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Nides testifies before Congress in 2012. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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 Shreier, the career diplomat who had been serving as chargé d'affaires since Jan 20. Shreier 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.

Go deeper: Netanyahu convenes Israeli Cabinet to discuss potential Gaza ceasefire

Correction: A previous version of this story included a misspelling of Jonathan Shreier's name.

Go deeper

Palestinian President Abbas to reshuffle government amid growing backlash

Abbas (R) with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh at a Cabinet meeting. Photo: Majdi Mohammed/AFP via Getty

Ramallah — Amid growing domestic criticism, Abbas is planning to reshuffle the Palestinian government and replace a number of ambassadors and governors.

The intrigue: A senior Palestinian official told me the changes would include appointing a new minister of the interior and a new minister of endowments, the officials responsible for the security forces and for religious affairs and Muslim holy sites, respectively.

Jul 28, 2021 - World

White House raised NSO spyware concerns with Israel

Photo: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty

The White House raised concerns with Israeli officials about reports that spyware from Israeli firm NSO was used to spy on journalists, human rights activists and opposition figures in several countries around the world, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: The Israeli government gave NSO export licenses to sell its Pegasus spyware to several countries. Media reports about abuse of the technology have already created uproar in Congress and in several European countries, and Israel fears a possible diplomatic crisis.

Jul 28, 2021 - World

Scoop: Israel weighs a return to UNESCO

Jerusalem’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty

The Israeli government is weighing rejoining the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which Israel left in 2019 together with the U.S., Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: An Israeli return to UNESCO, which promotes the preservation of cultural sites around the world and holds educational programs, could help pave the way for the Biden administration to rejoin the organization — and help fend off criticism from Republicans.