By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Oct 18 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee as ambassador to Israel, former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, was expected ultimately to win 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, and rising concern over the conflict between Israel and Hamas has drawn attention to the vacancy.
Lew is due to testify on Wednesday at his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing, where Republicans promise to probe him closely about a 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran reached during his time in former President Barack Obama’s cabinet, who like Biden is a Democrat.
Committee aides said they expected Lew would be approved in both the committee and full Senate, with bipartisan support.
Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s Democratic chairman, said he thought Lew would be able to handle any questions from Republicans.
“The issues the Republicans are going to raise, whether they’re Iran or other issues, he has an answer to. So I think he’ll do just fine. I have a great deal of confidence in him,” Cardin told Reuters.
One Republican committee member, Senator Bill Hagerty, wrote on social media, “Jack Lew, Biden’s nom to be USAMB to Israel, was key point man in negotiations & disinfo campaign for Obama’s dangerously flawed deal w 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.
Before being elected to the Senate, Hagerty was ambassador to Japan for former Republican President Donald Trump, who pulled Washington out of the Iran nuclear pact in 2018.
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 1,300 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 about 500 Palestinians perished on Tuesday in a blast at a Gaza hospital.
Some Republicans blamed the Biden 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.
In the 2013 vote, some of the “no’s” came from lawmakers who are still in the Senate and on the foreign relations committee, including ranking Republican Jim Risch as well as Senators Marco Rubio, John Barrasso, Ted Cruz and Tim Scott.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)