US Senate panel advances nomination of Jack Lew for ambassador to Israel

Jack Lew testifies in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing for U.S. ambassador to Israel
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By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday backed President Joe Biden's nomination of former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to be ambassador to Israel, paving the way for his expected confirmation by the full Senate.

With Biden's fellow Democrats pushing to fill the position quickly in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel from Gaza by Palestinian militants, the committee backed the nomination by a 12-9 vote, mostly along party lines.

Lew is expected to be confirmed. He needs only a majority vote, and Democrats control a 51-49 seat majority in the chamber.

Lew was supported by every committee Democrat, as well as Republican Senator Rand Paul.

Senator Ben Cardin, the committee's Democratic chairman, said it was essential to have someone in place to speak with the authority of a confirmed ambassador.

"Given the stakes in Israel, we cannot afford any delay," Cardin said.

Democrats hope the full Senate will vote on Lew's confirmation next week.

Lew's confirmation hearing was contentious, with some Republicans sharply criticizing his defense of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal sealed during former Democratic President Barack Obama's administration. They said it would be hard for them to support Lew given his past work to implement the agreement with a country that is a sworn enemy of Israel's.

Former Republican President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the international nuclear pact with Iran in 2018.

Democrats have argued it is important to confirm an ambassador to support Israel in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack on Israeli villages and military bases by Hamas gunmen who killed 1,400 people and took more than 200 hostages, raising fears of a broader conflict.

Palestinian health officials said the Palestinian death toll exceeds 6,500 as Israel has retaliated against Hamas with bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Reuters was unable to independently verify the ministry's figures.

Washington has not had an ambassador to Israel since July, when Tom Nides left the post. Biden nominated Lew in September.

Among the other ambassadors the committee approved during the meeting was Herro Mustafa Garg for Egypt, a post also seen as essential given the Middle East conflict.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool)