Meet Thomas Nides, Biden’s pick for US ambassador to Israel

While his Israel and Palestine views are little known, Nides's work in the Obama administration offers some insights

FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2012, file photo, Thomas Nides, testifies to the Senate foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Joe Biden has unveiled picks for several high-profile ambassadorial postings, turning to a group that includes career diplomats, political allies and an American aviation hero. Nides is nominated to serve as ambassador to Israel. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
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US President Joe Biden this week formally announced his intention to nominate Morgan Stanley vice chairman Thomas Nides as his ambassador to Israel, shortly after the Knesset formed a new government under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Prior to this week’s tranche of nominees, Mr Biden had stuck with nominating career diplomats to fill ambassadorships around the world as he seeks to rebuild the State Department after the Donald Trump administration depleted its ranks.

Conversely, Mr Nides is a major Democratic political donor and contributed about $3,000 to Mr Biden’s presidential election campaign. He also frequently contributes money to the Morgan Stanley Political Action Committee, which donates to Democratic and Republican candidates alike.

Although the nomination continues a bipartisan tradition of presidents nominating partisan political donors to plum ambassadorships, Mr Nides has some diplomatic experience from his time serving as the deputy secretary of state for management and resources under former president Barack Obama.

While Mr Nides sits on the boards of several foreign policy-focused non-profit organisations and reportedly enjoys close ties to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, many of his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are a somewhat unknown quantity.

But his previous State Department stint offers some insight into his approach to Israel and Palestine.

While there, Mr Nides supported the Obama administration’s extension of loan guarantees to Israel, putting Washington on the hook should Israel default on any of its foreign loans.

Under that agreement, the US deducted Israel’s expenditures on its West Bank settlements from the overall total in loan guarantees. This effectively lowered the $9 billion in loan guarantees offered by Washington to less than $4bn.

David Friedman, the ambassador to Israel under president Donald Trump, had close ties to several Israeli settler groups and helped draft a peace proposal that would have yielded most of the West Bank to settlements.

Conversely, Mr Nides has said little regarding Israel’s occupation of the West Bank or blockade on Gaza.

But he has been a robust proponent of providing US funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) – a priority for the Biden administration.

As deputy secretary of state, Mr Nides wrote a letter to the Senate’s foreign aid spending panel to oppose proposed legislation that would have narrowed the definition of Palestinian refugees covered by the UN programme.

“The status of Palestinian refugees is one of the most sensitive final status issues confronting Israel and the Palestinians; it strikes a deep, emotional chord among Palestinians and their supporters, including our regional allies,” Mr Nides wrote.

“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.”

The Trump administration eliminated Palestinian aid, including US contributions to UNRWA – a bugbear for Republicans who accuse it of close ties to Hamas.

Similarly, Mr Nides opposed successful congressional efforts to end US funding to the world heritage programme Unesco after the agency admitted Palestine as a member state in 2011.

Mr Nides's nomination has drawn praise from several other former ambassadors to Israel who served under Democratic administrations.

Daniel Shapiro, who served as former president Obama’s ambassador to Israel, called him “a great choice".

Dennis Ross, who served as former president Bill Clinton's Middle East envoy, said he would be “an authoritative ambassador who speaks for the president and at the same time provides input to shaping our policy".

And while Mr Nides has not indicated that he holds any particular leanings towards the emerging pro-Palestinian wing of the Democratic party, his nomination nonetheless comes as somewhat of a blow to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and its allies.

A group of three prominent Democrats in Congress – Ted Deutch, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Jerry Nadler – had pushed Mr Biden to nominate pro-Israel stalwart Robert Wexler, himself a former congressman favoured by Aipac.

In contrast to Mr Nides, Mr Wexler supported cutting US funding to Unesco after it admitted Palestine.

Mr Nides, who is Jewish, also has Capitol Hill experience. He served as a senior adviser to the former speaker of the house Thomas Foley.

Under the Clinton administration, he served as chief of staff for US trade representative Mickey Kantor and helped pass the North American Free Trade Agreement.