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GOP senators criticize Israel envoy nominee over work on Iran deal

Lew rebuts accusations he misled senators

Jacob J. Lew, the nominee to be ambassador to Israel, rejected Republican suggestions that he misled them over the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama administration.
Jacob J. Lew, the nominee to be ambassador to Israel, rejected Republican suggestions that he misled them over the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama administration. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Republicans on Wednesday voiced reservations about the Biden administration’s nominee to be the new ambassador to Israel at one of the most perilous times in the country’s history.

The criticism of Jacob J. Lew from Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch, R-Idaho, committee member Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and others isn’t expected to doom the nomination of the former Treasury secretary, but it could delay the swift confirmation that the White House and Democrats say is critical to support U.S. efforts to prevent an expansion of the Israel-Hamas war.

The committee has a tradition that the chairman only schedules confirmation votes with the consent of the ranking member. If Risch withholds his consent for long, it would be a source of tension for Democrats, who broadly support Lew, and an early test of acting Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin’s reputation for congeniality even as he is one of the most stalwart Democratic backers of Israel.

“We need this thing filled. The problem I have is, it needs to be filled with the right person,” Risch said. “The only thing worse than having it empty would be having the wrong person there and I have some issues in that regard.”

Lew was nominated by President Joe Biden in September to succeed former Ambassador Tom Nides, who left the position in July. In addition to his roles as White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary during the Obama administration, Lew was the director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.

“Now is not the time to play political games, we need to make sure that other nations and terrorist groups do not exploit the crisis and open new fronts in the conflict,” Cardin, D-Md., said. “We need to be clear with everyone, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the regime in Iran, to Assad in Syria and even Putin in Russia. Don’t even think about joining or expanding the war.”

As worries grow about the potential for the Israel-Hamas war to destabilize the region, Democrats are urging their GOP colleagues to speed up confirmation of key regional diplomatic nominees. The nominee for ambassador to Egypt is scheduled to get a committee hearing on Thursday and nominees for envoy to Lebanon and State Department coordinator for counterterrorism are waiting for Senate floor votes.

Role in Iran deal

Republicans questioned Lew about the steps he took as Treasury secretary to implement the U.S. side of the multinational nuclear agreement with Iran known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. They were particularly critical of his department’s work to reassure foreign financial institutions about what types of transactions were permitted following the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran and argued that at best Lew misled the committee about what actions were being taken.

“How are we supposed to see all of that and then somehow confirm you to this very important post when you deliberately, in my view, misled me, misled [former Sen. Mark] Kirk, misled the Congress on what was happening behind the scenes with regards to this,” Rubio asked.

But Lew rebutted their accusations.

“I know you and I may not agree on the policy of the JCPOA but what we did was implement a policy that was transparent,” he said to Risch. “We negotiated with Iran to have them roll back their nuclear program in exchange for which they’d get access to money that was their money, that we had frozen. All we did was facilitate that transaction. We did not welcome them back into the U.S. financial system.”

Lew noted he was sanctioned by the Iranian government because Tehran felt aggrieved it did not receive the economic benefits it had earlier anticipated when it negotiated the 2015 nuclear pact due to the continuance of other U.S. sanctions related to its ballistic missile program and support for terrorism.

“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 were what kept them from getting full access to the world financial system,” Lew said. “My team went around the world telling banks all over the world we did not lift the sanctions on terrorism, we did not lift the sanctions on human rights violations, we did not lift the sanctions on regional destabilization, be careful…We did the letter of the agreement, gave them what was agreed to in the JCPOA, nothing more.”

Lew’s nomination has been welcomed by current and former senior Israeli diplomats and government officials as well as prominent Jewish American organizations.

The last time he was up for a Senate confirmation vote in 2013, to become Treasury secretary, Lew was confirmed 71-26, but his next vote could be much narrower, given how deep GOP antipathy has grown in the ensuing years to any Democratic officials who work on Iran-related policy.

“I know that your confirmation can be done by one party alone and you’re likely to be confirmed on that basis,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

Lew said he would do his “utmost to end the horrific attacks by Hamas and ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself.”

The longtime Democratic official said the defense of Israel is a personal matter, noting he was in synagogue when he heard the news of the surprise terror attacks into southern Israel launched by Hamas from the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7.

“I will spare no effort in working to help American citizens now captive to return home safely. And I will work to root out payments to [Palestinian] terrorists and their families as rewards for their heinous crimes,” Lew said. “If confirmed, I will work to prevent other state or nonstate actors from expanding this conflict to new fronts and I will coordinate with the international community to address the humanitarian crisis facing innocent civilians in Gaza who are being used as human shields by Hamas.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said it was important Israel learn from U.S. mistakes after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and not overreach in its counterterrorism response.

“We need to do all we can to encourage our ally Israel to take the fight to the perpetrator and not to those who weren’t the perpetrators,” said Kaine. “We have painful lessons we’ve learned about that in the United States, we took the fight to the perpetrator after 9/11 but as we broadened it into a global war, including a war against Iraq, we lost credibility, we lost support nationally, we unleashed a set of consequences that probably should not have been unleashed.”

Lew appeared to subtly push back on that argument.

“This is not the time for us to be lecturing Israel on what they have to do to establish the security that they have a responsibility to provide,” he responded to Kaine. “I think they know they have to do it in a way that is consistent with minimizing the impact on innocent civilians. As we learned in Fallujah, in Mosul, in Ramadi, it is very hard, very hard for there not to be collateral damage so I don’t think the standard can be that it gets to zero.”