Meet Yael Lempert, the Jewish-American ambassador in Amman

Lempert’s role involves communicating America’s backing for Israel to a country with growing animosity towards the Jewish state

When Yael Lempert was sworn in as Washington’s new ambassador to Jordan in August, she arrived in a relatively calm Middle East. 

Speaking in fluent Arabic in a video introducing herself to the Jordanian people, Lempert laid out an earnest set of diplomatic goals that, viewed in the context of the new post-Oct. 7 Middle East, appear almost comically outdated. Of course, she had no way of knowing that the vision she was conveying would be upended less than two months after she moved to Amman.

In the video, she described the U.S. and Jordan’s “shared priorities” as “supporting economic growth, strengthening water security and addressing security challenges in the region.” Lempert, who has earned a reputation as a “shawarma aficionado,”expressed her excitement to try Jordanian culinary delicacies like knafeh, a sweet filo dough pastry made with cheese, and mansaf, a popular rice dish with lamb and yogurt.

A career foreign service officer who has served in diplomatic posts across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, Lempert presented herself in her Senate confirmation hearing as an optimist with a forward-looking vision for the Middle East. As the No. 2 official working on the Middle East at the State Department, she was Foggy Bottom’s biggest behind-the-scenes booster of regional integration and the Abraham Accords. 

But that optimism has been pushed to the back burner, if not outright extinguished, since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel. The war in Gaza has sparked a groundswell of anti-Israel sentiment across the Middle East, including in Jordan, where some 20% of residents are Palestinian. 

The resulting hostility toward Israel, including from some of Jordan’s leaders, has put Washington in an uncomfortable position: navigating diplomatic ties with two neighboring nations who technically have a peace treaty and rely heavily on each other for security purposes, despite an undercurrent of public animosity toward Israel among Jordanians. 

“She has to express the empathy and the anxiety of what the Palestinians are feeling [while] at the same time supporting the president’s position. You have to walk a fine line. The good news for her, she knows how to do that,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who worked closely with Lempert before stepping down from his post last summer. 

That line has never been thinner than this month, as Hamas threatens additional violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends on April 9. Jordan maintains a special role overseeing Muslim access to the holy sites in Jerusalem. It’s a unique responsibility for the kingdom that requires discreet security cooperation with Israel, with the U.S. serving as something of a mediator. (Jordan’s foreign minister said last week that some Israeli restrictions on Palestinian worshippers could lead to an “explosion” in the region, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overruled calls by some far-right members of his coalition to severely curtail the number of Muslims allowed to visit the Temple Mount.)

“There’s lots of different moving pieces here, and I think, quietly, we play a very important role in trying to ensure that this period passes with the least amount of attention, and trying to avoid any violence or conflict,” Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of U.S. diplomacy around Ramadan. “Remember, the Oct. 7 attack was called the ‘Al-Aqsa flood.’ It was designed to try to trigger a broader array of attacks against Israel, and we’re going to see that again with Ramadan when Hamas is going to try again, and it will try to stoke tensions.” 

The U.S.-Jordan relationship enjoys strong bipartisan support in Washington, even as Amman has publicly maintained a hard line against Israel that has frustrated some American lawmakers. But despite criticism from some conservatives, U.S. support for Jordan does not face any significant threats. Jordan receives nearly $1.5 billion a year in foreign assistance from the U.S., the result of a seven-year agreement signed by the two countries in 2022. President Joe Biden called the partnership “strong” and “enduring” last month when Jordanian King Abdullah II visited the White House. (Lempert attended the king’s meetings in Washington.)

But that relationship has been strained in recent months. In October, on a whirlwind trip to the Middle East, Biden was scheduled to visit Amman after stopping in Tel Aviv — but Jordanian leaders canceled the meeting amid public outcry over an alleged Israeli attack on a Gaza hospital, which American and Israeli intelligence later determined had actually been the result of a misfired Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket.

Lempert’s initial goal of increasing on-the-ground diplomacy with Jordanian citizens became much harder after Oct. 7, with Lempert now viewed as the representative of a pro-Israel American government. Since then, she has worked alongside Jordanian officials to call for more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza and visited joint U.S.-Jordanian aid delegations. (The State Department declined to comment or to make Lempert available for an interview.)

