Jack Lew, US ex-treasury secretary and Israel envoy pick, to face Senate hearing

Obama chief of staff tapped to replace Tom Nides, with US-Israel ties crucial amid Hamas’s devastating onslaught and resulting war

File: Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, the Biden administration's pick for US ambassador to Israel, speaks during the discussion panel at the World Bank/IMF annual meeting at IMF headquarters in Washington, October 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
File: Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, the Biden administration's pick for US ambassador to Israel, speaks during the discussion panel at the World Bank/IMF annual meeting at IMF headquarters in Washington, October 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The Senate is moving quickly to confirm Jacob Lew as the US ambassador to Israel, holding a hearing on his nomination Wednesday as President Joe Biden visits the region to reinforce Washington’s support for Jerusalem and try to ease tensions in its ongoing war with the Hamas terror group.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing comes as the White House has told lawmakers that it is considering a request of between $90 billion and $100 billion for the wars in Israel and Ukraine and for Taiwan as it faces threats from China, according to four people familiar with the conversations. The request to Congress would cover a year, according to another person familiar with the Biden administration’s expected request.

Lew, a treasury secretary under US president Barack Obama, was nominated by Biden last month after ambassador Tom Nides left the post in July. Democrats say Lew’s wealth of government experience — he also served as a White House chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget under Obama — makes him the right person to fill the post at an important moment in the two countries’ relationship.

Lew’s hearing comes as war rages between Israel and Gazan terrorists, sparked when Hamas rampaged through southern border communities on October 7, slaughtering some 1,400 people — mostly civilians — and taking at least 199 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

Israel responded to the massacre with an intense bombing campaign that it says is aimed at destroying Hamas’s infrastructure, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, which rules the Strip. According to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, at least 3,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza, although Israel says many casualties have been caused by Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets falling short of the border.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said Tuesday that Lew, who goes by Jack, is “an outstanding, qualified person” and that it is urgent to have a confirmed ambassador to help Israel as it navigates the war, works to release hostages held by Hamas and deals with increasing concerns about tensions on the northern border with Iran’s Lebanese proxy, the Hezbollah terror group. Cardin said it is also important to “keep normalization talks alive” that could improve diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab countries in the region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023 (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)

“It is as critical as ever” to fill the post quickly, Cardin said.

The White House could make a formal request for the foreign war aid as soon as this week. Though there is near-unanimous support for Israel in Congress, a $100 billion package — if that is what the Democratic administration requests — could face major obstacles as some Republicans have balked at linking the money for Israel with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The House has been in chaos since Republicans unexpectedly ousted their speaker, Kevin McCarthy, two weeks ago.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has supported linking aid for the two countries and Taiwan but has said it would have to come with additional measures to help control immigration at the US border.

At his weekly news conference on Tuesday, McConnell would not say if he supported Lew’s confirmation. Some Republicans have criticized Lew for his role in the Obama White House as it negotiated the Iran nuclear agreement in 2015, among other foreign policy moves under Obama, and that opposition could slow his nomination.

The deal with Iran was sealed in 2015 but later scuttled by former US president Donald Trump. Biden has sought to resurrect the pact, which would provide Tehran with billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for the country agreeing to roll back its nuclear program.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has said he views Lew as too sympathetic to Iran — Hamas’s chief sponsor — and will fight his nomination.

“Democrats are saying we need to confirm Jack Lew quickly to show our support for Israel, but I would say the exact opposite,” Cotton said on “Fox News Sunday” last weekend. “We need to defeat Jack Lew’s nomination to show we have a new approach to Iran.”

Lew has been visiting senators’ offices ahead of his hearing to shore up support. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a member of the Foreign Relations panel, said he met with Lew on Tuesday and discussed with him the humanitarian crisis developing in Gaza amid Israeli strikes.

“Our ability to support Israel at this pivotal moment is significantly hamstrung by the fact that we don’t have a US ambassador on the ground,” Murphy said.

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