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Jack Lew, US ex-treasury secretary and Obama chief of staff, tapped as Israel envoy

US President Joe Biden has decided to nominate former treasury secretary Jack Lew to be the country’s next ambassador to Israel, a White House spokesperson told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Having served on former president Barack Obama’s cabinet and as his White House chief of staff, the 67-year-old Lew would be the most distinguished political appointee to fill the sensitive post in Jerusalem.

Biden’s decision to nominate anyone at all, exposing his administration to a Senate confirmation process that Republicans will likely turn into a referendum on the president’s Israel policies as the 2024 presidential campaign kicks into gear, demonstrates the seriousness with which he takes the US-Israel relationship, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Lew’s nomination comes at a particularly sensitive period in the US-Israel relationship, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government aims to further advance its highly controversial judicial overhaul, despite repeated pleas from Washington that such far-reaching reforms only be advanced with consensus support, which the hardline coalition sorely lacks.

If confirmed, Lew will also be tasked with reining in the Israeli government’s efforts to further expand the settlers’ footprint in the West Bank in addition to its hardline policies toward the Palestinians more broadly, which have coincided with the most deadly year in the conflict since the Second Intifada.

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At the same time, the Biden administration has been working to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, weighing massive demands from Riyadh in order to get the deal across the goal line. US officials such as former ambassador Tom Nides have repeatedly warned Jerusalem that controversial policies on the Palestinians and judicial reform make securing a normalization agreement more difficult.

US President Barack Obama meets with members of his economic team in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 4, 2016. From left are Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Vice President Joe Biden, the president, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

“At this time in the US-Israel relationship, it’s as important as it has been since the 1990s that we have a high-level individual [as ambassador] who is a direct representative of the president and who is respected internationally and on both sides of the aisle here at home,” the senior administration official told The Times of Israel, explaining the decision to nominate Lew.

“As a former treasury secretary and chief of staff — not to mention all the other great qualities Mr. Lew brings to the office — there’s no one better,” the official continued. “When every word matters, when every meeting matters, and when it’s important for the president to be heard crystal clear in Jerusalem, there is no greater public servant who has more credibility on the issues and a record of accomplishment than Mr. Lew.

“When Mr. Lew is speaking, you know he’s speaking on behalf of the president,” the official added. “There’s no one who would have greater authority in dealing with a politically complicated situation in Israel right now, and this shows how much the president values the US-Israel relationship and getting this right.”

The administration official went on to reveal that there had been some debate within the White House regarding whether or not to nominate anyone, given the political dynamics at play ahead of the 2024 election. “There were plenty of folks who thought that maybe we shouldn’t nominate anyone, considering we have such a capable charge d’affaires in Jerusalem,” they said, referring to Stephanie Hallet, who has been heading the US embassy since Nides stepped down in July after nearly 20 months, in order to spend more time with his family.

“But the fact that the president wisely chose to nominate somebody and go through the Senate confirmation process, and the fact that it’s Mr. Lew, puts an exclamation point on how important President Biden sees this relationship to be — our mutual interests in terms of what happens in the Middle East but also what’s in America’s best interest,” the administration official added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in his Jerusalem office on June 18, 2014. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

Lew’s resume

Lew, who did not respond to a request for comment, has most recently served as a managing partner at Lindsay Goldberg LLC and as a visiting professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University.

In addition to his roles as treasury secretary and White House chief of staff, he also served the Obama administration as deputy secretary of state for management and resources, then too succeeding Nides in the post. Under both Obama and former president Bill Clinton, Lew served as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

As a special assistant to president Clinton, Lew helped establish the Americorps national service program.

His other private sector posts have included stints as managing director and CEO for a pair of Citigroup business units.

Lew was executive vice president and chief operating officer of New York University and a professor of public administration at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

He currently chairs the board of the National Committee on US-China Relations, is co-president of the board of the National Library of Israel USA, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas R. Nides, right, speaks at the annual National Leadership Mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Jerusalem, February 19, 2023. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo/File)

Lew earned a BA at Harvard and a JD at Georgetown University.

Lew would be the second Orthodox Jew to serve as ambassador to Israel, after David Friedman, president Donald Trump’s envoy in Jerusalem.

While he was generally involved on Israel-related issues as Obama’s chief of staff, Lew’s expertise is seen to be in the financial sector. However, his close relationship with senior members of the current administration, thanks to the leadership roles he has held, would make him a natural successor to Nides.

Nides didn’t enter the job with lots of policy experience on Israel either, but he was also seen as a political heavyweight who spoke for the president and was respected accordingly by Israeli officials.

Supporter of the Iran deal and a two-state solution

While Lew’s history of engagement on Israel-related issues has seen him express ongoing support for the Jewish state, he has also been critical of Netanyahu.

In a 2017 interview at Columbia University reported by Jewish Insider, he acknowledged that Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu “was not as good as one might have hoped. And it was in both directions.”

“I mean I saw as much provocation coming from the prime minister… I saw more provocation coming in than I saw going out,” Lew said, referencing Netanyahu’s 2015 decision to go behind Obama’s back to give a speech to a joint session of Congress against the Iran nuclear deal that the president was working to finalize.

“I think that was a huge mistake for Israel. A, it wasn’t going to work, B, it contributed to a trend of Israel identifying on a partisan basis when for most of 70 years there was no question that both parties could be pro-Israel,” Lew said.

He defended the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, arguing that it made Israel safer.

Lew also appeared to defend Obama’s 2016 decision not to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, saying, “I don’t think it’s a great thing for Israel to always have only the United States standing between it and condemnation.”

US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, center, accompanied by Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew, left, testifies at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Thursday, July 23, 2015, to review the Iran nuclear agreement. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“When it comes down to whether or not you think that settlements are appropriate and legal, you’ve said that for seven years and, you know, 11 months, that you don’t think they are — it’s hard to veto it over that issue. It doesn’t mean you’re not a friend of Israel,” Lew said.

Lew also expressed reservations in that 2017 appearance over a decision being considered by then-president Trump to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The former Clinton and Obama aide recognized the reality that Jerusalem functions as Israel’s capital but noted that successive presidents from both parties had until then refrained from formally recognizing it as such. Lew argued that doing so “preserve[s] the possibility of having a negotiated agreement that will produce ultimately some day a just and lasting peace with two states, [which] is the higher value.”

He expressed hope that such a decision by Trump wouldn’t cause a “major disruption,” before adding, “if you care, as I do, about having permanent security for a democratic state of Israel, there is no pathway other than a two-state solution.”

“The more you hear talk about a one-state solution, the more it means it’s not a democratic state. That is not the Israel that I want for my grandchildren to love,” Lew said at the time.