Will Biden’s next ambassador to Israel be a woman?

‘A woman appointee could bring a new perspective to this key role,’ said Sheila Katz, head of the National Council of Jewish Women.


President Joe Biden speaks during a visit to Wolfspeed, a semiconductor manufacturer as he kicks off his Investing in America Tour in Durham, North Carolina, March 28, 2023. (Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

By Jacob Kornbluh, The Forward

When the United States ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, announced last week that he would soon step down, the State Department said his deputy, Stephanie Hallett, would step in until a replacement is confirmed.

That could take a while. Under the best of circumstances, the process can drag on for months, and political pressures may draw out this one even further. But interviews with 11 leaders of major Jewish organizations and others who have spoken to Biden administration officials about the appointment suggest there is a strong chance the next ambassador could be a woman — the first to hold the high-profile post.

Sheila Katz, who leads the National Council of Jewish Women, said she was pleased to learn that there are several women under consideration “who are absolutely qualified for this role.” 

“Both countries are vibrant democracies with diverse populations,” Katz noted, “and a woman appointee could bring a new perspective to this key role representing the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel.”


Some of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be more open about private conversations with administration officials. The top women candidates, according to these people, include:

  • U.S. Rep Kathy Manning, a two-term Democrat from North Carolina, who in 2009 became the first woman to chair the Jewish Federations of North America.
  • Nita Lowey, the former longtime New York congresswoman and lead sponsor of the bipartisan Middle East Partnership for Peace Act.
  • Jane Harman, a former California congresswoman, who led the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
  • Susie Gelman, the outgoing chair of the Israel Policy Forum, a nonpartisan group founded in 1993 to advance a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gelman is also former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

Women . . . and men

Biden made diversity a priority during his 2020 campaign and first-term appointments. He picked a Black woman, Kamala Harris, for his running mate, and in 2022 followed through on his promise to nominate a Black woman, with Ketanji Brown Jackson becoming the first Black woman justice. Women make up 60% of the White House staff and a similar proportion of the president’s political appointees, according to a 2021 report.

The Forward was unable to reach Lowey and Harman. Manning did not reply to a request for comment. Gelman said: “It is truly an honor to be mentioned in this way.” 

Gelman has strongly criticized the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul proposal and the appointments of right-wing extremists Bezelal Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir to senior cabinet positions. Those views reflect the opinions of many American Jewish leaders, who have spoken out against those ministers and the plan to restrict the independence of the Supreme Court. And Biden himself has publicly rebuked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the plan and urged him to compromise.

Besides those four women, several people interviewed named the following men as top contenders for the ambassadorship, one of the most significant positions in the diplomatic corps. They are: 

  • Former Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat who was a runner up in the previous round
  • Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to the president on energy and global infrastructure with experience on Capitol Hill and the State Department. He mediated the  2022 maritime border deal between Lebanon and Israel.
  • Former Ambassador Daniel Shapiro, who held the prestigious post under President Barack Obama and who has stayed in Israel since his term ended but is in the process of moving back to Washington. Shapiro is now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
  • Aaron Keyak, deputy special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, and Biden’s director of Jewish engagement during the 2020 presidential campaign. 
  • Former Ambassador Marc Ginsberg, the Clinton administration’s envoy to Morocco —  the first Jew to be an American ambassador to an Arab country.

Ginsburg, who speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic, said in an email that he “would be honored to be considered.” 

Wexler declined to comment. Hochstein, Shapiro and Keyak didn’t respond to inquiries. 

It is unclear whether several others reportedly considered for the job when Biden was choosing an ambassador to Israel at the beginning of his administration would again be in contention.

They include former Rep. Steve Israel, who withdrew his name from consideration in 2021, citing family matters. Israel last week declined to comment when asked if he would like to be in the running again.

Another finalist in the last round, Michael Adler, a Miami-based real estate developer and Democratic donation-bundler, is now ambassador to Belgium.

Dennis Ross, who advised former President Barack Obama on Middle East issues, and who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he does not think he would want to be considered again.

The long road to Jerusalem

Biden, who is running for reelection in 2024, may wait to nominate anyone. 

The Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate, through which all nominees must pass, and a single Republican senator can block a nominee at the committee level, or throw up obstacles on the Senate floor.

“Republicans will view that as a massive political opportunity to create political arguments about Biden’s Israel policy,” said Joel Rubin, a national security expert who served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. “It’s like putting a huge target on the president’s back on Israel policy.” 

A former GOP Senate staffer familiar with the confirmation process said the administration would prefer a nominee who has already been through vetting, or someone in good standing with both Democratic and Republican senators.

To avoid a contentious fight in the Senate, Biden could keep Hallett, the deputy chief of mission under Nides, in charge at the American embassy for the duration of Biden’s first term. She previously served as acting senior director for the Middle East at the National Security Council and on the State Department’s Iran team. 

But Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. peace negotiator, said not having a nominee before the 2024 elections doesn’t seem smart given the political turmoil in Israel and the significance of the U.S.-Israel alliance in global affairs. 

“Eighteen months is a long time” to leave such a position vacant, he said.

This article was originally published on the Forward.