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Ex-congressman gets jolt of support in horse race for US ambassador to Israel

After lesser known banking executive emerges as frontrunner for envoy post, Jewish groups and lawmakers make frenzied push in favor of Robert Wexler, who they say is more qualified

Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Israel in July 2009. (Government Press Office via JTA)
Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Israel in July 2009. (Government Press Office via JTA)

WASHINGTON — At least three top Jewish Democrats in the US House of Representatives appealed to the White House in favor of naming Robert Wexler, a former Florida congressman, to be the next US Ambassador to Israel.

The push, which has been joined by figures who led Joe Biden’s presidential election campaign in the Jewish community, intensified this week when it appeared that Biden had settled on Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of state who is Jewish but whose Israel record is a relative blank slate.

Underpinning the pressure to name Wexler is the hope among traditionally pro-Israel Democrats that Biden maintains a close relationship with Israel and names an ambassador who understands the sensitivities of the country and of the American Jewish community. Also a factor is Wexler’s familiarity with Arab players in the region, including the Palestinians.

The three Jewish Democrats who have been pressing the issue are Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Jerry Nadler of New York, sources familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel, confirming reporting from the Forward and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

US Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaks during a news conference with Congressman Ted Deutch (L) looking on in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on July 5, 2016, (AP/Lynne Sladky)

Deutch, who chairs the House Middle East subcommittee, replaced Wexler when Wexler quit Congress in 2010. Wasserman Schultz is a former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Nadler chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Spokesmen for the three did not respond to queries by press time.

Wexler has longstanding and deep ties to Israel and the pro-Israel community. He was the first Jewish member of Congress to back then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2007. He left Congress in 2010 to lead the Center for Middle East Peace, a group that works behind the scenes to advance the two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that is funded by Daniel Abraham, the Slim-Fast mogul.

Obama reportedly sought to tap him as ambassador roughly a decade ago, but Wexler chose to stay at the non-profit instead.

The former congressman has been a longtime advocate for the two-state solution. He has spoken in favor of allowing Israel to build within the so-called settlement “blocs” near the Green Line that most Israelis envision will remain part of the country in a future peace deal. However he has opposed construction east of the West Bank security barrier in order to safeguard that territory for a Palestinian state.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, speaks as the House of Representatives debates the articles of impeachment against US President Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, December 18, 2019. (House Television via AP)

In 2017, Wexler told Congress that the Obama administration’s decision to abstain on a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israeli settlements had been “a clumsy attempt to restate America’s long standing bipartisan policy of opposing unilateral steps by any party.”

As part of his work with the Abraham Center, Wexler has sought to include religious voices in conflict resolution efforts, bringing delegations of Orthodox rabbis to Israel where they met with Palestinians.

Wexler heads the Tel Aviv office of a major American lobbying outfit, Ballard Partners. However, he has not been a registered lobbyist for more than two years, complying with government ethics rules. “Our team is uniquely qualified to assist clients with government relations in Israel, as well as assisting Israeli companies in the United States,” the shop says about its Tel Aviv office.

Robert Wexler (photo credit: Courtesy of the Middle East Institute)
Robert Wexler in 2012 (Courtesy of the Middle East Institute)

Wexler’s familiarity with the Jewish community and with Israel issues make him attractive to his backers. Deutch went on the record Wednesday with his support in a story on Wexler in Haaretz. “He knows the issues, he knows the players, he’s well respected across the political spectrum and he understands the many challenges that come with that position,” Deutch told the newspaper.

Deutch did not mention Nides, but the contrast he drew was obvious: Wexler knows the terrain better than a newcomer. “Robert’s experience will clearly help him meet that test,” he told Haaretz, referring to knowing the US-Israel relationship.

One Democratic strategist told The Times of Israel he was rather surprised by reports naming Nides as a frontrunner. “Nothing against him, but it would just be a bizarre choice given that many of the other names being considered are more well-versed in the issue.”

Michael Adler, a Florida-based donor who has backed Biden presidential campaigns going back to the 1988 race, is, according to sources, leading the push for Wexler. Adler reportedly had angled for the ambassador job himself but is now all-in for the former congressman. Adler did not reply to a request for comment.

Hadar Susskind, the CEO of Americans for Peace Now, said he was hearing broad support for Wexler in the pro-Israel community, encompassing backers of liberal groups like this, but also backers of AIPAC, the powerhouse lobby.

“The momentum is impressive,” he said. “In 48 hours I’ve heard from many members of Congress and Jewish community leaders, and they are a politically diverse group. APN supporters, AIPAC people, federation leaders, Jewish members of Congress, non-Jews, progressives and centrists. There is a lot of support for Robert out there.”

The announcement is expected to be made by the end of May.

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