President Biden is closing in on his pick for ambassador to Israel, with Thomas Nides, a former deputy secretary of state, most likely to be the pick, a source familiar with the process told Axios.
The state of play: Former congressman Robert Wexler was seen as the other primary contender, and was supported by many members of Congress and a coalition of Jewish organizations, but Biden is leaning towards Nides, the source said, while cautioning that the decision was not final.
- Nides, currently a Morgan Stanley executive, served as deputy secretary of state for management and resources under Barack Obama. He is close to White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and other senior Biden aides.
- The backstory: The Biden administration has come under criticism from members of Congress and policy experts during the current Gaza crisis for failing to appoint an ambassador to Israel or have a senior diplomat on the ground. If Nides is picked, he will still need Senate confirmation.
In the mean time, Secretary of State Tony Blinken is considering plans to send senior diplomat Michael Ratney to Jerusalem to serve as the acting U.S. ambassador to Israel, according to Israeli officials, who told Axios that Ratney is expected to arrived on June 1.
- That's an acknowledgment that, in the midst of the crisis in Gaza, the Biden administration is understaffed in the region. Ratney's appointment would place a more senior and experienced head of mission on the ground until the new ambassador is appointed and confirmed.
Driving the news: State Department officials notified the Israeli government on Wednesday that Ratney would be appointed as chargé d'affaires at the embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli officials said. The State Department declined to comment.
Ratney, a career diplomat who served as consul general in Jerusalem under Barack Obama and later as special envoy to Syria, would replace Jonathan Schreier, the career diplomat who had been serving as chargé d'affaires since Jan 20. Schreier would remain as deputy head of mission.
- Ratney, the more senior diplomat, has close relationships with Palestinian leaders from his previous posting in Jerusalem.
- He served as deputy assistant secretary of state for the Levant and Israel-Palestinian affairs during Donald Trump's first year in office, and worked with the Trump team on their first steps on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He left in Dec. 2017 after the decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and moved to the State Department's Foreign Service Institute.
- Ratney’s wife, fellow career diplomat Karen Sasahara, was the last U.S. consul general in Jerusalem before the consulate was closed down by Trump and merged into the U.S. embassy.
The big picture: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been a low priority in President Biden's early months. Then came a crisis in Jerusalem, followed by an escalating conflict in Gaza — at which point the administration realized its hands-off approach was unsustainable.
- Since January, Biden appointed envoys for Iran, Yemen, the Horn of Africa and Libya. But unlike his three last predecessors he didn’t appoint an envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Biden also hasn't followed through on his plans to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.
- Instead, Hady Amr — who was dispatched to the region after the Gaza conflict began — has functioned as both the deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli-Palestinian affairs and the de facto consul general and point of contact for the Palestinians.