By Ron Kampeas
October 31, 2023
WASHINGTON (JTA) — The U.S. Senate approved Jack Lew, the Jewish former treasury secretary, to be ambassador to Israel, a process that Democratic leaders sought to accelerate as Israel wages war with Hamas.
The 53-43 vote was mostly along party lines, with two Republicans — Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham — joining 51 Democrats.
Both sides cited the urgency of the moment in making their cases. Democrats noted Lew’s close ties to Israel, and Republicans said his work on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal made him a poor choice during a time that Iranian proxy groups are engaging in direct warfare with Israel.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Jewish Maryland Democrat who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Jewish Democrat who is the majority leader, rushed Lew’s nomination to the floor over Republican objections.
“The Senate has now taken an extremely important step in its support for Israel,” Schumer said after the vote. “This confirmation is as important and as timely as any confirmation in recent times.”
Schumer said two-way communication was critical when an ally was at war.
“It means Israel’s messages will be relayed appropriately to our government but it also means our messages will be sent appropriately to Israel’s government,” he said.
An accredited ambassador in place will facilitate the delivery of emergency defense assistance to Israel, which is now under consideration in Congress. The office will also play a central role in freeing the dozens of Americans believed to be among the 240 or so hostages held by Hamas after its Oct. 7 invasion of Israel.
Lew would additionally help negotiate the terms of delivering humanitarian relief to Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, which is under Israeli attack.
Lew, who also served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff before leading the Treasury Department, has drawn words of support from Jewish leaders in Washington who pointed to his experience in public office, his skills as a negotiator, his involvement in Jewish life and his close relationship with Jewish organizations.
He earned a reputation for resolving complex negotiations during his two stints as director of the Office of Management and Budget under Obama as well as President Bill Clinton. He has spoken publicly about balancing his Orthodox observance with government work and has encouraged young observant Jews to go into public service,
Republicans who opposed Lew cited his role as treasury secretary when Obama brokered the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
“I understand it’s important to move as quickly as we can to have an ambassador in Jerusalem,” said Sen. James Risch, the Idaho Republican who is the top Republican on the committee. “We are at an important moment in history with the events in Israel. This makes the stakes so much higher and important that we get it right.”
Risch and other Republicans said that as treasury secretary, Lew’s oversight of the Iran nuclear deal, which traded sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program, overly favored Iran.
“Hamas would not exist if it was not for Iran,” Risch said. “Iran arms and trains them, it finances and directs them.”
Risch said Lew deceived Congress about the degree to which he facilitated sanctions relief to Iran. “I want to support Israel,” he said. “I think everybody on this floor wants to support Israel. The last thing we need is somebody who is very contrary to our view on how Iran should be handled.”
Cardin, known for his laidback approach to legislation, exhibited rare fury with his colleagues, whom he said distorted Lew’s record and falsely accused him of lying.
“It’s just not right to say he misled us!” Cardin shouted. “He did not!”
Cardin noted that Lew was backed by a broad range of organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Orthodox Union, a group whose constituents trend politically conservative. He also cited Lew’s long involvement in pro-Israel and Jewish groups. Lew’s confirmation “gives us the person as our representative to Israel that has the gravitas to stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel,” Cardin said.
Cardin added that when he visited Israel in the days after the war started as part of a bipartisan delegation, he heard from Israeli officials that they were eager to work with Lew.
“Israel needs a strong U.S. ambassador who will represent America and be their partner intaking on one of the greatest struggles in their history, from the terrorist Hamas and what they did on Oct. 7,” he said.