President Joe Biden's nominee for a top role at the U.S. Agency for International Development faced tough questioning during her Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday for taking funding from Qatar and criticizing historic peace accords between Israel and Arab states.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing called the White House's decision to nominate Tamara Cofman Wittes "concerning" and evidence of the "profound anti-Israel bias of the Biden administration."
Wittes, who is seeking the committee's approval to become assistant administrator of USAID, is facing scrutiny over her role as director of the Middle East Policy Center at the Brookings Institution, which during her employment raked in over $22 million from the Qatari government.
The questions about Wittes's background and ties with Doha, the capital of Qatar, took on a greater urgency after former Brookings Institution president and retired general John Allen last week stepped down amid a federal investigation into his alleged work as an unregistered lobbyist for Qatar.
"The president of Brookings has resigned over this, but you ran the Middle East Center at Brookings," said Cruz. "Should the American taxpayers be concerned that President Biden wants to put in charge of distributing millions of dollars of taxpayer money someone who has spent years being funded by a foreign nation who is not our friend?"
Wittes said she had "no knowledge of any of these disturbing allegations regarding General Allen." She said she attended one fundraising meeting in 2012 with Qatar alongside former Brookings vice president Martin Indyk, during which they asked the Qatari government to extend its funding.
She also said she was not legally required to register as a foreign lobbyist and noted that Brookings held "regular trainings on [Foreign Agent Registration Act] compliance. I had no problem understanding the rules."
Cruz also grilled Wittes over Twitter posts in which she discouraged Arab countries from normalizing ties with Israel before the 2020 election and promoted articles that criticized the Abraham Accords.
"Why were you urging Arab countries not to deepen ties with Israel?" asked Cruz.
"Senator, I was skeptical when the Emiratis made their announcement, which was breathtaking, in August 2020. I was skeptical that other Arab states would join them, and I was proven wrong," Wittes said.
"You tweeted that peace between Israel and the [United Arab Emirates] was a 'new Naksa,' a setback. You also said that it was a 'triumph for authoritarianism' and just a 'normalization of men,' which I don't know what the hell that means," said Cruz. "Why did you actively lobby against historic peace accords in the Middle East, and how can anyone have any confidence that you can be a senior government official?"
Wittes said, "I support the accords. I support the profound transformation…," before she was cut off by Cruz.
"I get that that's the right political answer to say now. But it's not what you said then," he said.
Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) also quizzed Wittes on whether she would commit to expanding the Abraham Accords.
"The answer is yes, absolutely," she said.
Portman noted that this response seems "counter to your previous comments" on the issue but said he agreed with her new stance.