Biden’s Ambassador to Israel, at the Center of the Storm

WASHINGTON — Thomas R. Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, was speaking in typically colorful fashion on the subject of the Israeli government’s divisive plan to reduce the power of the judiciary.

U.S. officials had addressed the subject with cautious diplomatic language, using phrases like shared values and consensus building, in hopes of avoiding a backlash within Israel.

But when Mr. Nides was asked about it during a podcast in February, he reached for a catchy metaphor to convey the administration’s view.

“We’re telling the prime minister, as I tell my kids, pump the brakes,” Mr. Nides said. “Slow down, try to get a consensus, bring the parties together.”

The remark drew quick rebukes from the Israeli right, even though Mr. Nides was expressing official Biden administration policy, albeit in memorably simple terms.

“Pump the brakes yourself and mind your own business,” Amichai Chikli, Israel’s diaspora affairs minister, told a public radio station a few days later. Mr. Nides, he said, should “respect our democracy” and keep his opinions about it to himself.

The episode offered a small example of the pressurized environment in which Mr. Nides, 62, operates as President Biden’s envoy to Israel at a moment when U.S.-Israel relations are as strained as they have ever been.

Mr. Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have major differences on several issues, including Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, containing Iran — and, perhaps most of all, the plan by Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition to allow Parliament to overrule the Supreme Court by a single-vote majority and to shift the power to choose judges from the courts to politicians. The proposal has incited protests in Israel and even warnings from Mr. Netanyahu and others of the potential for civil war.

In the middle of the mayhem is Mr. Nides, a longtime Democratic Party insider who came to the job short on diplomatic experience — he is not a Foreign Service officer and has not previously been an ambassador, nor has he worked directly on Israel policy — but long on close personal relationships with top Biden administration officials, including the president.

Mr. Nides, who declined to comment for this article, is Mr. Biden’s main conduit for what are frequently unwelcome messages to Mr. Netanyahu and his top lieutenants. When asked by a reporter last week whether he had called Mr. Netanyahu to urge him to abandon the judicial overhaul, Mr. Biden replied that “I delivered a message through our ambassador.” (When that was not enough, Mr. Biden issued a rare public admonition, telling reporters that Israel “cannot continue down this road.” Mr. Netanyahu retorted that Israel would make its own decisions, “not based on pressures from abroad,” although, also facing intense domestic pressure, he ultimately agreed to pause the effort.)

That message cannot have been a comfortable one to deliver. But friends and associates say Mr. Nides, a former top State Department official who left an executive job at Morgan Stanley to become ambassador, brings to the job a self-deprecating charm that ingratiates him with people of different backgrounds.

“Tom is a natural schmoozer and can make anybody feel like they’re his best friend having just met him,” said Martin S. Indyk, a U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration. “The combination of influence and access makes him quite potent,” Mr. Indyk added.

Mr. Nides’s people skills have been tested more than his friends say he expected when he arrived in Israel in late 2021. That was during a relatively quiet political moment, before Mr. Netanyahu’s return to office in December atop the most right-wing government in Israel’s history dramatically inflamed U.S.-Israel relations.

For both good and ill, Mr. Nides’s high-energy style can translate to a looser way with words than is typical of risk-averse career diplomats. That can give him a welcome air of authenticity, associates say. But it also requires occasional cleanups. In February, for instance, Mr. Nides said at a conference in Jerusalem that the Israelis “can and should do whatever they need to deal with” Iran’s nuclear program, “and we’ve got their back.”

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But the implied idea — that Mr. Netanyahu has a green light to attack Iran — is not Biden administration policy.

“I haven’t seen the full comments that my friend Tom made,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said when asked about the remark. “I’m sure they were notable, as they usually are,” he told reporters, before insisting that Mr. Nides had said nothing new.

Amid the storm over the judicial overhaul plan, Mr. Nides indicated in an interview with the Israeli news media that the prime minister would be invited to Washington “quite soon,” adding, “Without question, he’ll be coming to the White House as soon as their schedules can be coordinated.”

