Bipartisan Hysteria Erupts in Washington After UNHRC Unveils Database

This week, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a long awaited report “on business enterprises involved in certain activities relating to settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” In Washington, like in Israel, the response was predictable: officials of all political persuasions raised the alarm, criticizing the United Nations for the decision. For his part, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a blistering statement. Human rights organizations and the Palestinians themselves, on the other hand, cheered the report’s release, even as some noted that it is vastly incomplete. However, most public officials in Washington decried its release, with some going as far as to label this supposed “blacklist” as an anti-Semitic effort to destroy the state of Israel.

One common theme is salient in all of the official statements: there is bipartisan hysteria over the purpose of the report. The term “blacklist” is misleading, as the UN Human Rights Council is not calling for a boycott of these companies; it is simply publishing facts about businesses that operate in a manner that contributes to the maintenance of illegal Israeli settlements and to the infringement of Palestinian human rights. Nevertheless, that did not stop lawmakers from calling on the administration to issue an executive order essentially telling Americans they cannot, for legal purposes, distinguish between Israel as a state recognized by the international community and Israeli settlements that the rest of the world considers illegal.

The claim that the database is anti-Semitic in targeting Israeli Jews is misleading as well as it is simply a compilation of facts that illustrate how some Israeli companies contribute to the growth and maintenance of illegal settlements. Further, the database as unveiled lists 112 companies, nearly 20 of which are not of Israeli origin.

At a time of extreme polarization, even on Israel, it is rare to see an issue unite Washington across political lines. It is also of great concern that the bipartisan hysteria over the report is based on willful misrepresentation of the United Nations’ work, whose goal is to catalogue these businesses’ ties to illegal settlements.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

NO BAN Act. After President Trump expanded the number of countries affected by what many consider a travel ban, the House marked up and passed through committee H.R. 2214 that looks to overturn one aspect of the administration’s draconian immigration policy. The NO BAN Act passed through committee on a vote of 22-10—largely along party lines—and will likely do the same when it is considered by the full House.

War Powers Act. On February 13, the full Senate voted 55-45 to pass Senator Tim Kaine’s (D-Virginia) S. J. Res. 68. Invoking the War Powers Act, the joint resolution orders the president to remove the US military from hostilities with Iran within 30 days of passage. Because the joint resolution was privileged, it did not need to meet the 60-vote threshold most legislation must achieve. The legislation will move to the House, where it is expected to pass along party lines, then it will go to President Trump’s desk—where he is expected to veto it.

Iran Diplomacy Act. This week, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who is facing a primary challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), introduced S. 3314 to reorient US policy toward Iran’s nuclear energy program. To date, the Trump Administration’s actions have tattered the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which constrained Iran’s nuclear plans. Now, Senator Markey and his colleagues want to reassert diplomacy as the primary tool for, once again, containing Tehran’s nuclear energy program. The new legislation would call on the United States to return to the JCPOA and, building off it, to address other Iranian activities of concern.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Murphy Wants US to Hold Haftar, Russia Accountable in Libya. On February 12, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo asking for information about ties between Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar and PMC Wagner, a Russian defense contracting group. According to the senator, any ties between the two would necessitate sanctions against Haftar under a law known as CAATSA. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act lays out conditions for sanctioning entities that work with or support Iran, Russia, or North Korea; Senator Murphy argues that Haftar is violating the law by working with the Russians.

Lawmakers Meet with Son of Iran’s Last Shah While Senate Democrat Meets with FM Zarif. This week, members of Congress waded into Iranian politics, meeting with high-profile Iranians of two different eras. First, Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the country’s last shah, traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with “senior lawmakers,” according to his Twitter account. That any lawmakers are meeting with the son of a deposed monarch gives some legitimacy to him as well as to diaspora Iranians who remain committed monarchists.

