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 an important moment in the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“Hamas has started a war,” said Senator Ben Cardin, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Given the dangerous state of emergency that Israel faces, the United States needs a confirmed U.S. ambassador in Jerusalem.”
Cardin, a Democrat, said Lew, who goes by Jack, is “an outstanding, qualified person.” Cardin added 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 Hezbollah. Cardin said it is also important to “to keep normalization talks alive” that could improve diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab countries in the region.
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. They were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter because the amount of the funding request is not final and they spoke on condition of anonymity.
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 two weeks ago and is for now unable to pass legislation.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has 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.
“Republicans are going to want something serious about the border” in the foreign aid spending bill, McConnell said Tuesday after meeting with his Republican conference. “And so we’ll take a look at the package when they send it up, make suggestions to improve it if needed, but clearly the world has changed dramatically in the last 10 days.”
McConnell would not say whether 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 Lew’s nomination.
The deal with Iran was sealed in 2015 but later scuttled by President Donald Trump. Biden has sought to resurrect the pact.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton has said he views Lew as too sympathetic to Iran — Hamas’ 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 to shore up support. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a committee member, 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 U.S. ambassador on the ground,” Murphy said.