Washington, DC – US President Joe Biden has nominated former Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew to be the country’s next ambassador to Israel, as the United States pushes to deepen ties with its top Middle East ally.
The White House announced Lew’s nomination on Tuesday, months after Tom Nides – the former envoy to Israel – resigned from his post.
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Lew still needs to be confirmed in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Republican lawmakers have been using procedural hurdles to delay and block the Biden administration’s diplomatic nominees.
“Today, President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate Jacob J Lew to serve as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the State of Israel,” the White House said in a statement.
Lew, who held senior government positions in the administrations of Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has been an outspoken supporter of Israel.
He currently serves as co-president of the board of the National Library of Israel, USA, a New York-based group that supports the library in Israel and its programmes.
In a social media post on Tuesday morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen welcomed Lew’s appointment as ambassador to a “country you know so well”.
“We look forward to working with you in the spirit of our close cooperation and alliance,” Cohen said.
Lew’s nomination comes at a time when the US is working to secure formal diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The Biden administration is also pushing to include Israel in its Visa Waiver Program, which would allow Israelis to travel visa-free to the US despite concerns about Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian Americans.
But the US-Israel relationship has seen some recent friction, with Biden warning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against going through with a judicial overhaul plan that critics say would weaken the courts and rule of law in Israel.
The US State Department also has regularly voiced criticism of Netanyahu’s policies against Palestinians, including the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Still, Biden administration officials often stress that the US commitment to Israel is “ironclad”.
Roles in US government
Lew previously made headlines on Israel-related issues.
In 2015, he was booed by pro-Israel supporters during a Jerusalem Post conference in New York for defending the Iran nuclear deal, which saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of sanctions against its economy.
Israel and its backers opposed the multilateral agreement, which was signed by the Obama administration and major world powers.
But Lew has insisted that the Iran deal – which was nixed by former President Donald Trump in 2018 – was good for Israel and that US-Israel cooperation was at its “highest level” under Obama.
Lew was Obama’s White House chief of staff before being appointed treasury secretary in 2013. He also served as the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under both Clinton and Obama.
The ambassador-designate first joined the Obama administration as deputy secretary of state for management and resources.
Outside of government work, he has held many positions at academic and financial institutions.
In remarks at Columbia University in 2017, Lew lauded the Obama administration’s efforts to push back against the Goldstone Report, a United Nations fact-finding mission that accused Israel of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in its 2009 war in Gaza.
“The United States was really the only country that was out there under President Obama defending Israel against things like the Goldstone Report,” Lew said at that time, as reported by Jewish Insider.
“I can’t tell you how many dozens of phone calls were made, presidential, vice presidential, secretarial, sub-cabinet level, to try and prevent Israel from being isolated.”
At the same event, Lew also addressed the Obama administration’s decision not to veto a 2016 UN Security Council resolution that called Israeli settlements a “flagrant violation under international law”, saying Washington worked to water down the measure.
“Personally, I wish the resolution hadn’t been there at all. I’m not happy that there was a resolution,” he said.
“I’m also happy it wasn’t in its original form where we would have had to veto it, but then the rest of the world would have been voting for this even harsher condemnation.”