WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is just passing its 100-day mark, and there is still no nomination for U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Is this President Joe Biden’s way of signaling to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it’s a new day in U.S.-Israeli relations? A way to underscore that even though Israel does not like it, the new U.S. government is pressing ahead with negotiations to return to the Iran nuclear accord?
Former President Donald Trump announced his nomination for ambassador to Israel before nightfall of his Inauguration Day. David Friedman, a Trump bankruptcy lawyer with no experience in diplomacy but plenty in activism, was the forewarning that U.S. policy in the Middle East was being turned on its head and becoming unabashedly biased in favor of Israel.
Several other presidents simply left sitting ambassadors — less staunchly political partisans — to finish out their terms before appointing envoys of their own.
Biden’s delay in nominating an ambassador follows the unusual amount of time he waited to telephone Netanyahu, even as he spoke to dozens of other world leaders.
Definitely, say veteran diplomats and experts in the region, Biden is making known that Israel, while still an important ally to the U.S., will no longer have the carte blanche it enjoyed under Trump nor become an obsessed-upon foil as it was under President Barack Obama.
“The air has been let out of that balloon,” said former Middle East envoy Aaron David Miller, who worked for Democratic and Republican administrations.
Talks this week at the Israeli Embassy in Washington between Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat are said to have eased some tensions after Israel reportedly took actions to sabotage an Iranian uranium-enrichment plant — and possibly U.S. talks with Iran. An attack on the Natanz plant, which the Iranians blamed on Israel, happened just as Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III visited Israel.
It is likely that Biden will nominate his ambassador to Israel as part of a package of other nominees, another attempt to put the diplomatic relationship in a new context.
Among the potential candidates:
—Daniel Shapiro. The former ambassador to Israel under Obama was initially at the top of many people’s lists. Shapiro is highly regarded among foreign policy experts and has the ability to deftly deal with Israelis at a time when a lot of soothing diplomacy will be necessary, especially over Iran.
Currently a visiting fellow at a Tel Aviv think tank, Shapiro, 51, is a veteran of Democratic administrations and once worked for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein as a foreign policy adviser. Some observers say, however, he is not considered part of the Biden inner circle, and the president may not want to repeat an Obama pick.
—Thomas Nides. Nides, who appears to be emerging as a front-runner for the job, would bring private-sector expertise as well as a diplomatic portfolio. Nides, 60, served as deputy secretary of state for management under Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. He has had a long career in banking and is a vice chairman at Morgan Stanley.
He has been an advocate for expanding the banking industry’s role in combating climate change, a key issue for this administration. But his background on Wall Street may raise a red flag for Democratic progressives. While at the State Department, he was also associated with controversial episodes including the 2011 drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, now considered premature by many experts, and the deadly attacks at the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, whose fallout plagued Clinton for years.
—Michael Adler. A prominent Democratic donor and real estate tycoon from Florida, Adler is reported to have been lobbying for the job. He was an early fundraiser for Biden and highlights the tendency that most U.S. presidents follow of rewarding their wealthiest supporters with plum ambassadorships.
Adler, who is also a long-time activist in Jewish causes, was national finance chairman of Biden’s brief 2008 election campaign and hosted Biden’s first fundraiser in Florida in the last campaign, in May 2019.
—Robert Wexler. The former U.S. House member from Florida is considered a dark-horse candidate but remains “in the mix,” several people familiar with the process said.
Another Democrat active in Jewish causes, Wexler, 60, served in Congress from 1997 until resigning in 2010 to become president of the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, a progressive think tank that sponsors numerous trips by U.S. lawmakers to the region and advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Whoever wins the ambassadorship will have to reassure Israel while also attempting to win back some amount of trust from the Palestinians, who were marginalized by the Trump administration. Already, Biden has started to reverse some of Trump’s punitive measures against the Palestinians by reinstating millions of dollars in aid and restating a commitment to an eventual formation of an independent Palestinian state, which Trump refused to endorse in a reversal of decades of U.S. policy.
Part of the delay in the diplomatic appointments for Israel as well as other countries is that Biden, his aides say, must tread carefully when it comes to political ambassadors, which is what the Israel position almost certainly would be. Presidents always assign a number of political ambassadorships to those they want to reward, including donors, friends and campaign allies, as would be the case for someone like Adler. Still, it doesn’t usually take this long. Obama began rolling out his choices for political posts in March of his first term.
Reporters have repeatedly pressed White House press secretary Jen Psaki on the large number of vacant embassy top jobs. She said Biden was working on names but hadn’t yet decided on the “vast majority.”
“We will have more in the coming months,” she said.
Story by Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times.