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White House pushes Senate to confirm a U.S. ambassador to Israel

The White House has been working urgently in the past 24 hours to get a Senate confirmation process in motion for President Joe Biden’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Israel, according to two White House officials.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now expected to hold a confirmation hearing for Jack Lew, a former Treasury secretary and White House chief of staff during the Obama administration, as early as Oct. 18, according to three people familiar with the plans. Biden nominated Lew more than a month ago.

The Senate is not in session this week. But the White House officials said they hope lawmakers in both parties will agree with the president on the need to quickly confirm Lew amid the war between Israel and Hamas.

“Everyone understands the importance behind it,” one White House official said. 

More than 1,200 people have been killed in the fighting so far, with at least 700 dead in Israel, according to the military, and more than 570 dead in Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. The Biden administration said Monday that nine Americans have been killed in the conflict and more are believed to be missing. 

Tom Nides, Biden’s former ambassador to Israel, told NBC News in an interview that the Senate needs to confirm his successor “immediately” upon return. 

“They need to get the committee hearing done. He needs to be on the ground. He’ll be a phenomenal ambassador and he needs to be there,” Nides said. “Ambassadors are always important. In crises, they’re even more important.”

Some Democratic senators agree. 

“Now is not the time for politics. The Senate should confirm those awaiting votes the day we are back in session, and immediately schedule committee hearings to expedite confirmation of the remainder,” Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said Sunday in a statement. “Democrats and Republicans must work together to support our ally Israel.”

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., noted the U.S. is without an ambassador in multiple countries in the region and said partisan wrangling that leads to such vacancies “sends a dangerous signal and encourages adventurism by our adversaries.”

“The Senate should move the confirmation through the committee and the floor quickly,” said Coons.

The nominees for U.S. ambassador to Oman, Kuwait and the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism all await a vote on the Senate floor. The nominees for U.S. Ambassadors to Israel and Egypt and the assistant administrator for the Middle East at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) await committee hearings. 

Beyond that, there hasn’t been a confirmed top USAID official for the Middle East for nearly three years and no State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism for nearly two years 

Senate Republicans will have influence over how long it could take to confirm Lew, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has been holding up several Middle East nominations, has raised concerns about Lew specifically. 

Still, White House officials said they believe the Senate should be able to proceed more normally and work quickly on a hearing for Lew. The Senate is scheduled to return to Washington early next week.

One official said Lew is “eager” to get to work, and the White House hopes he is confirmed with bipartisan support.

Lew served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton. 

In that position, he helped develop the memorandum of understanding at OMB on multiyear funding for Israel and worked to sustain it during the Obama administration and, on several occasions, per a White House official, Lew worked to provide “crucial funding” for Israeli missile defense systems to protect citizens from attacks. 

Lew also worked as the deputy secretary of state for management and resources and played a “key role” in supporting Israel’s effort to join the Organization for Economic Operation and Development, a White House official said.

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