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GOP Grilling

Lew appears headed for party-line confirmation vote following Senate hearing

Republicans lambasted the former Treasury Secretary yesterday over his involvement in the Obama administration’s Iran policy

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(L-R) Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Committee chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and ranking member Sen. James Risch (R-ID) arrive for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing for Jack Lew, President Joe Biden's nominee to be the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, on Capitol Hill October 18, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew appears headed toward a party-line confirmation vote as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, receiving a uniformly negative reception among Republican senators at his confirmation hearing yesterday.

Republicans grilled the former Obama administration official about his involvement with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and other controversial elements of Obama’s Middle East policy.

Lew’s confirmation is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which held the hearing, next week and — although any Republican senator opposed to him could unilaterally delay that vote — it’s not clear that any plan to do so.

“We’re in discussions on that,” the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), told Jewish Insider at a GOP press conference yesterday. “It’s one thing to be a ‘no,’ it’s another thing to block the inevitable. We’ll get through this. One way or another, we’re going to get through this very quickly.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is holding up the confirmations of several Middle East nominees over disputes with the administration’s policies, told JI that “it’s not going to matter” if lawmakers place similar holds on Lew because lawmakers are expecting Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to bring Lew up for a full Senate vote promptly. “The only question is going to be, are people going to vote to confirm him or not?” Cruz said.

Even Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) — one of the Republicans most willing to break with his party — said that he expects Lew will be confirmed on a party-line basis.

From the outset of the hearing, Republican lawmakers accused Lew of lying to Congress about the implementation of the JCPOA, citing a 2018 Senate investigative report that accused Lew of facilitating Iranian access to the U.S. financial system, in contradiction to pledges he had made to Congress. Republicans also accused Lew and the Obama administration of actively pressuring banks to do business with Iran.

“We implemented a policy that was transparent that I testified before this committee on in terms of what was being done,” Lew responded. “We did not welcome them back into the U.S. financial system.”

He added that 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.” Some banks, he added, had wanted to do more business with Iran but the U.S. blocked them from doing so and cautioned them about doing business with Iran.

“The fact that, in an agreement to roll back Iran’s nuclear program, releasing funds to Iran was part of the bargain, is the way sanctions work,” he said. “You don’t get sovereign countries to change their policy without some concession on the sanctions.”

Lew defended the Biden administration’s decision to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian funds in exchange for the release of American hostages, arguing that the released funds would not allow Iran to spend more on terrorism.

“You’re dealing with an evil, malign government that funds its evil and malign activities first,” Lew said. “When Iran gets access to food and medicine for its people, that’s food and medicine they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

But Lew said it’s “not the moment for us to be negotiating with Iran,” even though he maintained that a diplomatic agreement on Iran’ prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons would be a positive step.

He denied links between rising Iranian oil revenues under President Joe Biden and regional malign activities, arguing that Iran has been a “bad [actor]” with or without plentiful oil revenue. He added that he has not seen evidence suggesting that financing to Hamas and Hezbollah decreased under the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy.

Lew fended off questions about his support for the U.S.’ decision not to veto United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israeli settlements. He said the resolution was not vetoed because “the president decided to abstain rather than have a worse resolution come out.”

He insisted that his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who Lew has criticized publicly, is strong.

“We’ve disagreed on many issues,” Lew said. “We’ve known each other for over three decades, but it’s been with the kind of respect and confidence that each has the interest of the security of the State of Israel always deep inside them.”

Addressing the recent attack on Israel, Lew pledged in his opening statement to “do my best to end the horrific attacks by Hamas and ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself. And I will spare no effort and working to help American citizens now captive to return home safely.”

Lew described the Hamas attack as reminiscent of biblical stories of brutality “that I never took literally until this month.”

That sort of “barbarism,” he said, “should be easy to call out.”

Lew described the administration’s decision to move two U.S. aircraft carriers into the Eastern Mediterranean as a “powerful message” to adversaries like Iran and Hezbollah, which he hopes will deter them from joining the war — a goal he said he would also pursue if confirmed.

He praised Biden for comments rejecting accusations that Israel was responsible for Tuesday’s deadly explosion at a hospital in Gaza, which were initially leveled by the local Hamas authorities.

“I’m proud to see President Biden taking the stance that he’s been taking,” Lew said. “It’s very dangerous and you have to call out the facts.”

Under questioning from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Lew refused to say categorically that Israel should never target Palestinian schools, hospitals and power and water systems, instead reiterating Biden’s urging that Israel follow the laws of war.

“There are cases where Hamas is hiding behind civilians, with materiel, command centers, leaders — and how you define something as a school or a command post. It makes all the difference in the world,” Lew said.

Merkley told JI that he hoped Lew would convey to Israel that such systems should never be targeted, but he said in a statement that he supports Lew’s confirmation.

Lew also refused to “prejudge” the necessity or wisdom of an Israeli ground invasion into Gaza, but said that he expects Israel will make that decision in a considered way. But he pledged to work with international partners to “address the humanitarian crisis facing innocent civilians in Gaza who are being used as human shields by Hamas.”

During the hearing, Lew emphasized that he believes that Israel is critical to the safety of Jews around the world.

“The relationship between the United States and Israel is at the core of who I am and what I believe is important for us having an ally in the region that we can count on,” he said.

He also highlighted his work in previous roles to design the U.S.-Israel memorandum of understanding, fund Israeli missile defense and facilitate Israel’s entry into the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In the West Bank, Lew said that he would “pay a great deal of attention” to building and reinforcing Palestinian institutions such as the Palestinian Security Forces and the rule of law, describing such structures as crucial to maintaining hope for a two-state solution.

He called the Palestinian Authority’s martyr payments to terrorists’ families “just immoral” and said he would “do everything I can as ambassador to bring that to bear both in our bilateral assistance and in our engagement with international partners.”

Lew said that, when he was nominated, he expected that working to help finalize Saudi-Israel normalization would be his primary mission, and pledged to work to keep prospects for normalization alive. Cutting off normalization, he said, would hand Hamas a victory.

“If it was in the national interest of Israel and Saudi Arabia two weeks ago, it’s in the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia when this war ends, and we’re a critical part of that conversation,” Lew said. “I would pledge my utmost support to making that conversation one that can get back on track… I dearly pray that we get back to that mission soon.”

He acknowledged, however, that keeping those talks alive will be a “challenge” during and after the war given the sharp shift in Arab public opinion against Israel during the war.

“I think that coming out of this, there will be an understanding that some of these issues have to be dealt with, and the shape of how they’re dealt with won’t be the same as it was before the conflict,” Lew said. “But it will have to be done in a way that gives Israel the ability to defend itself to protect its people from future attacks like this.”

Republicans including Risch urged Biden to withdraw Lew’s nomination and instead nominate Stephanie Hallett, the career foreign service officer serving as the chargé d’affaires in Jerusalem, whom they said would be approved easily with wide bipartisan support.

Three anti-Israel protesters interrupted the hearing in its opening minutes and were removed by Capitol Police.

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