Former treasury secretary Jack Lew frontrunner for next US ambassador

An Orthodox Jew, ex-Obama chief of staff has extensive ties to Israel, has been critical of Netanyahu

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Former US treasury secretary Jack Lew speaks at the panel "Reforming the Euro Area: Views from inside and outside of Europe," during the World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings, in Washington, April 19, 2018. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Former US treasury secretary Jack Lew speaks at the panel "Reforming the Euro Area: Views from inside and outside of Europe," during the World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings, in Washington, April 19, 2018. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Former US treasury secretary Jack Lew is a leading candidate to become the next US ambassador to Israel, two sources familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

“The process is ongoing, but [Lew] is being vetted,” said one of the sources, confirming reporting in the Axios news site.

That would ostensibly put Lew, an Orthodox Jew, in an advanced stage of the process, likely ahead of some of the other names that have been floated, such as former congressmen Robert Wexler and Steve Israel.

While Lew was generally involved on Israel-related issues as Barack Obama’s chief of staff, his expertise is in finances and budgeting.

However, his close relationship with senior members of the Biden administration, thanks to the leadership roles he has held, would make him a natural successor to the previous ambassador, Tom Nides.

Nides stepped down as ambassador in July after nearly 20 months on the job to spend more time with his family, who did not move to Jerusalem with him.

While he too didn’t enter the job with lots of policy experience on Israel, Nides was also seen as a political heavyweight who spoke for the president and was respected accordingly by Israeli officials.

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas R. Nides, right, speaks at the annual National Leadership Mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem, February 19, 2023. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo/File)

Lew, 67, does have a bit more of a history of engagement on the relevant issues than Nides did. He has long expressed his support for Israel, but has also been critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a 2017 live interview at Columbia University reported by Jewish Insider, he acknowledged that Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu “was not as good as one might have hoped. And it was in both directions.”

“I mean I saw as much provocation coming from the prime minister… I saw more provocation coming in than I saw going out,” Lew said, referencing Netanyahu’s 2015 decision to go behind Obama’s back to give a speech to a joint session of Congress against the Iran nuclear deal that the president was working to finalize.

“I think that was a huge mistake for Israel. A, it wasn’t going to work, B, it contributed to a trend of Israel identifying on a partisan basis when for most of 70 years there was no question that both parties could be pro-Israel,” Lew said.

Lew defended the nuclear deal, arguing that it made Israel safer.

He also defended Obama’s 2016 decision not to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, saying, “I don’t think it’s a great thing for Israel to always have only the United States standing between it and condemnation.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands as he leaves the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, after addressing a joint meeting of Congress in a speech opposing the imminent Iran nuclear deal. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

“When it comes down to whether or not you think that settlements are appropriate and legal, you’ve said that for seven years and you know 11 months, that you don’t think they are. It’s hard to veto it over that issue. It doesn’t mean you’re not a friend of Israel,” he said.

When former president Donald Trump was weighing moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, Lew expressed reservations. He recognized the reality that Jerusalem functions as Israel’s capital but noted that successive presidents from both parties refrained from formally recognizing it as such, arguing that it “preserve[s] the possibility of having a negotiated agreement that will produce ultimately some day a just and lasting peace with two states, [which] is the higher value.”

He expressed hope that such a decision by Trump wouldn’t cause a “major disruption,” before adding, “if you care, as I do, about having permanent security for a democratic state of Israel, there is no pathway other than a two state solution.”

“The more you hear talk about a one state solution, the more it means it’s not a democratic state. That is not the Israel that I want for my grandchildren to love,” Lew said.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report. 

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