WASHINGTON — Jacob Lew, the Biden-nominated choice for the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel, faced a range of prickly reactions — from protesters and Republican senators alike.
The former Secretary of the Treasury appeared in front of Senate Foreign Relations committee members to answer questions about his plans for maintaining U.S.-Israel relations in a hearing Wednesday. Lew’s nomination comes at a highly anticipated time, as the Israel-Hamas war intensifies and Biden visits Israel.
During the opening remarks made by Lew and Chairman Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a protester suddenly arose from his seat, shouting, “We need a ceasefire now!” Two protesters followed moments later, repeating that there was an “Israeli genocide of Palestinians.”
While the hearing proceeded after security rushed the demonstrators out the doors, the tension in the room did not dissipate. Senators from both parties said they condemned the actions of Hamas and terrorism but viewed Lew’s impact on the future of U.S.-Israel relations in starkly different terms.
GOP senators grilled Lew on his history with Iran and its threats to national security and its alleged involvement in the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel.
“Holding hands with Iran under the table doesn’t work,” said Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), referencing Lew’s role in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA). This once-U.S.-backed initiative aimed to limit Iran’s nuclear development in exchange for sanctions relief.
Diplomacy in the deal has been on and off. While Washington and Tehran said both would make moves to return to the original plan after Trump’s withdrawal in 2018, Iran’s nuclear program largely remains unchanged. Today marks JCPoA’s Transition Day when the United Nations is set to lift embargoes on Iran’s nuclear programs.
Risch also referenced a claim by Washington Post columnist and ex-presidential speechwriter Marc Thiessen stating that in 2016, investigators found the Obama Treasury Department — which Lew led — granting Iran the ability to convert millions of its assets through the American financial system. Risch said he was “deeply disappointed” and implied Lew was lying.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), shared Risch’s doubts on whether Lew could ensure the aid sent to Gaza and the West Bank — a million-dollar package Biden announced live during the hearing — wouldn’t be used for malign purposes by Hamas nor Iran.
“The death squads in Israel from Hamas are funded in real and meaningful ways by the billions of dollars the Obama administration — now the Biden administration has flowed directly to Iran,” Cruz said. “That has proven disastrous.”
Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) said money given as “humanitarian expenses” to Iran — what he claimed as “high risk” in feeding into Hamas’ operations — has dramatically increased in the past few years. Hagerty questioned if Lew would actually act in the interest of the U.S. and work to see American hostages held by Hamas released.
“Bringing Americans home safely will be one of my highest priorities,” Lew said if elected, reiterating that he and the Biden administration will prioritize U.S. security above all else.
Democrats also pushed back against the Republicans’ characterization of the nominee. “This should be the moment where we try our best to rise above partisanship,” Lew said.
In the coming week, the Senate committee is expected to vote on Lew’s appointment.