Sen. Mitt Romney concerned about Jack Lew as U.S. ambassador to Israel

Sen. Mitt Romney raised concerns over President Joe Biden’s decision to nominate Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to be the ambassador to Israel — a post that currently sits vacant.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday, Romney questioned Lew over decisions he made related to a nuclear deal with Iran during the Obama administration.

Romney also spoke at the hearing about his recent visit to Israel.

“I, along with a handful of other senators, were in Israel over the weekend and had the chance to meet with leadership there, the former leadership of the country, as well as with military leaders and with families of hostages,” the Utah senator said.

He said that while Biden’s pick for the ambassadorship can be approved by Democrats alone, he said he wanted to pass along some observations to Lew before asking him questions about his role in releasing funds to Iran.

Sen. Romney talks about meeting hostage families in Israel

Romney recounted his time in Israel, where he met the families of hostages taken by Hamas.

“The outrage, the brutality, the inhumanity of Hamas in the way they took children and others and grabbed them and took them across the border is hard to comprehend. And we need to do everything within our power to secure the release of those hostages” he said.

Romney noted that the leading general of the Israeli Defense Forces said their intent isn’t to get vengeance on Palestinians, but the hostages are “being used as human shields and in many cases, there will be deaths, but they will be unfortunate.”

The Utah senator said that Hamas has threatened the lives of Israeli citizens, and “it is unacceptable for Hamas to continue to exist, certainly in the proximity that they have enjoyed from the Gaza Strip.”

He said there’s been an absence of answers on what the next steps will be if Hamas is successfully rooted out, and this “will be a great priority” for Lew, should he be confirmed.  

Controversy surrounding Jack Lew

Romney also expressed that he was “very troubled” by the findings of the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 2018, which linked Lew to the Iran nuclear deal.

The 2018 Senate report said that the Treasury Department under former President Barack Obama, where Lew worked at the time, “granted a specific license that authorized a conversion of Iranian assets worth billions of U.S. dollars using the U.S. financial system.” And officials like Lew “maintained in congressional testimony that Iran would not be granted access to the U.S. financial system.”

Roughly $5.7 billion was transferred from U.S. banks to Iranian assets.

“I wonder how the White House could have brought forward a nomination, given that report and given the clear indication that the Republican members, at least and hopefully some Democrat members as well, would be troubled by and moved by the results of that report from the Subcommittee on Investigations,” said Romney.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also said on X, “We need to have an ambassador in Israel, but it has to be the right person.” Rubio is also on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Lew said that he has remained close with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who led the investigation in 2018.

“I spoke to him as recently as last night. I would just invite anyone who questions whether he thinks that I’m somebody who keeps my word. I would just suggest they talk to Senator Portman,” he said.

Will Iran use the unfrozen $6 billion to fund terrorism?

Romney questioned Lew about the $6 billion in Iranian funds that were set to be released by the Biden administration as a part of a prisoner exchange — an idea that has since been put on hold.

U.S. sanctions against Iran still allow the country to use the funds for humanitarian purposes.

“Now, I know enough about money to know that funds are fungible and that if we say we’re going to give you $6 billion, but you’ve got to use it for food and hospitals for your population, Iran can say, ‘Thank you, that’s what we use the $6 billion for now. We’ve freed up $6 billion that we otherwise would have used ourselves for food and hospital, and now we can use that to build nuclear weapons or provide money to Hezbollah or Hamas.’ Am I wrong?” Romney asked, adding that the money is still funding “a state sponsor of terror.”

Lew said that Iran isn’t a “rational economic player” and has “an evil, malign government” that prioritizes funds terrorism.

“So, when Iran gets access to food and medicine for its people, that’s food and medicine they wouldn’t otherwise have,” he said.

“Sadly, supporting terrorist organizations like Hamas and terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, that’s not very expensive,” Lew added. “So it’s not a purely economic question. It’s really a question of who are we dealing with. We’re not dealing with people who trade off guns and butter. Guns come first.”

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