President Joe Biden has nominated former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, the White House announced Tuesday. Lew, who served as White House chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration, would succeed Ambassador Tom Nides, who left the post in July. Lew also served as OMB director during the Clinton administration and as deputy secretary of State for management and resources during the Obama administration. If Lew is confirmed by the Senate, he will come to one of the highest-profile U.S. ambassadorships, with the Biden administration pushing for Israel and Saudi Arabia – two of the biggest Middle East powers but longtime rivals – to normalise their relationship.
The effort to strengthen that historically fraught relationship comes after the Trump administration helped facilitate the “Abraham Accords,” normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. A normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, the most powerful and wealthy Arab state, has the potential to reshape the region and boost Israel’s standing in significant ways. But brokering such a deal is a heavy lift as the kingdom has said it won’t officially recognize Israel before a resolution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There have also been recent moments of strain in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have differences about the Israeli leader’s far right government’s passage in July of legislation that curbs the power of Israel’s top court and transfers power to parliament. The judicial overhaul plan drew months of widespread protests in Israel and was criticised by some U.S. lawmakers. Lew, who goes by Jack, has some experience working with the Israelis from his previous government roles. During the Clinton administration, he helped develop a memorandum of understanding on providing Israel with multi-year funding and was involved during the Clinton and Obama administrations with efforts to fund Israeli missile defence systems. “He will bring a wealth of experience, of diplomatic skill that will ensure the partnership between the U.S. and Israel remains strong,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
After leaving the administration, Lew in an appearance at Columbia University criticised Netanyahu for a 2015 speech to a joint session of Congress in which the Israeli leader blasted Obama for making “a very bad deal” as the Democratic administration was negotiating the Iran nuclear agreement. Israel and Republican officials worked out plans for Netanyahu’s speech to Congress without notifying the White House. Netanyahu’s aim with the speech was to strengthen opposition to the deal with Iran, President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy objective. The agreement by the Obama White House was sealed in 2015 but scuttled by former President Donald Trump. Biden has sought to resurrect the pact that would provide Tehran with billions in sanctions relief in exchange for the country agreeing to roll back its nuclear program.
Lew in the Columbia appearance called Netanyahu’s speech to Congress “beyond the pale” and “a huge mistake for Israel.” Lew is currently a managing partner at Lindsay Goldberg, a private equity firm, and a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York. A spokeswoman for Lew said he did not have any immediate comment on his nomination. Democratic Majority for Israel President and CEO Mark Mellman said Lew would come to the posting “well-versed in the intricacies of international relations and the pressing issues facing Israel and the U.S.-Israel alliance.” He also currently serves as chairman of the board of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, co-president of the board of the National Library of Israel USA and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Lew has also previously served as managing director and chief operating officer for two Citigroup business units. He was executive vice president and the chief operating officer of New York University and a professor of public administration in the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at NYU.