Asked about the possibility a few hours later, Mr. Biden said, “No — not in the near term.”

Accounts of the sequence from both countries suggest that Mr. Nides may have conveyed slightly too much imminence and Mr. Biden may have spoken out of impulsive pique toward Mr. Netanyahu, but that the episode reflected no real distance between the president and his ambassador — just the challenge of acting as intermediary between two leaders managing a relationship as tense as it is important.

“Ambassador Nides is a superbly effective diplomat, in part thanks to his willingness to be direct and candid when needed,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said in an emailed statement.

It has also been a personally fraught experience at times. Last month, an Israeli man was indicted on charges of showing up outside a Jerusalem restaurant where Mr. Nides was dining and telling his security detail that he had “been sent to assassinate the U.S. ambassador.”

More than one person said that, while taking his responsibilities seriously, Mr. Nides openly jokes about his plight.

“Whenever I call him, usually the first sentence is ‘What the — is going on here? I had a great job! I was making good money!’” said Naftali Bennett, who was the prime minister when Mr. Nides first arrived in Jerusalem. “He’s got a great sense of humor. That has a tendency to calm things down.”

Senior Israeli officials interviewed for this article praised Mr. Nides, saying he has handled an explosive situation deftly. Because he is close not only to Mr. Biden but also to Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Blinken, Israelis say they see him as an authoritative representative of the Biden administration.

“He’s a great people guy, and he’s managed to keep this relationship good through these very challenging times,” added Mr. Bennett, one of three Israeli prime ministers Mr. Nides has worked with in less than two years. “I cannot recall an ambassador who had to go through such a roller coaster in Israel — different governments, different prime ministers and different policies.”

In one notable bit of outreach, Mr. Nides took steps soon after he was appointed to develop a working relationship with Ron Dermer, an Israeli ambassador to Washington during Mr. Netanyahu’s previous tenure. Obama administration officials resented Mr. Dermer for being, in their view, a de facto Republican ally. Mr. Nides’s approach, which rankled some Democrats, showed strategic wisdom, some people familiar with the situation said, given that Mr. Dermer is among Mr. Netanyahu’s closest confidants.

Nor did it go unnoticed in Israel that Mr. Nides called Mr. Netanyahu to congratulate him within minutes of his election victory in November.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Nides often speaks with Palestinian officials and has advocated for some Palestinian interests. Israeli officials say his persistence was crucial to their recent opening on a nearly full-time basis of the Allenby Bridge, a key crossing from the West Bank into Jordan that had long operated only on a limited basis, to great Palestinian frustration. Mr. Nides visited the crossing at midnight in November to highlight the value of extending its hours.

Born in Duluth, Minn., Mr. Nides grew up in a secular, liberal Jewish family. His father, Arnold Nides, was the president of Temple Israel and the Duluth Jewish Federation.

Thomas Nides got his political start as a college student, interning for Vice President Walter Mondale and working as a senior aide on Capitol Hill and as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton’s U.S. trade representative, Mickey Kantor.

He moved on to an investment banking career, becoming a senior executive at Morgan Stanley before returning to government during the Obama administration as deputy secretary of state for management, one of the department’s top jobs, under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Mr. Nides was a rumored potential chief of staff for Mrs. Clinton had she won the 2016 presidential election. When that did not happen, he returned to Morgan Stanley as a managing director and vice chairman.

His wife, Virginia Moseley, is a senior editorial executive at CNN.

In an attempt to portray himself as an energetic envoy, Mr. Nides regularly posts down-to-earth, often humorous — and occasionally bumbling — videos from his meetings and activities across Israel.

In particular, he has become known for his weekly message on the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, when he wishes followers a “Shabbat Shalom.” In one video, he is found baking cookies for Purim, a Jewish holiday. In another, he is pitching a baseball.

Last Friday, he marked the debut in Israel of a familiar American convenience store chain with a tweet proclaiming, “Oh, thank heaven for 7-11” and an accompanying video in which he joyously guzzled a Slurpee.

Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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