President Biden announced on Tuesday that he would nominate former Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew as his next ambassador to Israel, tapping a low-key Washington veteran for a high-charged post at a time of friction with America’s strongest ally in the Middle East.
If he is confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Lew will head to Jerusalem even as Mr. Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are at odds over the president’s efforts to negotiate a new nuclear agreement with Iran and the prime minister’s plans to rein in the authority of the judiciary in Israel.
Mr. Biden has sought to smooth over the rifts with Mr. Netanyahu by inviting him to visit the United States, an offer the president had declined to issue for months. But no schedule or venue for such a meeting has been disclosed, and tensions remain high, particularly as Mr. Netanyahu pushes ahead with his bid to dilute the power of the courts in defiance of Mr. Biden’s advice and amid huge protests at home.
At the same time, Mr. Biden has embarked on a high-stakes diplomatic gamble to broker normalized relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a move that if successful could transform the power dynamics of the region. Mr. Biden’s envoys have been negotiating with the Saudis while keeping Mr. Netanyahu’s government informed about the progress. But the challenges for reaching such an accord remain daunting and would require concessions that may be unpalatable to Israel in its conflict with Palestinians.
Mr. Lew, 68, who goes by Jack, has served in some of the government’s most important posts under two Democratic administrations with a genial, workmanlike style that earned him many admirers across the aisle and few if any enemies. In a town of colossal egos, he is known as a self-effacing, coolly efficient manager of policy without the sharp edges that have become increasingly common in politics.
In addition to running the Treasury Department for President Barack Obama, Mr. Lew was also Mr. Obama’s White House chief of staff, deputy secretary of state and director of the Office of Management and Budget. Mr. Lew first served in the budget director post under President Bill Clinton, presiding over the last federal government surplus.
The ambassadorship will present a new challenge to Mr. Lew, who has never served as an overseas diplomat. As Treasury secretary, he often negotiated with foreign counterparts, but his previous stint at the State Department was focused on management and resources rather than diplomacy.
He is set to replace Thomas R. Nides, another former deputy secretary of state, who stepped down over the summer to return home to his family. His wife, Virginia Moseley, who is the executive vice president of editorial at CNN and one of those who has been running the network since the ouster of its chief, had remained in the United States throughout Mr. Nides’s tenure in Jerusalem.
Mr. Lew, who declined to comment on Tuesday, is a managing partner of Lindsay Goldberg, a private equity firm, and a visiting professor at Columbia University. An Orthodox Jew, he belongs to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York, although his Hebrew is limited and he does not know of relatives living in Israel, as some Israeli outlets have reported.
While in public office, Mr. Lew observed the Sabbath as much as he could and made a point of walking to the White House when he had to work on a Saturday. An administration official said that under Mr. Clinton, Mr. Lew helped develop a multiyear foreign aid package for Israel and that in both the Clinton and Obama administrations he worked to provide crucial funding for missile defense systems.
Mr. Lew appeared before Jewish audiences to defend Mr. Obama’s original nuclear agreement with Iran, which was later abandoned by President Donald J. Trump, and he was once heckled at a forum in New York sponsored by The Jerusalem Post. He has also criticized Mr. Netanyahu’s 2015 address to a joint meeting of Congress assailing Mr. Obama’s accord, calling such an appearance by an ally “beyond the pale” and a disturbing move to define support of Israel in partisan terms.
“That was a huge mistake for Israel,” Mr. Lew said at a conference at Columbia in 2017 after leaving office. “It contributed to a trend of Israel identifying on a partisan basis when for most of 70 years there was no question that both parties could be pro-Israel.”
He also spoke strongly in favor of creating a Palestinian state as part of any resolution of the conflict with Israel. “There is no pathway other than a two-state solution,” he said. “The more you hear talk about a one-state solution, the more it means it’s not a democratic state. That is not the Israel that I want for my grandchildren to love.”
Mr. Lew’s past comments have triggered some opposition to his choice as ambassador. As word of his likely selection spread, eight House Republicans sent a letter to Mr. Biden last week opposing Mr. Lew because of his support for the Iran deal and criticism of Mr. Netanyahu. “Elevating someone with this history to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel will only weaken our relationship with Israel,” they wrote.
But Mr. Lew’s stature as a former cabinet official was taken by others as a signal of the importance Mr. Biden attaches to the relationship with Israel and his selection has generated warm words from many who have dealt with him in the past, including a prominent veteran of Mr. Netanyahu’s government.
“He’s a true statesman and a passionate Jew,” Michael Oren, a former ambassador to the United States for Mr. Netanyahu, wrote last month on X, the platform formally called Twitter. “As Israel’s ambassador to the US, I greatly valued his friendship and his outstanding defense of the US-Israel alliance. A mensch in every sense of the word!”