Thomas Nides, who arrived in Israel in late November to serve as the new American ambassador, said in his first interview with the Israeli media on January 14 that he had never visited an Israeli settlement, though he had visited Israel many times, and when asked if he might now do so, replied “I absolutely will not.” That remark must have greatly cheered the Palestinians; no doubt there were smiles all around in the Muqata as they realized what kind of man they would now be dealing with. In Israel, however, and not only in the settlements where half a million Israelis live, there must have been a blend of amazement, chagrin, and fury at this novice diplomat’s most undiplomatic demarche.
A lengthy report on Nides’ “first strange and fatal interview” is here: “New US envoy says ‘absolutely won’t’ visit settlements, to avoid inflaming tensions,” by Jacob Magid, Times of Israel, January 14, 2022:
New US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said Friday that he’d never visited an Israeli settlement in the West Bank and had no plans to do so, as part of his effort as envoy not to take steps that could inflame the situation on the ground.
When pressed, during his first interview with Israeli media since arriving in Israel, as to whether he might make such a visit, Nides told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, “I absolutely will not.”…
Asked to explain his decision not to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps, Nides responded, “Because just like I ask both the Palestinians and Israelis not to take steps that inflame the situation, I don’t want to do things intentionally that would create disrespect or anger among people.
But in declaring with such podsnappian finality that he will never – it’s out of the question, I simply won’t hear of it — visit any of the “settlements” (really, cities and towns), he has caused the very thing he said he wished to avoid: “anger among people.” But those angered “people” are only Israelis, and why should Thomas Nides care about their reaction? He’s clearly worried only about the “disrespect and anger” among the Palestinians, were he to visit any of the settlements.
“Now, listen, I’ll make mistakes. I’ll say things that will aggravate people. I’m sure that in this interview, I’ll say something that will aggravate someone. But I don’t want to intentionally anger people,” he added.
Yes, Nides has indeed aggravated Israeli Jews, with the exception of those in the far-left Meretz Party. Nides’ point-blank refusal to visit “the settlements” will naturally be taken to mean that he does not recognize even the possibility of a valid Israeli claim to any of them, that is, to any part of Judea and Samaria.
Nides arrived in Israel in late November after a lengthy confirmation process slowed by the refusal of Senate Republicans to advance many of US President Joe Biden’s nominees.
Explaining his approach to the position, and again subtly differentiating himself from his predecessor, Nides said, “When it comes to Israel, I have no ideology. All I care about is that Israel will remain a strong, democratic and Jewish state.”
Does Thomas Nides think that Israel can remain “strong” if its claim to its West Bank settlements, and thus to the West Bank itself, is completely denied? How “strong” would Israel be if it were stripped of its possession of the Jordan Valley, so critical to Israel’s defense? How “strong” would Israel be if it were pressured to give up all of the West Bank, and to allow itself to be squeezed back within the 1949 armistice lines that Abba Eban once described as “the lines of Auschwitz”? It is not only the Israeli military who believe that Israel must hold on to much of Judea and Samaria. In 1967, on President Lyndon Johnson’s orders, a team of American military men were sent to Israel to study the security situation and to report back on the territory Israel would have to retain in order to assure its security. They did so, and their report made clear that among the territories Israel had won in the Six-Day War and would have to keep for security reasons were the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights.
The American ambassador is unwilling to visit settlements even in those two places.
Ambassador Nides seems to think that his visiting settlements would constitute an endorsement of an Israeli claim to much, or all, of the West Bank. No, it would not. But if he refuses to visit any of the settlements, he would be sending a strong signal that he, and the Biden Administration, find Israel’s West Bank claims without merit.
Why should he visit the settlements? First, because not to do so strengthens the belief of the P.A. leaders that if the Palestinians just hold fast to their maximalist demands, eventually the Americans will put such pressure on Israel that it will have to surrender the West Bank and return to the 1949 armistice lines. They must be disabused of this fantasy.
Second, in refusing to visit any settlements, Nides surely alarms many Israelis about the state of their alliance with the U.S. They have already been made anxious by the Bidenites’ eagerness to strike a deal with Iran, and dismayed that their concerns, even if heard in Washington, are not being heeded. They do not feel that they are truly “in the loop” as promised, and look with dread on what Robert Malley et al might be willing to concede to Iran. This is no time for the American ambassador to be seen as undermining Israel’s claim to Judea and Samaria.
Third, it is one thing to see how small, how scarcely discernible, Israel is on a map, and quite another to experience its tininess in person. To travel from the Mediterranean Sea to just outside Qalqilya in the West Bank allows one to grasp what a return to the 1949 armistice lines would mean: a nine-mile waist from Qalqilya to the sea, so that an invader from the east could cut the Jewish state in two within 30 minutes. It’s only 100 miles from Jerusalem to the Jordan River. Let the Ambassador experience for himself that short trip, too.
Fourth, a visit to the settlements would show that these are not temporary dwellings but full-fledged cities and towns, deeply rooted. The people living in them are not wild-eyed religious fanatics (as the world’s media so often depicts them), but like other Israelis, are convinced of the validity of Israel’s claim to Judea and Samaria, and do not feel that they have “stolen Palestinian land.” Those 500,000 Israelis in the West Bank are not going to be uprooted, as were the 8,500 Israelis pulled out of Gaza in 2005. Nides needs to understand that, and it would help If he were to see for himself what these these cities and towns – hardly temporary “settlements” — are like. He should walk their streets, attend a class in one of the schools or a lecture at one of the universities, look in at one of the world-class hospitals where both Jews and Arabs are treated, take note of the libraries, the synagogues, the stores, the factories, the offices, the flourishing farms. And in some of those settlements, he will see the archaeological sites that provide conclusive evidence of a Jewish presence dating back three thousand years. Perhaps then Ambassador Nides will better appreciate the Israeli claim to Judea and Samaria. He can still disagree with, but no longer so easily dismiss, that claim.
He said his support for a two-state solution guides him in his new position.
“My support for a two-state solution — a solution that President Biden of course supports — my support for the well-being of the Palestinian people, all of this stems from the belief that Israel will be strengthened this way,” Nides said.
The envoy said he’ll feel that he succeeded in his new job if he manages to keep prospects for a two-state solution alive, by convincing both parties not to take unilateral steps that further entrench the conflict….
But there are no “unilateral steps” that the Palestinian Authority can take. It is only Israel that can take “unilateral steps” by, for example, approving the building of new settlements, though none have been approved and built in the last twenty years. Does Nides know that? The Israeli government recently approved a total of 3,300 new homes to be built in existing settlements in Judea and Samaria; these were needed to meet the increased demand for housing because of the natural population growth in the settlements. Perhaps Thomas Nides thinks building these homes constitutes a “unilateral step” of the kind he deplores because it “further entrenches the conflict.” Or might enlarging the settlements make “conflict” less likely? The increase in the Jewish population in the West Bank helps to fortify Israel’s hold on the area, thereby reinforcing the Jewish state’s ability to deter potential aggressors, including potential invaders coming from the east. Many students of the Arab-Israeli conflict believe the best way to keep the peace is through deterrence; Israel must remain militarily much stronger than its enemies, and perceived to be so, to prevent a major war from breaking out.