When Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. was stumped over a matter of congressional procedure or policy options as House speaker, he turned to Jack Lew. When Bill Clinton had an inquiry about budget matters, he turned to Jack Lew. When Barack Obama had a question about international finance, he turned to Jack Lew.
The question now is whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will turn to Jack Lew for counsel as he steers the Jewish state’s response to the surprise attack from Gaza.
Jacob Joseph “Jack” Lew, 68, is President Biden’s choice to serve as ambassador to Israel, a position that in recent weeks became even more important than it was for previous Washington hands who assumed the post.
The character of the American ambassador to Israel is always an important element. It never has been more important than now, with the Jewish state at war and with global criticism of its combat priorities and practices growing.
Enter Mr. Lew.
But with Israel reeling from the deaths at the hands of Hamas and now facing a furor over human rights in its response, Lew himself faces a diplomatic challenge. Having deflected Republican critics’ concerns about his actions as treasury secretary regarding Iran, he now needs to win the confidence of Israel’s new national government, which seeks American military and financial aid but not necessarily American military and financial counsel.
Then again, providing counsel is Lew’s principal skill. As one of O’Neill’s top aides – you might think of him as having been the Speaker Whisperer – Lew was the House chamber’s equivalent of an air-traffic controller. Later he served as chief of the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, and White House chief of staff for the Obama administration.
He won confirmation Oct. 31 on a largely partisan 53-43 vote, with Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky being the only Republicans backing him.
“A vote for him is a vote to subvert, not strengthen, our ally in its time of need,” Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said during floor debate. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, a Democrat, argued that Lew had “a strong, long, proven record as a strong public servant and ferocious ally of Israel,” adding, “Israel is in crisis, America needs to stand with her, and a most urgent and obvious step would be to ensure that we have an ambassador in place.”
Both American diplomats and Israeli political figures have argued that the absence of a resident ambassador was a dangerous situation at this wartime juncture.
Lew, nominated to replace Tom Niles, who left the post three months ago, is an Orthodox Jew who customarily does not work on the Sabbath. For many years he was a regular at Max’s Kosher Cafe in Wheaton, Md., now closed but still famed for its burgers and onion rings.
At the center of the Republican attacks against Lew was a 2018 report by the investigative subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Comittee that concluded the Treasury Department “granted a specific license that authorized a conversion of Iranian assets worth billions of U.S. dollars using the U.S. financial system.” What is not generally quoted from the report is that Lew’s actions were “at the direction of the U.S. State Department.”
In his Senate hearing, Lew said he did nothing beyond implementing the Iran pact. “We negotiated with Iran to have them roll back their nuclear program, in exchange for which they would get access to money that was their money that we had frozen,” he said. “All we did was facilitate that transaction. 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.’ And Iran thought that kept them from getting what they thought they should get.”
Lew faced pressure from the left as well, with some Democrats urging him to press Israel to use restraint in its response to the Hamas attack.
“This is not the time for us to be lecturing Israel on what they need to do,” he said.
Lew’s supporters cited his decades-long involvement at the highest levels of American politics and his instincts for conciliation.
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, said Lew is “an outstanding, qualified person” and that it is urgent to have a confirmed ambassador to help Israel as it navigates the war, tries to rescue hostages held by Hamas, and deals with increasing concerns about tensions on the northern border with Hezbollah. Cardin said it also is important to “to keep normalization talks alive” that could improve diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab countries in the region.
Lew, not given to swift reactions, has a contemplative style. That puts him at odds with the zeitgeist in the Middle East, especially in Israel, at this fraught juncture. But if thoughtful counsel and cool judgment is needed, then this may reflect the meeting of the man and the time. Biden clearly feels that way. One of the many great unknowns facing the new ambassador – accustomed to having his advice being sought – is whether Netanyahu does. Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.