countries in the world that have visa waivers and that Israel, as one of America’s closest allies, should be among those.
Summing up his year as ambassador, he says: “The number one priority for me was that people understood there was an unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel. And Joe Biden in his heart and his soul, when he said, ‘You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.’ I want people to understand we’ve got Israel’s back. As the American ambassador that is my number one goal. And I think I’ve achieved that so far and I want to keep that as successful as possible.”
His future goals as ambassador involve continuing his past successes and working with the new government to address challenges.
“To work successfully with this government with the challenges a new government always brings, new relationships, work on the things that we can work together on, and to make sure that people know we have Israel’s back,” he says.
“We need to talk about our values and when we think our values are not be viewed in this country as we would do it in our country, we need to speak up. But the reality is I believe that Joe Biden believes not only in the State of Israel but in the importance of a homeland for the Jewish people. That’s what I’m all about.”