President Joe Biden’s announcement on Tuesday morning that he would nominate Jack Lew, a former Treasury secretary and White House chief of staff and an observant Orthodox Jew, as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel was met with skeptical responses from key Republican senators. That, alongside growing tensions between the administration and GOP senators over Middle East policy, could spell a difficult confirmation process for Lew.
Given that Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, they will likely have the votes to confirm Lew, barring Democratic defections, but Republicans could drag the process out for months and pressure the administration over its Israel policy.
Multiple lawmakers, including members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will process Lew’s nomination, have already signaled that they’re considering throwing up obstacles to Lew’s swift confirmation.
Tensions between the administration and Senate Republicans prompted a July letter, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and signed by 13 other lawmakers, including seven of the 10 Republicans on the committee. The letter accused administration officials of promulgating “policies designed to undermine” the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The senators warned that, without changes to the administration’s Israel policy “the expeditious vetting of nominees would become intractable” — a threat to block the swift confirmation of administration nominees.
“Sen. Cruz has enormous concerns with the Biden administration’s campaign against our Israeli allies,” a Cruz spokesperson said in a statement to Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “He has also stated repeatedly that dishonesty on the part of Biden administration Middle East nominees, in which they commit to boosting the U.S.-Israel relationship in public but then undermine it the second they’re behind closed doors, has made it difficult to expeditiously confirm them. He will evaluate the nomination on that basis.”
Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-NE), another signatory to the Cruz letter, told JI that he hadn’t reviewed Lew’s record fully yet, but said that he remains opposed to swiftly processing nominees without “some changes with regard to policy with regard to Israel.”
Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, also signed the Cruz letter. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has maintained a policy of not moving forward with confirmation hearings on nominees without Risch’s consent as ranking member, which has, in some cases, led to monthslong delays before nominees come before the committee.
Risch did not respond to a request for comment on Lew’s nomination.
Biden’s last nominee as ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, sailed through the committee with strong bipartisan support. Just three Republicans — Cruz and Sens. Bill Hagerty (R-TN) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) — voted against advancing his nomination.
Lew’s confirmation hearing will also likely provide an opportunity for Republican critics to litigate and voice grievances with the U.S.’ Israel policy during both the Biden and Obama administrations.
“While former Treasury Under Secretary Jack Lew did not initially support President [Donald] Trump’s relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem back in 2017, I hope that he today supports the full and faithful implementation of the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 and, in turn, opposes the re-opening of the U.S. consulate for the Palestinians in Israel’s eternal and indivisible capital,” Hagerty said in a statement to JI. “I look forward to Mr. Lew’s confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”
Before Lew’s nomination was made official, a group of House Republican lawmakers urged Biden not to nominate him, citing his involvement with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, criticisms of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense of the Obama administration’s decision not to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements.
While the House members have no formal role in Lew’s confirmation, those criticisms are likely to find purchase among Senate Republicans as well.
These likely difficulties facing any Biden nominee for the ambassadorship had fueled speculation that the administration might leave the role open until after the 2024 elections.
Lew could also face questions about his role as the chairman of the board of directors of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a nonprofit group that seeks to promote ties between the U.S. and China.
Critics have described the group as overly China-friendly — a potential liability at a time of escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing. Republicans have previously grilled other Biden State Department nominees over their affiliations with China. Those concerns ultimately did not stop the officials in question from being confirmed.
Payouts Lew received from New York University when he departed as the school’s executive vice president in 2006, including a $685,000 severance payment and $440,000 in forgiven mortgage payments, also attracted scrutiny from Senate Republicans when Lew was nominated to be Treasury secretary in 2013.
Even after Lew’s confirmation hearing, individual committee members have latitude to delay a committee vote on Lew — which is likely to succeed, given the Democratic majority on the panel.
And after nominees clear committee, every senator has significant ability to unilaterally block nominees from quick confirmation — whether out of concern about the individual nominees or to secure unrelated concessions. The Senate currently faces a backlog of State Department confirmations stalled by such objections.
With numerous high-priority bills, including government funding, still to be processed this year and a long backlog of other nominations, it’s unclear whether Senate leadership would be willing to dedicate floor time to Lew’s nomination in the near future.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a member and former chair of SFRC, told reporters that he’d “absolutely” urge Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to prioritize Lew’s nomination and use floor time to confirm him if Republicans raise objections.
“I’m for all of our ambassadors being confirmed, but this is particularly important,” Cardin said.
Among Democrats, including both pro-Israel stalwarts like Cardin and those who have offered criticisms of Israeli policy, Lew’s nomination was met with support.
Cardin told reporters that “Jack Lew has the utmost respect on both sides of the aisle, he has incredible experience” and praised Lew’s “knowledge of the Middle East.”
“It should be, I hope, an easy confirmation process,” Cardin said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told JI that he’s “impressed with Jack Lew.”
“I think the White House was considering a number of good people, but I’m a fan of his, so I was impressed to see [the nomination],” Kaine said.
Some Democratic critics of Israel have also clashed with the administration over issues like its handling of the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Israel’s potential inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program and Israeli settlements and violence in the West Bank. It’s unclear if they’ll raise their own objections to Lew’s confirmation on those grounds.
Lew’s nomination was also met with a warm response from Jerusalem, with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen tweeting that Lew knows Israel “so well” and that “we look forward to working with you in the spirit of our close cooperation and alliance.”
If confirmed, Lew faces a delicate period in the U.S.-Israel relationship, as the administration seeks to dissuade the governing Israeli coalition from continuing its overhaul of the Israeli judiciary and urges Israel to stop expanding settlements in the West Bank. The new ambassador would also be taking over as the administration addresses increasing violence by terrorists in and from the West Bank, the destabilization of the West Bank and vigilante violence by Israeli settlers; pursues a diplomatic agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program; and hopes to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.