WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is asking Jack Lew, former Secretary of the Treasury in the Obama administration, to help establish diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia as the next US ambassador to Israel.
Lew, 68, will succeed Tom Nides, who left the post in July, the White House announced Sept. 5.
Lew’s appointment must be confirmed by the Senate, which is led by a Democratic majority. He would be the fourth Jewish man in a row to serve in the role, following Nides, David Friedman and Dan Shapiro.
Lew, who was Obama’s chief of staff before leading the Treasury Dept., has drawn words of support from Jewish leaders in Washington.
“He’s a very thoughtful person, and has always been open and accessible,” said Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union. “He has an encyclopedic knowledge of policy issues, starting with budgetary policy issues.”
Lew has also drawn criticism from Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. He wrote in a Jerusalem Post op-ed that Lew’s appointment would be “deeply concerning” because of his involvement in “the Obama administration’s hostility to the Jewish state and the Jewish people.”
Here’s what you need to know about Lew, his career so far and the challenges he could face in the ambassador role.
He’s a negotiator.
Lew earned a reputation for resolving complex negotiations during his two stints as director of the Office of Management and Budget, under Obama as well as President Bill Clinton. The OMB director oversees funding for the vast federal bureaucracy and negotiates budgets with Congress.
As OMB director in the last two years of Clinton’s presidency, Lew negotiated a balanced budget with Republican leadership. The talks succeeded: Clinton left office with a budget surplus.
As ambassador to Israel, Lew could use that experience in working on a Saudi-Israel deal. The treaty would follow the agreements Israel signed in 2020 with several Arab countries, known as the Abraham Accords.
As described by Biden in July to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, the deal would involve stemming Saudi Arabia’s growing trade ties with China; a pledge that the US will guarantee Saudi Arabia’s security; and the establishment of a Saudi civilian nuclear program along with the sale of advanced weapons systems.
The status of Palestinians is also shaping up to take increased prominence in the negotiations.
The ambassador to Israel would be key to reassuring the US’ closest ally in the region that a deal would not endanger Israel.
He’s used to defending controversial stances.
As Obama’s Treasury secretary, Lew was tapped as Obama’s point man to defend the Iran nuclear deal in the Jewish community.
The deal, which curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, was bitterly opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A range of large Jewish organizations, along with Republicans in Congress, advocated against it.
Lew oversaw the enforcement of sanctions that helped bring Iran to the negotiating table and used his knowledge of the deal’s particulars — as well as his intimate knowledge of the Jewish community — to pitch the deal to AIPAC and others who were deeply skeptical.
He was booed that year at the annual Jerusalem Post conference in New York when he defended the deal.
A year after leaving office, and a year before President Donald Trump scuppered the deal, Lew was still defending it to a Jewish audience.
“The idea that somehow the Iran deal was not in Israel’s interest is something I disagree with,” Lew said in 2017 at a conference at Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies.
Lew did not always see eye to eye with his Obama administration colleagues on Israel-related matters. In the administration’s final days in late 2016, Lew and Biden recommended vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlement building. Under Obama’s orders, the US abstained and the resolution went through.
At the 2017 Columbia University conference, Lew said he understood the rationale behind the decision not to veto. Obama administration officials, he said, used the abstention to leverage a less toxic resolution — but he still regretted it.
“Personally, I wish the resolution hadn’t been there at all. I’m not happy that there was a resolution.
“I’m also happy it wasn’t in its original form where we would have had to veto it, but then the rest of the world would have been voting for this even harsher condemnation.”
He’s an Orthodox Jew who doesn’t place his observance at the center of his public identity.
Obama, nominating Lew in 2013 to be Treasury secretary, said he was drawn to Lew in part because of his faith.
“Maybe most importantly, as the son of a Polish immigrant, a man of deep and devout faith, Jack knows that every number on a page, every dollar we budget, every decision we make has to be an expression of who we wish to be as a nation, our values,” Obama said.
Stumping for Obama’s reelection in 2012, Lew told JTA that the president earned his loyalty in part by respecting his faith.
“As a father who is at home and has dinner with his girls, he values that Shabbat is my time being with my family,” Lew said then. “I could not ask for someone to be more respectful and supportive, and that’s the reason it works.”
Lew is a board member of NLI USA, the American support group for the National Library of Israel.
Shawarma or falafel
In discussions of Israel, he has displayed diplomatic skills of a sort. In a debate with Tevi Troy, a former senior Bush administration official who is also Orthodox, at a Beachwood, Ohio, Orthodox synagogue during the 2012 campaign, someone asked both men which their candidate would prefer — shawarma or falafel. Troy said Mitt Romney would opt for shawarma. Lew said Obama would happily eat either.