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Biden's ambassador pick tells senators 'Israel’s security is paramount'

Support for Jack Lew, who held top posts in the Obama administration, appeared split along party lines at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
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WASHINGTON — Former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in testimony Wednesday at his confirmation hearing to be ambassador to Israel that Israel’s “security is paramount” and called Iran “a threat to regional stability and Israel’s existence.”

“There's no greater mission than to be asked to strengthen the ties between the U.S. and Israel,” Lew said in his opening statement before the Democratic-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he also decried the "savage attack" on Israel by Hamas.

"I will do my utmost to end the horrific attacks by Hamas and to ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself, and I will spare no effort in working to help American citizens now captive to return home safely," he said.

Committee Chairman Ben Cardin, D-Md., said the post “carries great importance” given the terrorist attack and told Lew, “I am committed to getting you in place in Israel as soon as possible.”

“Now is not the time to play political games,” he said.

Lew's reception, however, was split along party lines.

Follow live coverage from NBC News here.

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the committee, agreed the post needs to be filled quickly but by “the right person,” and he questioned whether that is Lew. "The only thing that would be worse than having it empty is having the wrong person there," Risch said.

Both Cardin’s and Risch's opening statements were interrupted by protesters calling for a cease-fire in the region and for the committee to "stop the genocide in Gaza."  

During questioning, Risch pressed Lew about details of the work he did involving the Iranian nuclear deal as treasury secretary during the Obama administration and accused him of having secretly given Iran access to U.S. financial markets in that period. Lew denied the allegation and said Iran complained "that my actions are what kept them from getting full access to the world financial system."

Risch ended his questioning by saying he was "underwhelmed and unpersuaded" by Lew's testimony.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, meanwhile, called Lew a "critical piece" of the Obama administration's "campaign of appeasement" toward Iran.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., defended Lew and noted that the Iranian government sanctioned him when he was overseeing the Treasury Department. Lew said he was "proud" to have been targeted by Iran.

The hearing comes at a critical time in the wake of Hamas' terrorist attack in Israel. President Joe Biden went to Tel Aviv on Wednesday to meet with Israeli leaders, and Israel is preparing for a potential ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters last week that the administration is working to get Lew confirmed quickly. Biden nominated him last month.

"We are going to work with both Democrats and Republicans — and particularly the leaders on both sides and the chair and ranking [member] in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — to make that happen as soon as humanly possible and then get him out to the region immediately thereafter," Sullivan said.

After the Oct. 7 terrorist attack, the White House began working urgently to kick-start the confirmation process. Congressional recesses and other issues had delayed it.

The U.S. has not had a Senate-confirmed ambassador to Israel since Thomas Nides left the administration in July. Stephanie Hallett, a career diplomat, has been the top U.S. official at the U.S. Embassy in the interim.

Lew, who is Jewish, has decades of experience in Washington and has been active in pro-Israel advocacy circles. He was the White House chief of staff for the last two years of President Barack Obama's first term and then was treasury secretary from 2013 to 2017.

His current positions include managing partner at Lindsay Goldberg LLC, visiting professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and co-president of the board of the National Library of Israel USA.

Lew, 68, was the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under Obama and President Bill Clinton. During the Clinton administration, he helped develop the memorandum of understanding on multiyear U.S. funding for Israel, and during the Obama administration he worked several times to provide “crucial funding” for Israel’s missile defense systems that are designed to protect residents from attacks, a White House official said recently.

At the beginning of his career, Lew was a congressional aide, at one point serving as a senior policy adviser to House Speaker Tip O'Neill, D-Mass.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., last month immediately endorsed Lew after Biden nominated him.

"It’s vital we have a strong American ambassador in Jerusalem. Mr. Lew is precisely the person for the job of ambassador to Israel that we need," Schumer said in remarks on the Senate floor.

Lew is likely to get widespread support from Senate Democrats, but it is unclear how many Republicans he can win over. And while he may not need GOP backing if all 51 members of the Democratic Caucus back him, unanimous bipartisan support would allow for a faster confirmation vote.

Cardin said the Senate could vote on the nomination as soon as next week.

“It’s critically important to have a confirmed ambassador,” Cardin told NBC News. “We’re talking about being with Israel, giving them everything they need. Well, we need to have a confirmed ambassador on the ground in Israel to evaluate exactly what they need and be able to get that aid or weapons to Israel.”

Risch, the ranking Republican, told reporters before the hearing that he expects there to be some GOP opposition to Lew.

“I am going to listen with an open mind,” Risch said. “But I have to tell you, given the things that have happened in the past with him, it’s going to be a heavy lift for me. But he’s going to have an opportunity [Wednesday] to persuade people that he’s the right guy for the job.”

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who is not a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told NBC News: "We should not confirm someone who has been so soft on Iran, repeatedly. ... The Democrats may say it’s a way to show our support for Israel. On the contrary, we should show that we have a new approach to Iran by defeating Jack Lew’s nomination."

During the confirmation hearing, Republicans focused on an interaction Lew had before the Foreign Relations Committee when he was treasury secretary in 2015, when he said Iran “will continue to be denied access to the [U.S.] financial and commercial market.”

In 2016, the Treasury Department issued a license granting Iran access to U.S. financial systems, but American banks eventually declined, fearing legal and compliance risks.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another Foreign Relations Committee member, said in an interview on the Fox Business Network that he has “real concerns that he [Lew] has misled and lied to Congress in the past in terms of the some of the financial arrangements that were made under the Obama administration.”

Rubio, however, said he thinks the U.S. should have an ambassador in every country, and he stopped short of expressing opposition to Lew’s nomination.

Lew has faced opposition from other Senate Republicans. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, who is on the Foreign Relations Committee, said on the X platform last week that Lew was the "key point man in negotiations & disinfo campaign for Obama’s dangerously flawed deal w Iran."

"The consequences are felt today as Iran—flush w cash due to Biden’s push to revive the deal at any cost—has fueled carnage in Israel," he tweeted. "Lew must answer for the failed Obama-Biden Middle East strategy as he appears before the Senate Foreign Relations committee for his confirmation hearing."

In 2015, the U.S. and other countries entered a nuclear deal with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which eased sanctions on Iran in return for strict limits on its nuclear program designed to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions while introducing new ones.

Republicans criticized Lew in 2016 when, as part of a settlement between the U.S. and Iran, he defended a $1.7 billion cash payment to Iran's government.

Lew is also likely to be asked about the debate over whether to provide Iran access to $6 billion as part of a prisoner swap deal with the U.S. last month. Days after Hamas' attack in Israel, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told House Democrats that the U.S. and Qatar had agreed to block Iran from accessing the funds, according to three sources familiar with his remarks.