US human rights nominee withdraws following objection from pro-Israel Republican

US human rights nominee withdraws following objection from pro-Israel Republican
A nominee for a high-level human rights post has withdrawn her name following nearly two years of objections from a pro-Israel Republican senator.
3 min read
Washington, D.C.
27 January, 2023
White House nominations are often held up in the US Senate [Getty]

A Biden administration nominee for a high-level human rights position has withdrawn her candidacy following a Republican senator's objection over  her views on Israel.

Sarah Margon was nominated in April 2021 to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour. However, Jim Risch, a US senator from Idaho, has spent nearly two years arguing against her appointment. 

“At present, I don’t see a path forward for confirmation, and after 1 ½ years, it’s time to move on,” Margon said in the statement, which was reported in Politico this week. “I will continue to work on democracy and human rights, and am grateful to President Biden and Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken for their confidence in me and the honor of a nomination.”

Since her nomination, Risch has been accusing Margon of supporting the Palestinian BDS movement, which she has denied. She has had letters of support from political leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties as well as from Jewish groups, but to no avail.

Margon has previously worked as Washington director for Human Rights Watch, which has recently been in the spotlight when its former chief Kenneth Roth saw his fellowship at Harvard blocked, but then reversed. 

She currently serves as foreign policy director for the Open Society Foundation, founded by Hungarian American-financier and philanthropist George Soros, who in recent years has been a major target for right-wing conspiracy theorists. 

"I’ve spent most of my career fighting for human rights & democracy, so I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity, if confirmed, to join the Biden Admin & do this work w incredible colleagues. Thank you all for the warm congrats & good wishes!" Margon wrote in a pinned tweet on 24 April, 2021. 

At this point, it is unclear who, if anyone, would take her place in this important human rights post. 

What seems apparent this week is that Risch has succeeded in preventing Margon from her nominated position. 

Risch, a ranking member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is relatively active on Middle East issues. In March 2021, he and others on the committee introduced the Israel Relations Normalization Act, which builds on the controversial Abraham Accords that normalised ties between Israel and two other Arab states.

Palestinians slammed the accords as a betrayal of their cause. 

In May 2021, he introduced a resolution condemning anti-Semitism following Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip, which killed over 250 Palestinians.

And in June 2021, he was able to place a hold on aid to Palestinians, again citing violence in Gaza, a move Democrats tried to convince him to reverse at the time.

Though the top Democrat on the committee, Bob Menendez, does support her nomination, he is adhering to the custom that committee leaders follow, which is that top members of both parties jointly agree on voting for nominees. 

“I believe we are strongest when we speak with a bipartisan voice,” Politico reported Menendez as saying. “This underpins our committee’s ability to pursue robust activity that advances American foreign policy priorities.”

With this story coming on the heels of the controversy Kenneth Roth's fellowship at Harvard, it underlines the precariousness of working in the US on human rights issues related to Israel and Palestine.

"This exposes the double standard when it comes to Israel," Adam Shapiro, director of advocacy for Israel-Palestine, told The New Arab. "It shows it can happen at the elite level. Someone like Sarah Margon should have been an easy confirmation. That it was stuck on this issue shows the hypocrisy."