This is not Lempert’s first time representing an unpopular American administration. As deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in London to an ambassador appointed by former President Donald Trump, Lempert played a key diplomatic role at a time when the countries’ ties were fraying.

“It was Donald Trump who was extremely unpopular with the British. There was tremendous criticism of him and of many U.S. policies everyday in the British media and in Parliament,” said Elliott Abrams, who served in high-level foreign policy roles in the George W. Bush and Trump administrations. “That is actually a useful preparation for Amman because there will be in the Jordanian parliament and Jordanian media constant criticism of the U.S. government, under President Biden now, started under Trump and continuing under Biden, because the U.S. is viewed there as much too pro-Israel. So she’s used to dealing with this kind of thing.” 

Lempert is the first Jewish-American ambassador to Jordan, a distinction that would have once been almost unthinkable; for decades, the State Department kept Jewish diplomats from serving in the Middle East as a matter of unwritten policy. That her status as the first Jewish person to serve in the role has not received any headlines is a sign of how far Washington has come. But that doesn’t mean Amman has followed.

US Ambassador to Jordan Yael Lempert (L) greets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as he returns to Amman, Jordan, early October 17, 2023, after over seven hours of negotiations that went overnight with officials including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.

“It’s tough enough being a female Jewish diplomat with an Israeli sounding name in Amman under any circumstances, and these have not been the most opportune circumstances throughout most of her tour,” said Satloff. “Yet, I think that she has done a highly professional job in an adverse situation and deserves lots of credit for dealing as expertly as she has over these last several months.” 

Abrams pointed out that there is a “fair amount of antisemitism” in Jordanian society, but he speculated that that would not affect the Jordanian government’s dealings with Lempert.

“Officials understand that they cannot let that affect official relations, or the treatment of the ambassador — or if they do so, it’ll be at their own peril,” said Abrams. Lempert is known to have a close relationship with Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

Lempert grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., with close ties to the local Jewish community and to the Middle East. Her mother, a lawyer and civil liberties advocate in New York, spent more than a decade leading the now-defunct American-Israeli Civil Liberties Coalition, a human rights group focused on the West Bank. That connection — and Lempert’s work on policies criticizing Israeli settlements — has earned her the ire of some conservatives.

During the Obama administration, she was viewed as a key architect of the 2016 U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding, which promised Israel $38 billion in U.S. foreign assistance over 10 years. She stayed on at the National Security Council in the early part of the Trump administration, earning the trust of senior Trump White House officials who were innately skeptical of career diplomats.

“She definitely, from a policy perspective, thinks more like an Obama administration type of person, perhaps a Biden administration type of person. But I found her to be very valuable because she was able to explain nuances and policies that we may not have agreed with or implemented,” said Jason Greenblatt, who served as Trump’s Middle East envoy. “Ultimately, once a decision was made, though, she would put all that aside and help.” 

By the time the Trump administration’s Middle East team negotiated the Abraham Accords, Lempert was serving in London. But she became the biggest champion of normalization between Israel and Arab nations within the Biden administration. Two years ago, she attended the Negev Summit, when Blinken brought the foreign ministers of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt together in Israel’s Negev desert. Afterward, Lempert spearheaded the creation of the “Negev Forum,” a more formal framework for strengthening ties between Israel and its Arab partners. 

“You have no idea how hard this is, to get these countries to show up, to sit in a room, to talk. Unless you’ve done it before you have no idea how complicated this is. She’s dogged in her determination,” said Nides.  

Jordan had declined to participate in the Negev Forum, which has not held any public gatherings since Oct. 7, citing concerns about the Palestinians being left out of the Abraham Accords. Lempert said in her confirmation hearing last year that she hoped to change that. Nides told Jewish Insider that without Oct. 7, “100%” Lempert could have improved Israel-Jordan ties.

“It’s really just fantastic to see these relationships deepening,” Lempert told JI in 2022. “We feel very optimistic about what we’ll be able to do in this forum.” 

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