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Jack Lew, President Biden’s nominee to become the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, faced strident opposition from Republican senators during a Wednesday hearing to vet his nomination, as Democrats insisted that the urgent need to contain the deadly violence engulfing Israel and the Gaza Strip demands a speedy confirmation.
A former treasury secretary under President Barack Obama, Lew was sharply criticized for his defense of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which Israel’s right-wing government and many Republicans vehemently opposed, and related efforts at that time to de-escalate what remains a dangerously volatile relationship between Washington and Tehran.
At times contentious, Lew’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee coincided with a dramatic appearance in Israel by Biden as furor grips the Middle East and protests over the mounting death toll among Palestinians, who have faced days of Israeli bombardment, spread across the region. The proceedings in Washington centered on what lawmakers overwhelmingly agreed is Israel’s need for a steadfast American ally in the wake of this month’s devastating Hamas attack, though many Republicans signaled it would be difficult for them to support Lew given his past work to implement the now-defunct deal with Israel’s sworn enemy.
It was not immediately clear when Lew’s nomination will be considered by the full Senate, where Democrats hold the majority.
Wednesday’s hearing opened with a plea from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the committee’s chairman, who evoked the ghastly images that have emerged of Hamas militants brutalizing Israeli civilians and soldiers in the group’s stunning cross-border attack on Oct. 7. “Now,” Cardin said, “is not the time to play political games.”
Sen. James E. Risch (Idaho), the committee’s top Republican, spoke next, detailing his “reservations” about Lew’s potential appointment as ambassador. He cited a 2018 opinion piece by Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, who served in the George W. Bush administration, that implied Lew lied to Congress years ago about the Iran negotiations.
“It’s important we get the right person in this position,” Risch said, adding later that “holding hands with Iran under the table doesn’t work for me.”
Other Republicans on the committee, including Sens. Bill Hagerty (Tenn.) and Mitt Romney (Utah) suggested that the relaxation of sanctions under the nuclear deal allowed Tehran to more seriously fund militant groups such as Hamas. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) accused Lew of misleading the committee in his past testimony and alleged that the Obama administration sought to provide Iran access to U.S. banks.
Lew, aided by some committee Democrats who highlighted Iran’s displeasure with aspects of the nuclear agreement, hit back against accusations that he had misled lawmakers and that the 2015 deal had empowered Iran and its proxies.
“We negotiated with Iran to have them roll back their nuclear program, in exchange for which they would get access to money that was their money that we had frozen. All we did was facilitate that transaction,” he said. “My team went around the world, telling banks all over the world: ‘We did not lift the sanctions on terrorism. We did not lift the sanctions on human rights violations. We did not lift the sanctions on regional destabilization. Be careful.’ And Iran thought that kept them from getting what they thought they should get.”
The landmark nuclear deal restricted Iran’s enrichment of uranium in exchange for the loosening of U.S. sanctions. Obama argued then that the agreement was intended to set back any effort by Tehran to build nuclear weapons. President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement after taking office, and Iran has since exceeded the deal’s limits on the quantity and quality of its enriched uranium production.
At the time of the 2015 negotiations, Lew defended the deal publicly to pro-Israel audiences in the United States, where he was once heckled. And because the Treasury Department is charged with implementing sanctions policies, he presided over the loosening of the restrictions on Iran. The deal unlocked foreign investment in Iran and eased financing for the government. Backers encouraged that investment as part of ensuring that the agreement functioned as it was envisioned.
“I think it’s important to distinguish between the technical details to facilitate implementation of the [Iran nuclear agreement], and more broadly welcoming Iran into the U.S. financial community. We didn’t. And I took no actions that would do that,” Lew said in response to Rubio’s assertions. The senator’s account, he added, was at odds with “my memory of what I had people out there doing.”
Lew, 68, who even before his term as treasury secretary served in the top echelon of the Obama and Clinton presidencies, is an unusually senior appointment for the role. He was Obama’s chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget, a role he also filled for President Bill Clinton, when the federal government last ran a budget surplus. Under Obama, he was also a deputy secretary of state.
An Orthodox Jew, Lew also has long-standing connections to the American Jewish community. He has long backed a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. “If confirmed,” Lew said in his opening remarks Wednesday, “I will work to advance comprehensive and lasting peace” through such a solution.
While several Democrats raised concerns about the plight of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, where a humanitarian crisis is rapidly unfolding as Israeli forces wage a ferocious response to the Hamas attack, Republicans asked whether Lew was sufficiently supportive of Israel and if he shared their desire for a more hawkish approach to Middle East peace.
Lew sought to reassure senators of his bona fides. He was raised in a Zionist household, he said, referring to the Jewish nationalist movement that galvanized support and migration for the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.
“This is not the time for us to be lecturing Israel on what they have to do to establish the security that they have a responsibility to provide,” Lew said. “I think they know they have to do it in a way that is consistent with minimizing the impact on innocent civilians,” he added. But previous U.S. wars have demonstrated that “it is very, very hard for there not to be collateral damage.”
To Democrats, Lew echoed statements made by Biden, appealing to Israel and the United States’ shared democratic values, but demurred when pressed by some senators on whether he would seek to influence Israel’s targeting in its war.
“We’re all aware that Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who went on to ask, “Will you, if you are confirmed, work with Israel to make sure that schools and hospitals and power and water systems are not targeted?”
“I’m unable to answer a hypothetical question,” Lew responded. “Because there are cases where Hamas is hiding behind civilians with materiel, command centers, leaders. And how you define something as a school or a command post makes all the difference.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), addressed the spread of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, saying the seizure of “more and more Palestinian lands” was potentially undermining efforts to broker peace and, in turn, strengthening Hamas. He asked Lew whether the Biden administration’s pursuit of a deal to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia would need some “attention paid to the Palestinian issues” if it is to succeed.
Now is “probably not the right time” to address whether Palestinian grievances should be a part of any deal between the Israelis and Saudis, Lew responded. “But after this war is over, it has to be part of the conversation.”