WASHINGTON – U.S. President Joe Biden formally announced Tuesday Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration, as his nominee for the next ambassador to Israel on Monday, ending months of speculation and filling the key position in pushing through the White House's Middle East policy.
Nides, currently the vice chairman of investment bank Morgan Stanley, has years of experience on both Wall Street and Capitol Hill and has been lauded for his ability to manage and navigate complex diplomatic and bureaucratic situations.
Nides will also be the administration's man on the ground as it seeks to build a positive working relationship with the nascent Bennett-Lapid governing coalition, which was sworn in on Sunday.
The administration faced growing scrutiny and pressure from Democratic lawmakers to appoint an ambassador after weeks of escalation in Jerusalem and throughout Israel culminated in an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas that killed more than 250 people, mostly in the Gaza Strip, last month.
The appointment, whose absence became both an increasing curiosity and perhaps a liability, signals that the Biden administration has a clear vision on how to engage with the Middle East, and that officials believe Nides’ multipronged experience as a manager in both the public and private sectors makes him the appropriate choice for this delicate moment, after renewed violence in the region called into question the administration’s stance toward the conflict.
Pending a Senate confirmation, Nides will be tasked with representing and executing the policies of the Biden administration, following the unprecedented symbiotic relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump, executed via Nides' predecessor, Ambassador David Friedman.
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Aside from his charge of continuing to make clear that the Trump era is over, Israeli diplomatic and policy veterans know that differing viewpoints on Iran policy and the Palestinians mean that Nides will often be tasked with playing bad cop at various points of his tenure.
Nides will help oversee the administration’s efforts at building upon the Gaza cease-fire and preventing any backsliding into violence.
Red flag for progressives
Nides is a Jewish native of Duluth, Minnesota, whose father was president of the local Reform congregation and whose mother taught Hebrew.
He was considered to be Hillary Clinton’s likely choice for chief of staff had she been elected president in 2016 and was also believed to be in the running for Biden’s commerce secretary. He had been considered the front-runner for the ambassadorship for months, though former Rep. Robert Wexler turned what was at one point considered a formality into a genuine horse race.
Wexler received the backing of several key figures and organizations in the American Jewish community, as well as widespread support from senior Democrats in both houses on Congress and from across the party's ideological spectrum.
Officials tracking the process flagged Nides’ experience on Wall Street as a potential red flag for progressives, who lent support to Wexler due to his deep familiarity with all parties involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli diplomatic officials are understood to be relatively unfamiliar with Nides, though he is believed to have strong ties with the Israeli business community. Officials believe Nides may be able to use his experience and preexisting relationships to help build upon and commercialize the normalization pacts between Israel and several Arab states, which were brokered by the Trump administration but backed by Biden officials too.
Nides managed former Sen. Joe Lieberman's vice presidential campaign during the 2000 election. Lieberman told the Forward that Nides "will have Israel’s security and well-being at heart" if chosen.
His nomination is still subject to Senate confirmation, but Nides is unlikely to face staunch opposition. He may be targeted, however, for his association with the 2011 drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq and the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
'Irreverent, hard-working and warm'
Nides, a major Democratic fundraiser who is known to be close with several figures in Biden’s inner circle, has previous experience working as an executive at Credit Suisse First Boston and Fannie Mae, and working for then-Majority Whip Tony Coelho and House Speaker Tom Foley.
The Minnesota native, who initially backed Sen. Amy Klobuchar's 2020 presidential bid, quickly threw his support behind Biden when it came down to the former vice president and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"It’s going to be a contest between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, and I don’t think it’s a very difficult choice for the Democrats who have been involved in politics for as long as I have,” he was quoted by Bloomberg as saying at the time.
As deputy secretary of state for management and resources, Nides was broadly responsible for oversight and coordination of U.S. foreign assistance and overseas diplomatic operations.
In his book "Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide," former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren described Nides as "irreverent, hard-working, highly intelligent and warm," noting that Nides quickly earned his affection and trust.
Oren details the more heated moments of their interactions in his book as well. When President Mahmoud Abbas formally declared he would seek full UN membership for the State of Palestine, Nides strongly rebuked Oren for potential Israeli punitive measures. "You don’t want the fucking UN to collapse because of your fucking conflict with the Palestinians, and you don’t want the fucking Palestinian Authority to fall apart either," Nides told Oren, according to the latter's book.
The former ambassador writes that he told Nides he didn't want the UN to collapse, "but there are plenty of Tea Party types who would, and no shortage of Congress members who are wondering why they have to keep paying Palestinians who spit in the president’s eye. You don't want to cut off aid, you don't want to defund the UN or close the PLO office, so what will you do?"
Oren then writes that Nides “slumped into his Louis XVth chair and looked beat.”
When Israel began defunding the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2011 after it accepted Palestine as a member state, Oren recalls another instance of Nides berating him: "UNESCO teaches Holocaust studies, for chrissakes, you want to cut off fucking Holocaust studies?"
It is understood Nides was responsible for communicating the Obama administration’s attempts to keep U.S. funding of UNESCO in place to organizations such as AIPAC – efforts that went nowhere fast.
When asked for comment, an AIPAC spokesperson said: “We have always enjoyed a very good working relationship with Mr. Nides during his career in public service both in the legislative and executive branches of government.”
Oren also recalls how Nides led a delegation of 100 American businessmen to Cairo in 2012 to help shore up support for Egypt's new government led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2012, Nides strongly objected to a Republican-proposed appropriations amendment that would have made it U.S. policy that Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as those who are citizens of countries like Jordan, are not “refugees.”
Nides’ letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy, which many read as a full-throated defense of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, argued that “final status issues can and must only be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations. The Department of State cannot support legislation which would force the United States to make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees.”
He urged against any steps that would “damage confidence between the parties at a particularly fragile time, undercut our ability to act as a mediator and peace facilitator, and generate very strong negative reaction from the Palestinians and our allies in the region, particularly Jordan.”
Nides also noted that UNRWA “provides essential services for approximately five million refugees, including education for over 485,000 school children, primary health care in 138 clinics, and social services for the most vulnerable, particularly in Lebanon and Gaza.”
This defense is consistent with the Biden administration’s renewal of funding for UNRWA and Palestinian aid, perhaps the administration's most significant steps relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since assuming power in January.
While serving in the Obama administration, Nides also helped oversee the recommendation that Congress approve a three-year extension of loan guarantees to Israel worth $3.8 billion, amid Israeli concerns that the U.S. would not extend them despite Israel’s request.