Separately, at least one member of Congress met with a current Iranian regime official: Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) wrote in the summary of his trip to Germany about meeting Zarif on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. Murphy spoke with Zarif about US-Iranian tensions in the Middle East, finding a solution to the war in Yemen, and securing the release of US citizens held captive in Iran.

Rep. McCollum Calls AIPAC a “Hate Group.” If the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is actually a bipartisan outfit, as it is self-described, this week’s events featuring the group could undermine that claim. AIPAC recently ran advertisements on Facebook “weaponizing anti-Semitism to incite followers by attacking” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota)—and some of her colleagues like Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota)—for her “work promoting human rights for Palestinian children detained in Israeli military prisons.” McCollum, who has a history of clashing with the hawkish AIPAC, fired back, calling the organization a hate group for airing hate speech demonizing the congresswoman. Comparing McCollum’s work in support of the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living under Israeli Military Occupation Act to acts by groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS) drew criticism from many and forced AIPAC to issue an apology—though not one for insulting McCollum but simply for insulting the “overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress” who were offended.

Rep. Omar Tries to Reposition the Baseline of US Foreign Policy. This week, Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced a package of legislation that she hopes will recalibrate the focus of US foreign policy globally, including in the Middle East. The “Pathway to PEACE” initiative would prioritize funding for peace building by shifting funds away from an “Overseas Contingency Fund” that serves as a kind of slush fund that multiple presidents have used to pursue military force around the globe. Furthermore, her legislation would push the United States to observe international human rights, empower and protect youth around the globe, and give Congress the power to rein in the executive branch’s abilities to arm human rights abusers and impose unilateral sanctions on other states. Most, if not all, of her legislative priorities under the Pathway to PEACE would have a large impact on how the United States interacts with the Arab world and the broader Middle East.

Chairman Engel Pans Administration’s Justification for Assassinating General Soleimani. This week, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) released the Trump Administration’s justifications for assassinating Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq last month. Engel and other members of Congress criticized the justification, which clarified that the administration acted in response to past events and to deter future acts it alleges Soleimani was planning. This contradicts everything President Trump and his top officials claimed early after the operation; instead, Trump Administration officials asserted that the strike was taken to eliminate an “imminent threat.” That no longer seems to be the administration’s position and complicates the legal arguments the White House and Pentagon laid forth as their authorizations to use force.

Congressional Delegations Travel to Munich Security Conference, Iraq. As mentioned earlier, Senator Chris Murphy traveled to the Munich Security Conference where he participated in a panel discussion with Arab government officials. In addition, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi led a sizable delegation there while Murphy had colleagues from the Senate in attendance. According to a tweet, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh met with over 20 of the members of Congress in attendance.

After the conference, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) led a delegation of senators and members of Congress to Iraq where they visited US military personnel and met with officials of both the government in Baghdad and that of the Kurdish Regional Government.

Congressional Republicans Meet with Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. This week, GOP Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Mike Johnson (Louisiana) traveled to Israel where they met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With Israel just weeks away from another round of elections, Netanyahu can now tout the support of US members of Congress, which is a large part of his electoral strategy.

3) Hearings and Briefings

The Middle East Peace Process: A Hearing with Former Negotiators. On February 12, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a hearing with three former government officials who have experience working on peace processes under different presidents: Frank Lowenstein (Obama Administration), Mara Rudman (Obama and Clinton Administrations), and Michael Singh (George W. Bush Administration). They were critical of the president’s recently unveiled “peace” proposal. Committee members asked about Israeli security concerns, a negotiated end to the conflict through a two-state solution, what Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank—with US backing—would mean for the fate of the Palestinian Authority and neighboring Jordan, and the uneasy state of affairs between Jordan and Israel.

US-Libya Policy. On February 12, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing with two State Department officials to further understand the crisis in Libya and to assess the Trump Administration’s policy there. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said that the responsibility for the fighting in Libya right now is on the shoulders of General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army’s military campaign against the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Schenker also noted that Haftar’s destabilizing campaign is possible due to high levels of external support from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Russia. Christopher Robinson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, spoke at length about the latter’s role in Libya.

