By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, was expected ultimately to win U.S. Senate confirmation, but Republicans promised he would first face intense questioning about Iran at a hearing on Wednesday.
Washington has not had an ambassador to Israel since July, when Tom Nides left the post. Rising concern over the conflict between Israel and Hamas has drawn attention to the vacancy.
Lew testified on Wednesday at his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing, where Republicans promised to probe him about a 2015 Iran nuclear deal sealed during his time in former Democratic President Barack Obama’s cabinet.
“I am committed to getting you in place as soon as possible,” the committee chairman, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, said as the hearing began. He scheduled a business meeting for next week for a committee vote on the nomination.
Security was heightened around the entire U.S. Capitol complex on Wednesday, as it has been repeatedly since the outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza. The hearing was interrupted repeatedly by shouting protesters.
The hearing took place while Biden visited Israel.
Committee aides said they expected Lew would be approved in both the committee and full Senate, with bipartisan support.
The panel’s leading Republican, Senator Jim Risch, said he agreed that Israel needed an ambassador quickly, but it had to be the right person and he planned to ask about Iran.
Republicans – and some Democrats – objected to the international nuclear pact, in which Iran agreed to halt its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Republican President Donald Trump, who took office in 2017, pulled Washington out of the Iran nuclear pact in 2018.
‘IRAN IS A THREAT’
Lew addressed the Iran issue in his opening statement. “I want to be clear: Iran is a threat to regional stability and to Israel’s existence. If confirmed, I will uphold President Biden’s commitment to deny Iran a nuclear weapon and warning to anyone in the region to anyone who’s thinking of taking advantage of the current crisis: Don’t,” he said.
U.S.-Iranian relations have been in the spotlight since Oct. 7, when fighters from the Iran-backed Islamist militant group Hamas stormed through parts of Israel in a shock attack that left 1,400 Israelis dead.
The attack prompted fierce Israeli retaliation against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Health authorities in Gaza said at least 3,000 people had been killed in Israel’s bombardment, even before hundreds of Palestinians perished on Tuesday in a blast at a Gaza hospital.
Some Republicans blamed Biden’s Democratic administration’s dealings with Iran, especially the release of $6 billion of Iranian assets in a prisoner swap deal, for the assault by Hamas. Administration officials say Iran has not had access to that money and could only use it for humanitarian purposes approved by the United States.
A budget expert, Lew served as chief of staff for Obama before being confirmed as Treasury secretary in February 2013 by 71-26 in the 100-member Senate, with support from both Republicans and Democrats.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Howard Goller)