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.
The hearing is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. ET. Watch in the player above.
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 two countries’ relationship.
“Hamas has started a war,” said Sen. 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, D-Md., 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 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.
Several Republicans said they had concerns about Lew because of his role in the Obama White House when it negotiated the Iran nuclear agreement in 2015, among other foreign policy moves. That Republican opposition could slow Lew’s nomination as the committee is set to vote next week and move it to the floor.
The deal with Iran 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 should be on hold, at least for now. “I don’t think this is the moment to be negotiating with Iran,” he said.
The committee’s top Republican, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, said he had “reservations” about Biden’s nominee.
“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’s 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. 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, R-Calif., 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, R-Ky., said Tuesday after meeting with his GOP 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.
Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.