At the apex of the crisis over the brutal attack by Hamas, President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, Jacob (Jack) Lew, faced critical questioning from GOP members of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Oct. 18. In the best of times, confirmation hearings are often theater, with the political views of each party taking center stage. Lew’s confirmation took on far more significance as Israel has suffered significant loss of innocent lives, a number of deaths not seen since the Holocaust. And Iran was a prominent presence in the drama that unfolded.
Republican committee members tied Iran’s complicity, financial support, and weapons used in Gaza against Israel to previous policy positions Lew had espoused as Treasury Secretary for President Barack Obama. In Obama’s administration, Lew was a crucial player in the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with Iran. GOP members criticized the transfer of money and the access to the world economic community enjoyed by Iran associated with the JCPOA nuclear deal.
Iran Support for Attack on Israel Theme for Hearing
As the hearing got underway, there were disruptions by a couple of screaming Palestinian and Hamas sympathizers, but they were quickly hustled out. Gracious welcomes by committee Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and ranking member Sen. James Risch (R-ID) highlighted the central theme for those unconvinced that Lew is the right person for the job. Risch said in his opening comments:
“What happened in Gaza is directly linked to Iran … The Biden administration cannot wish away the Iranian threat or appease the Iranian regime with promises, unfrozen funds, and sanctions relief … Attacks in Israel and reoccurring attacks against our partners, troops, and diplomats are proof of a failed Iran policy … Iran has more resources to support terrorism today than it did in 2019. Iran has earned a shocking $80 billion in oil revenue since the Biden administration took office.”
Risch continued to press the point that the Biden administration’s favorable policies toward Iran and its willingness to give money to Palestinians contributed to building Hamas’ capability to attack Israel. He raised the issue of Lew, while Treasury secretary, authorizing specific licenses to Iran, which gave Tehran greater access to the international banking community. This significantly boosted Iran’s presence in the world economy. In his defense, Lew countered: “What I can tell you is that the government of Iran believed that we did not give them what they expected, which was full access to the world financial system. They complained that my actions kept them from getting to the world financial system.” He claimed that he, personally, had been sanctioned by Iran.
In the category of geopolitical irony, Lew’s confirmation hearing came on the day UN sanctions on Iran’s transfer of missile and drone technology to Russia or other countries ended. “The expiration of the UN sanctions falls under a ‘sunset’ clause of the defunct 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which gave Tehran relief from American, European Union, and UN sanctions in exchange for limiting its nuclear program,” Reuters reported. Lew’s association with the Iran nuclear deal prompted much of the criticism levied at him during the hearing.
Israel Protecting Innocent Civilians in Gaza Important
Many of the questions focused on Lew assuring the committee that he would help ensure destitute Palestinians would be protected from Israeli counterattacks while remaining steadfast in the belief Israel has the “right and responsibility” to defend itself. During the hearing, word came that Biden, in a speech from Israel, had made those assurances, explaining he had received agreement from the Israeli government that “life-saving humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza” would move from Egypt to Gaza. “Today I’m also announcing $100 million in new US funding for humanitarian assistance in both Gaza and the West Bank. This money will support more than one million displaced and conflict-affected Palestinians,” the president said in a video carried by Fox News. This announcement gave Lew some top-cover for questions from those on the committee concerned with the safety of innocent civilian residents of Gaza.
Committee member Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) made a pertinent observation: “In many ways, Israel is fighting a war on different fronts in addition to the war with Hamas.” Disinformation on the explosion at the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza was immediately blamed by Hamas as an Israeli air attack, and major media outlets echoed that narrative. Subsequently, those claims proved untrue. The evidence now shows that terrorists within Gaza launched a fusillade of rockets toward Israel that had one misfire – the one that hit the hospital.
Lew responded with measured but descriptive comments of Hamas’ atrocities, a sentiment with which most would agree. He said:
“It shouldn’t be that hard to call out atrocities like we saw two weeks ago … Some things are just what they are. Butchering almost 1,500 babies, old people, holocaust survivors, hand-to-hand, face-to-face, is barbarism, whatever one thinks about the right and wrong of different positions in this conflict should be easy to call out … Even this morning when I heard his [Biden’s] comments on the horrible bombing of a hospital in Gaza, he was not giving in to disinformation … In the fog of the moment you don’t have perfect information, and he said from everything he sees, it was not Israel that did it.”
It should be no surprise that Lew champions the Biden administration’s position on Israel. He wouldn’t be the nominee if he were an advocate for an opposing worldview. He did not come off as an ideologue with far-left views. He was the director of the Office of Management and Budget in President Bill Clinton’s administration and White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary under Obama. Lew is a seasoned Democrat insider.
The Senate Foreign Affairs Committee will no doubt vote in favor of Lew along political party lines, and Lew will be confirmed as ambassador to Israel by the full Senate. The Middle East is in turmoil, Israel is in extremis, and, while the office is currently being run by Chargé d’Affaires ad interim Stephanie L. Hallett, the United States needs an ambassador in place. Lew’s dedication to navigate through this Middle East crisis was evident in his testimony. The caution is that Lew represents the United States to Israel, and not the other way around.