Committee members probed issues related to US policy toward Libya, Russia’s and Turkey’s roles in the fighting, the routine flouting of the UN arms embargo of Libya, and the possible use of US sanctions to dissuade actors from meddling in Libya. On US policy, committee Democrats posed questions about the administration’s position; in the past, and despite the stated position of supporting the GNA, President Trump gave what seemed like a tacit endorsement for Haftar’s siege of Tripoli. Schenker affirmed that the United States firmly supports the GNA; but the senators’ confusion about official policy illustrates the lack of clarity around the White House’s past actions and comments.

After Trump: Defining a Progressive Foreign Policy for the Middle East. Also on February 12, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) provided keynote addresses on what a progressive US foreign policy toward the Middle East might look like after the Trump presidency is over. Khanna spoke at length about how the United States needs to democratize its Middle East foreign policy by listening to the states in the region and formulating policies based on clearly articulated values. In essence, Khanna’s contribution amounted to a pragmatic yet values-based approach toward the Middle East, one illustrated by the phrase “first, do no harm.” Murphy, who has repeatedly outlined his vision of a progressive US foreign policy, wants to move away from engagement through military means and toward helping to rebuild the political and economic capabilities of the struggling countries in the region.

Iran: Propaganda and Perception 41 Years After the Revolution. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) appeared at an Atlantic Council event on Iranian disinformation campaigns to talk about Iran’s use of propaganda as a tool for furthering its regional ambitions. He noted that manipulating information is but one asymmetrical tactic the regime in Tehran uses to achieve its goals in its spheres of influence. Hurd also gave a broader assessment of current US-Iran relations. He repeatedly—and misleadingly—told the audience that leading regime figures in Iran are pursuing a nuclear bomb, though there is no evidence to support this charge. Though Hurd regurgitated Trump Administration talking points on that subject, he largely avoided adopting the administration’s refrains about its “maximum pressure” campaign. Instead of assuming that a unilateral sanctions regime will force Tehran to capitulate to US demands, he argued that Washington must work harder to attain the support of the international community. Hurd noted that it was only when Iran was suffering under a robust and unified international sanctions regime that it opted to negotiate the parameters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He also conceded that the administration’s justifications for and expected outcomes of the maximum pressure campaign have been unclear to the Iranian regime, thus only worsening the likelihood that the campaign could serve to lead to future negotiations.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Administration Officials Attend Munich Security Conference. This week, administration officials attended the annual Munich Security Conference. Secretaries Mark Esper and Mike Pompeo gave addresses at the conference while officials from throughout the administration met with their counterparts to discuss a wide range of topics, including issues relevant to the Middle East.

Ivanka Trump Applauds Saudi Arabia, UAE on Women’s Rights. After the Munich Security Conference, President Trump’s senior advisor and daughter, Ivanka Trump, traveled to Dubai to attend the Global Women’s Forum. There, she praised the efforts of the UAE and neighboring Saudi Arabia—as well as Morocco—for initiatives she says have advanced women’s rights. When it comes to the records of the two Gulf states in particular, Trump’s praise seems hypocritical as both states are notorious for their human rights abuses, especially regarding women. As in the State Department’s recent review of 2019 human rights efforts, Ivanka Trump failed to criticize states like Saudi Arabia or the UAE for human rights abuses, including the unjust detention and torture of women’s rights activists. For the Trump Administration as a whole, human rights tend to be mainly a cudgel it wields against opponents like Iran; they are of little use, however, when allies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or others like Egypt are blatantly violating them.

