WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s nominee to be ambassador to Israel told senators Wednesday that he would “ensure Israel has what it needs to defend itself” and would work with the U.S. ally to end the attacks by Hamas if he were confirmed.
Jacob Lew, a treasury secretary under President Barack Obama, promised to coordinate with the international community and address the humanitarian crisis facing civilians in Gaza amid Israeli military strikes. His hearing came as Biden visited Israel to reinforce U.S. support and try to ease tensions in the latest war with Hamas.
“At this moment, there is no greater mission than to be asked to strengthen the ties between the United States and the State of Israel and to work toward peace in a region that has known so much war and destruction,” Lew said in his opening statement.
The Senate is moving quickly to confirm Lew, who was nominated by Biden last month after Tom Nides left as ambassador in July. Democrats say Lew’s wealth of government experience — he also was chief of staff to Obama and White House budget director under Obama and President Bill Clinton — makes him the right person to fill the post at a a critical moment in the two countries’ relationship.
“Hamas has started a war,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as he began the hearing. “Given the dangerous state of emergency that Israel faces, the United States needs a confirmed U.S. ambassador in Jerusalem.”
Cardin, D-Md., has said 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 new war, works to release hostages held by Hamas and deals with increasing concerns about tensions on the northern border with Hezbollah. Cardin said it is also important to “keep normalization talks alive” that could improve diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab countries in the region.
Several Republicans on the committee said they had concerns about Lew, and their opposition could slow his nomination. The committee is expected to vote next week and move it to the full Senate.
The Republicans criticized Lew for his role in the Obama White House when it negotiated the Iran nuclear agreement in 2015, among other foreign policy moves. The deal with Iran — the chief sponsor of Hamas — was later scuttled by former 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.
Lew indicated that he believes that further talks on the issue should be on hold, at least for now. “I don’t think this is the moment to be negotiating with Iran,” he said.
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the committee, was among those with concerns.
“Not only will you need to support Israel as it responds to these attacks, but also as it contends with the enduring, and indeed existential, Iranian threat, which I think is an underlying and foundational issue here,” Risch told Lew. “I have reservations about your ability to do that.”
Lew defended his work in the Obama White House and called Iran an “evil, malign government.”
“I want to be clear — Iran is a threat to regional stability and to Israel’s existence,” Lew said. “If confirmed, I will uphold President Biden’s warning to anyone in the region who might try to take advantage of the current crisis: don’t.”
Lew expressed sympathy for the civilians on both sides who have been injured or killed in the fighting. It must end, Lew said, “but it has to end with Israel’s security being guaranteed.”
Lew, who is Jewish, said he cannot remember a time in his life “when Israel’s struggle for security was not at the forefront of my mind.”
His pledge to get Israel what it needs 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. The people requested anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and because the funding request is not final.
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 because some Republicans have balked at linking the money for Israel with the war in Ukraine. Also, the House has been in chaos since Republicans unexpectedly ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., two weeks ago and is for now unable to pass legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that the Senate must act as “a steady, bipartisan force.”
“At this moment of crisis in Israel, and of chaos in the House of Representatives, the Senate must step into the breach and stand firmly together to get emergency military and humanitarian aid to Israel,” said Schumer, D-N.Y.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has also strongly supported linking aid for the two countries and Taiwan but said it would have to come with additional measures to help control immigration at the U.S. border. McConnell would not say whether he supported Lew’s confirmation.
Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.