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Biden nominates Jack Lew as US ambassador to Israel

A longtime insider of the Democratic Party, Lew's nomination comes amid friction between the US and Israel
Jack Lew, US President Joe Biden's nominee for ambassador to Israel, on 19 April 2018 in Washington, DC (AFP)

US President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday he would nominate former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew as the next ambassador to Israel, amid tensions in the relationship between the two countries and a push by Washington to broker an Israeli-Saudi normalisation agreement.

Lew, an observant Orthodox Jew and native New Yorker, has worked his way up through the Democratic Party. A graduate of Harvard and Georgetown Law School, he served as chief of staff to President Barack Obama and later head of the Treasury Department.

Lew got his start in DC politics in the late 1970s and worked as a senior policy advisor to House Speaker Tip O’Neil. He also held positions in the Clinton White House and served as a deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Lew’s nomination came relatively fast, with former US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides stepping down in July. He would take the helm of the US embassy at a delicate time in Washington’s relations with Israel.

In an interview with CNN in July, Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet the "most extremist" he has seen since he started working with Israeli prime ministers, and said some members of Netanyahu’s government were part of the problem when it comes to the rising violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

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The administration has publicly criticised Netanyahu’s contentious judicial overhaul, which is unpopular with many lawmakers in the Democratic Party.

The Israeli leader has yet to secure a visit to the White House, although Biden and Netanyahu are expected to meet this fall, with the United Nations General Assembly in New York slated as a potential meeting place.

Two far-right members of Netanyahu's coalition, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, have also been snubbed by the Biden administration.

Saudi normalisation push

Despite the tensions, the Biden administration is working to seal a deal for Saudi Arabia to normalise ties with Israel, in an effort to expand the 2020 Abraham Accords.

Brett McGurk, the White House's top Middle East advisor, and Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, travelled to Saudi Arabia this week to discuss the deal.

Saudi-Israel normalisation: Palestinian delegation to discuss deal with officials in Riyadh
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Saudi Arabia is trying to get the support of the Palestinian Authority leadership for a deal, Middle East Eye has reported. At the same time, in exchange for normalising ties, Riyadh wants security guarantees from the US, help in developing a civilian nuclear programme, and fewer restrictions on US arms sales.

Analysts tell MEE that Saudi Arabia's asks are going to be difficult sells in Congress, where many lawmakers, particularly in the Democratic Party, continue to view Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as a pariah over the kingdom’s poor human rights record.

Lew himself could face an uphill battle for the nomination in the Senate, with Republican lawmakers likely to zero in on his time in the Obama administration during the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Because the Democratic Party holds a thin majority in the Senate, Lew is likely to need some bipartisan support.

Over the summer, a group of Republican senators' threatened to hold up Biden nominees over what they called the administration’s “antisemitic boycott of Israel”.

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