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Senate confirms Jack Lew as U.S. ambassador to Israel in 53-43 vote

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Washington — The Senate confirmed former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel on Tuesday, quickly approving his nomination amid the war in Gaza.

The Senate voted 53-43 to confirm Lew, with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky breaking with their party to join all Democrats in supporting him.

"The Senate, I'm proud to say, has now taken an extremely important step in our support of Israel," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor after the vote. "With Israel defending itself against Hamas, this ambassadorship is as important and timely as any nomination that the Senate has confirmed in a long time."

President Biden nominated Lew in September amid strained relations between the U.S. and its key ally over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial plans to overhaul Israel's judicial system and settlement expansion in the West Bank. 

The Oct. 7 terrorist attack by Hamas increased the urgency in confirming Mr. Biden's pick. The U.S. has not had an ambassador in Israel since July, when Tom Nides stepped down after nearly two years on the job.

Lew's confirmation came despite Republican opposition over his role in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal under President Barack Obama. During his confirmation hearing, Lew was grilled by Republicans on lifting sanctions on Iran as part of the agreement. Lew served as treasury secretary from 2013 to 2017.

"I want to be clear, Iran is a threat to regional stability and to Israel's existence," Lew told senators. 

Jack Lew testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.
Jack Lew testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Valerie Plesch/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When asked about restarting nuclear talks with Iran, Lew said that it's not the appropriate time to be negotiating with the country, which provides weapons and funding to Hamas. 

"I believe deeply that an agreement to not have nuclear weapons would be a good thing. But this is not the moment," he said. 

Iran is not "a rational economic player" but "an evil, malign government that funds its evil and malign activities," he told lawmakers. 

Ahead of the confirmation vote, Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Lew is the "wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong place." 

"We're at an important moment in history with the events in Israel," the Idaho Republican said. "This makes the stakes so much higher and important that we get it right. I believe it means we should take the time to get it right." 

Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said he has heard directly from Israeli leadership that "they're very much looking forward to" Lew serving as the top American diplomat in Jerusalem. 

Paul was the only Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to vote with Democrats in advancing his nomination last week.

"After meeting personally with Jack Lew, I found him to be a thoughtful individual who will strive to do his best to represent the United States in Israel," Paul said in a statement. "I also believe it to be important to have an ambassador during the current crisis in Israel."

Before leading the Treasury Department, Lew served as Obama's chief of staff and as the director of the Office of Management and Budget in both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Since leaving the Obama administration, Lew has been managing partner at Lindsay Goldberg LLC, a visiting professor at Columbia University, a co-president of the board of the National Library of Israel USA and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. 

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