President Trump Fills Annexation Committee. In the White House’s so-called “deal of the century,” the architects of the plan included a provision to establish a joint US-Israel committee to draw the boundaries of the land in the occupied West Bank that Israel plans to annex. According to a report, the United States has chosen its committee members and they include the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who has been a longtime supporter of Israeli settlers and a proponent of right-wing Israelis’ “Greater Israel” project, as well as Friedman’s senior advisor Aryeh Lightstone and the director of Israeli and Palestinian affairs at the National Security Council Scott Leith. Together with their Israeli counterparts, they will help carve up Palestinian land under the guise of pursuing peace.

2) Department of State

Ambassador Rakolta Lauds Abu Dhabi at MEA Summit. This week, the Milken Institute held its annual Middle East and Africa Summit in the United Arab Emirates to “discuss imperative international subject matter like renewable energy, the new age of consumerism, the future of banking, the convergence of big-tech and national security, workforce development, and entrepreneurial investment.” The US ambassador to the UAE, John Rakolta, gave introductory remarks at the opening of one of the panel discussions and he lauded Abu Dhabi as a dependable and worthy economic and security partner of the United States. Rakolta, who officially began in his role as ambassador in September 2019, talked about his short tenure as ambassador and what priorities he has for US-UAE relations. In the coming weeks, he said he will sit down with President Trump to outline Washington’s priorities and determine how it can help push Abu Dhabi to undertake security and economic policies that this administration thinks will be better for the Gulf country’s long-term development.

Secretary Pompeo Holds Meetings with Middle East Officials in Washington and Abroad. This week, Secretary of State Pompeo held a series of meetings with officials from the region. First, in Washington, the secretary met with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud to discuss bilateral relations and regional security concerns regarding Iran and the ongoing war in Yemen. Later, after Pompeo departed for a trip to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, he met with the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masrour Barzani, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. They talked about US relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government that Barzani heads as well as broader US-Iraqi relations.

After stops in Europe and Africa, Secretary Pompeo visited Saudi Arabia and Oman to meet with officials of both countries. Prior to arriving in Saudi Arabia, the State Department was lauding 75 years of US-Saudi relations while members of Congress were calling on Pompeo to push the kingdom on the case of Walid Fitaihi, a US citizen who has been detained and tortured in Saudi Arabia. Reps. Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Mike McCaul (R-Texas) as well as Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) wrote to Pompeo urging him to raise Fitaihi’s case at the highest levels so that Riyadh would free him.

Assistant Secretary Royce Travels to Cairo. During February 16-21, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce is in Egypt to “strengthen and advance the State Department’s educational and cultural diplomacy efforts” with Cairo. Royce will participate in a host of events with organizations that facilitate cultural exchanges between Egypt and the United States.

3) Department of Defense

US Navy Intercepts Weapons Cache Headed to Yemen. This week, the US Navy announced that it had intercepted a weapons cache that it said was intended for the Houthi rebels in Yemen. According to the statement, Navy personnel boarded a dhow and found hundreds of missiles, other weapons, and components to build complex military equipment. The Navy’s press release said that the weapons were of Iranian make or origin and were intended for the Houthis.

Pentagon Cannot Account for Millions of Dollars of Equipment in Syria. The Department of Defense made public the results of an audit it conducted regarding equipment used in the counter-IS campaign in Syria. The report illustrates how the Pentagon cannot account for over $700 million in weapons and equipment used by security partners in Syria. For political progressives especially, this will only bolster calls by lawmakers to rein in military spending and better account for lethal weapons and equipment that Washington doles out throughout the region.

4) Department of Education

Department of Education Investigating Top Universities over Gulf-Funded Gifts. The Department of Education announced this week that it is opening up investigations into Ivy League universities Harvard and Yale because both failed to report they accepted a combined $375 million in gifts from foreign states. Of these, the department’s press release specifically pointed to three Arab Gulf states and China. Federal law stipulates that any US college or university eligible for Title IV funding must report any gifts or contracts it receives from foreign governments if those exceed $250,000. According to the department, Harvard and Yale failed to disclose numerous gifts of amounts much higher than the threshold.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here

Photo credit: flickr/Alan Wehlan