By Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Tuesday used his first major batch of foreign ambassador nominations to signal a desire to strengthen U.S. relationships to deal with challenges in the Middle East, Central America and with Russia.
Biden tapped Morgan Stanley vice-chairman Thomas Nides, onetime aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as ambassador to Israel, as the close U.S. ally welcomes a new prime minister.
Nides' nomination comes just two days after Israel's parliament seated a new governing coalition led by nationalist Naftali Bennett, ending Benjamin Netanyahu's 12-year run as prime minister.
As ambassador to Mexico, Biden picked Ken Salazar, a Spanish-speaking, Latino lawyer and former U.S. senator from Colorado and Interior secretary. Mexico is a top U.S. trading partner, and the new ambassador will also work to limit immigration from Central America.
Biden chose security expert Julianne Smith to represent Washington on the Council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a Western bulwark against Russia.
The White House announced nine total ambassador nominations after Biden wrapped up meetings in Europe with the Group of Seven countries and NATO, all traditional U.S. allies, and prepared for Wednesday's meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a meeting that could be tense.
Nominees do not become ambassadors until they are confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Biden has yet to announce most of his picks, from Russia and China to most countries represented at the meetings in Europe.
Nides, regarded as committed to close U.S.-Israeli security ties, could face a tough task dealing with factions of the country's left-wing, centrist, right-wing and Arab parties that had little in common except a desire to unseat Netanyahu.
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator under Republican and Democratic administrations, described Nides as having close ties to Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
"An ambassador who is authoritative and has great access is what matters. He is both," Ross said.
The Biden administration had faced criticism for lacking high-level diplomatic representation in Israel during its 11-day conflict with Hamas in Gaza last month.
Though Biden and Netanyahu spoke regularly during the conflict, they clashed over issues including Biden's desire to rejoin a 2015 nuclear deal with Israel's arch-foe Iran. Bennett also opposes the deal.
Salazar is a partner at the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP. Smith is an aide to Blinken and was Biden's national security adviser when he was vice president.
Nides and Salazar were also both major fundraisers for Biden's presidential campaign, often a prerequisite for top politically appointed ambassadors.
The White House said Biden picked C. B. "Sully" Sullenberger to be an ambassador and serve as the U.S. representative on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Sullenberger rose to fame in 2009 after gliding his Airbus A320 to a safe landing on the Hudson River after hitting a flock of geese shortly after takeoff, an incident immortalized as the "Miracle on the Hudson." He also joined Biden on the presidential campaign trail.
Biden also named ambassador picks to Sri Lanka, the Gambia, Guinea, Paraguay and Costa Rica.
In April, Biden picked nine career U.S. foreign service officers as ambassadors.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Addditional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Heather Timmons, Alistair Bell and David Gregorio)