Jacob Lew, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill Oct. 18, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The U.S. Senate voted, 53-43, Tuesday to confirm Jacob J. Lew as ambassador to Israel amid a recent escalation in the U.S. ally’s war with the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Senators of both parties agreed the need to confirm an ambassador to Israel gained urgency after Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7 that killed at least 1,400 in Israel.
But almost all Republicans voted against President Joe Biden’s nominee Tuesday, with many citing Lew’s record dealing with Iran while he headed the Treasury Department during the Obama administration.
Two Republicans, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined all Democrats and independents to vote in favor. All 43 no votes (including South Dakota’s John Thune and Mike Rounds) came from Republicans, who raised objections over Lew’s role in the Iran nuclear deal. Four senators, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Tom Tillis of North Carolina, Mike Lee of Utah and Tim Scott of South Carolina, were absent for the vote.
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In floor remarks Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer noted the importance of having a representative in Israel as Congress considers a major aid package.
“With everything happening in Israel right now, confirming Jack Lew at this moment will be one of the most important and consequential nomination votes the Senate has taken in a long time,” the New York Democrat said. “The need to confirm Mr. Lew is plain and irrefutable: Israel is in crisis, America needs to stand with her, and a most urgent and obvious step would be to ensure that we have an ambassador in place.”
At his Oct. 18 confirmation hearing, Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee registered their objections to Lew’s role in the 2015 international agreement that lifted some economic sanctions on Iran in return for the country allowing restrictions on its nuclear program.
Iran is a major funder of Hamas and Hezbollah, another militant group neighboring Israel.
“Secretary Lew, I have reservations on your appointment as America’s ambassador to Israel,” the panel’s ranking Republican, Jim Risch of Idaho, told Lew at the hearing.
“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. I have reservations about your ability to do that.”
The committee advanced Lew’s nomination last week on a 12-9 vote.
On the Senate floor Tuesday, Thune cited the Iran agreement as a reason to oppose Lew.
“Mr. Lew played a key role in developing and carrying out the Obama administration’s misguided nuclear deal,” Thune said, “And his nomination does not exactly send the message to Iran that the Biden administration will be cracking down on Iranian warmongering.”
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby Tuesday called Lew “more than qualified” and said he would assist in both Israel’s war effort and the push to provide humanitarian aid.
Former Ambassador Thomas Nides left the position in July.
After weeks of airstrikes, Israel began a ground offensive into northern Gaza over the weekend, according to a statement from the country’s military.
Humanitarian aid continues to flow into Gaza, though there are complications around the deliveries, particularly fuel, Kirby said at the White House press briefing Tuesday.
In the last 24 hours, 66 trucks delivered supplies into the territory, with “dozens more” expected Tuesday, Kirby said.
The delivery of aid did not necessarily mean Gaza residents could leave Gaza, Kirby said. He blamed the inability of civilians to escape the territory on Hamas, who he said had established obstacles for people seeking to leave.
“Just because the gate swings one way doesn’t mean it’s going to swing the other way,” Kirby said. “Obviously, we want it to. Right now the aid is getting in — not enough, but it is getting in. But right now we can see we just are not able to get people out.”
Kirby said delivery of fuel to Gaza was critical, with existing stocks “dang near down to zero” and no fuel yet delivered. Fuel is needed to power water desalination plants, he added.
Kirby responded to concerns that Hamas could steal incoming fuel, saying that the group had not touched any of the humanitarian aid that had arrived thus far.
“It’s a legitimate concern, no question about that,” he said. “Our argument is it’s also a legitimate need of the innocent civilians in Gaza who are suffering right now in desperate need of continued medical care and fresh water to drink.”
Biden was scheduled to speak Tuesday afternoon with King Abdullah II of Jordan to discuss cooperating with Arab partners to provide humanitarian aid.
Also Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, held a hearing to review an aid package that would include military and humanitarian assistance for Israel and Gaza. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testified to the panel Tuesday in support of the administration’s request for funding.
The White House has requested more than $100 billion for Israel, Ukraine, and U.S.-Mexico border security.
The U.S. can pay for aid packages to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, Kirby said Tuesday.
But U.S. House Republicans are split on further funding for Ukraine and introduced a bill Monday to send aid only to Israel. Administration officials and Democrats in Congress have dismissed the legislation.
“We’ve been very clear… how deeply concerning this House Republican bill is and how it doesn’t meet our national security needs,” Kirby said. “As commander in chief, the president is never going to do anything that doesn’t meet our national security needs.”
— The staff of South Dakota Searchlight contributed to this report.
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