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Senate acts on 'unprecedented' lack of U.S. ambassadors, spurred by Israel-Hamas war

A road sign points the way to the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, which does not currently have an ambassador, hampering diplomatic efforts to calm violence between Israel and Hamas militants.
Ahmad Gharabli
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AFP via Getty Images
A road sign points the way to the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, which does not currently have an ambassador, hampering diplomatic efforts to calm violence between Israel and Hamas militants.

With Israel at war with Hamas, the Senate is moving urgently to fill key U.S. diplomatic posts throughout the Middle East — many of which have been sitting empty for months.

Most glaringly, the U.S. does not currently have an ambassador in Israel. That vacancy hobbles the Biden administration's ability to pursue a number of goals, from negotiating the release of U.S. hostages held by Hamas to easing the violence and preventing it from blossoming into a wider conflict.

It is "unprecedented" to have so many U.S. ambassador posts sit vacant for as long as they have this year, Farah Pandith, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told NPR.

"We're in the midst of an extremely dangerous moment in the Middle East and the value of having a U.S. ambassador on the ground in Israel can't be overstated," Pandith said. "It is critical in both the short term and over the longer term."

It's the second recent war to break out in a country without a U.S. ambassador. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the top U.S. diplomatic post was also empty.

Crisis in Israel spurs action on Capitol Hill

Jack Lew, President Biden's nominee to be the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, arrives for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Jack Lew, President Biden's nominee to be the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, arrives for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing for Jack Lew, President Biden's nominee to the Israel post, on Wednesday — just one month after Lew was nominated. It's expected to hold a vote next week. If approved, Lew's nomination heads to the full Senate for confirmation.

Lew was Treasury Secretary under President Barack Obama. He has also held numerous White House jobs and is a former director of the Office of Management and Budget.

But Republicans on the panel criticized Lew, because he worked on the controversial Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Lew, who is Jewish, told the panel he sees Iran as an "evil, malign government" and a threat to Israel.

Lew's relatively rapid advance is paralleled elsewhere. This week, the Senate also confirmed new ambassadors to Kuwait and Oman, and the foreign relations panel is holding a hearing for Biden's pick to represent the U.S. in Egypt.

Some important ambassadorial posts in the region, such as in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were filled earlier in 2023 after sitting empty for nearly a year.

'We have diplomats for a reason'

Even before the shocking Hamas attack on Oct. 7, U.S. diplomatic corps in Israel were very busy. The U.S had two main goals: trying to convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to temper his plans to weaken the judiciary; and reaching an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia to normalize relations.

"We have diplomats for a reason," Pandith said. She later added, "American foreign policy starts in Washington, but the leadership on the ground helps to see it through."

Before Hamas militants launched their surprise attack, at least five U.S. ambassador posts were sitting vacant in the Arabic world, according to the American Foreign Service Association.

"Many of these countries are key regional actors who could be leveraged to advance U.S. interests in resolving the current round of fighting," Pandith said. "For example, Egypt shares a border with Gaza and Oman is a trusted intermediary between the United States and Iran."

Empty offices send a message to other countries

Vacant ambassador posts do more than limit a country's ability to pursue strategic and foreign policy goals; the empty posts also send a message.

"We are promoting the view that what is happening there is not important to us," and the U.S. doesn't have interests in the Middle East, Pandith said.

"The irony is that China has also taken to filling the diplomatic void we've left in the region," she said, "the most notable example being this spring when it brokered an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, notorious historical foes."

Most of the delays have nothing to do with the candidates, many of whom are career diplomats. Senators can place a block on their nominations to gain leverage for their own political aims — such as when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., blocked all State Department nominees earlier this year in his fight for records related to the origins of COVID-19.

When Paul lifted his block in July, the Senate confirmed 15 ambassadors in one day.

Such delays are a sign of how the confirmation process has become increasingly politicized. Four years ago, the U.S. diplomatic corps also had dozens of vacancies — but nearly all of the longest-delayed nominations were for political appointees, not career diplomats.

As of this week, 13 nominations from 2022 are still pending, and nearly all of them are for career diplomats.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.