Bipartisan Support for Israel Challenged by Looming Annexation

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s July 1st deadline for annexation approaches, Democrats in both the House and Senate have grown more vocal in their opposition to the plan. Despite the fact that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) previously told lawmakers they were free to criticize Israel’s proposal, House Democrats are moving forward with drafting a letter—one that AIPAC does not support—intended for Netanyahu and his coalition partner Benny Gantz. As of now the letter, which warns of consequences for annexation but is reportedly a milder critique than that offered by nearly 20 current senators, has over 100 signatures. These include lawmakers ranging from the more hawkish members of the Democratic caucus like Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) and Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) to the left wing of the party like Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) and Ro Khanna (D-California).

Fears of Israeli annexation must be nearing a tipping point considering that Democratic Senators Bob Menendez (New Jersey), Chuck Schumer (New York), and Ben Cardin (Maryland) released a joint statement this week warning against the move. All three are stalwart supporters of Israel and very rarely criticize its policies; but even they warn of the adverse effects of annexation. Senator Schumer elaborated on this point during a virtual appearance at the Israel Policy Forum, arguing against annexation because of its unilateral nature—not because of its glaring illegality or the adverse effect it would have on Palestinian rights—and insisting that Washington must still support a two-state solution.

Not everyone on Capitol Hill is preaching caution. At least 116 House Republicans signed onto a rival letter that not only does not reject annexation, but it praises the Trump Administration’s so-called peace plan that serves as the basis for it. The GOP letter, pushed by the Republican Jewish Coalition, also blames the Palestinians for not engaging with the plan— one that has been almost universally rejected.

It is unclear at this moment what effects either letter will have on the Israeli government’s thinking. As Rep. Karen Bass (D-California) opined, a letter signed only by Democrats, even if total signatures reach the projected high of 200, is not likely to deter Netanyahu. But the prime minister cannot necessarily take solace in his level of support from House Republicans. Despite the fact that Netanyahu has spent years closely aligning himself with the Republican Party, there was still a substantial number of members of the House GOP caucus who did not signal support for annexation. In addition, Senate Republicans, save for eight of the body’s more vocal backers of President Trump, have largely remained quiet on the issue, illustrating that there might not be much enthusiasm for the president’s plan in the chamber’s majority.

Some shift in lawmakers’ attitudes could be a direct result of the time on Capitol Hill that Jordan’s King Abdullah II spent to gather and build opposition to annexation. At the same time, the Democrats’ warnings come as the White House is reportedly set to meet this week to determine how forcefully it will support annexation and along what timeline the actions should be undertaken.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Upholding the Civil Liberties and Civil Rights of Iranian Americans. In the wake of the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, agents of the US Customs and Border Patrol, according to a congressional press release, detained Iranian Americans for no other reason than to question them about their faith and military service. This gross infringement of their rights and civil liberties prompted Democrats from both chambers to introduce H. Res. 1008/S. Res. 626 condemning bigotry, violence, and discrimination against this group.

Developing a Comprehensive, Strategic Plan to Eradicate Locust Outbreaks in the East Africa Region. In May 2020, Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) introduced a resolution calling on the US government and its international partners to assist countries in East Africa in containing a massive locust outbreak that is threatening to lead to acute food shortages. Perhaps skeptical about whether the government is doing enough, Smith introduced H.R. 7276 to codify his previous resolution and demand that an interagency working group be staffed and funded to propose solutions to locust outbreaks in the region, such as those currently ravaging Sudan and Somalia.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Bipartisan Majority Support for H. Res. 374. On June 17, the Organization of Iranian American Communities hosted a virtual congressional briefing to hear remarks from dozens of the 220 congressional cosponsors of H. Res. 374. The resolution, among other things, criticizes the government in Tehran for is sponsorship of terrorism and expresses the support of the House of Representatives for the aspirations of the Iranian people. Most lawmakers who spoke live or submitted prerecorded messages for the briefing denounced the ruling regime and expressed hope that, one day, Iran would be freed from the current regime. It should be noted that only Rep. Danny Davis (D-Illinois) made it a point to tell the audience that, while he also supports the Iranian people in their opposition to the regime, there will be no use of US military force to effect regime change in Iran.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-California), the lead sponsor of the resolution, told viewers that he sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a letter recently to draw his attention to the resolution. He also said during the briefing that he urged the secretary of state to adopt the underlying tenets of H. Res. 374 as official administration policy.

3) Nominations

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kierscht Tapped as Ambassador to Mauritania. On June 18 President Trump nominated Cynthia Kierscht, the current Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, to serve as the next ambassador to Arab League member state Mauritania.

4) Personnel and Correspondence

Democrats Concerned about Purge of US Media Heads. Just after Michael Pack, the president’s controversial choice to head the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), was confirmed by the Senate, he purged the organization of its regional leads. Pack is close to Trump ally Steve Bannon and many suspect he will transform the USAGM into an outlet that spreads Trump Administration propaganda throughout its regional coverage. Shortly after his confirmation, Pack terminated the heads of four USAGM outlets, including the United States’ Middle East broadcaster. In response, Congressional Democrats in both the House and Senate issued statements questioning Pack’s hollowing out of the US Middle East Broadcasting Network and other global media outlets.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Expands Ban on Certain Immigrants. Claiming the move as a way to protect US citizens from foreign labor competition, President Trump previously suspended some forms of legal immigration to the United States. He expanded the ban on June 22, issuing an executive order barring some of the highest skilled immigrants from all over the world from relocating to the United States for work. The order limits immigrants’ ability to come to the United States on H-1B and other visas; in fact, many consider that the presence of these workers actually benefits the US economy. The visas serve as the pathway for individuals from the Middle East and elsewhere to migrate to the United States.

2) Department of State

United States Debuts UN Resolution to Block Arms Sales to Iran. The United States began circulating a resolution to UN Security Council members this week as part of its effort to extend the body’s arms embargo on Iran. The resolution, as introduced, does not enjoy the support of veto-wielding members China and Russia. Some experts view the measure as a symbolic gesture intended to serve as a campaign statement for President Trump and his allies in the United States.

US Warns UAE against Supporting Syria despite Lauding Bilateral Engagement. The State Department took two seemingly divergent positions regarding the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week, at once championing the US-UAE economic relationship while warning Abu Dhabi against further engagement with Syria and the Assad regime.

State Department Officials Laud IAEA Resolution on Iran. On June 19, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a resolution calling on Iran to implement requirements obligated by Tehran’s signature to the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT. In response, State Department officials released a statement and held a public briefing to laud the agency’s call, characterizing it as a weighty rebuke. While the body expressed serious concern about Iran’s unwillingness to provide access to sites suspected of previous nuclear activity, the IAEA’s resolution was not quite the strong censure that was touted by Trump Administration officials.

Ambassador James Jeffrey Provides Briefings on US Policy toward Syria. This week, Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, gave two  briefings to elaborate on US policy toward Syria after the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act took effect: the first was for the State Department on June 17 and the second was a virtual briefing at the Middle East Institute on June 22. He said the US campaign of “coercive diplomatic and economic means should be utilized to compel the government of Assad to halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful coexistence with its neighbors.” Jeffrey also went to great lengths to clarify that Washington will do everything in its power to ensure that sanctions do not disrupt humanitarian assistance efforts, even in areas controlled by the Assad regime.

2020 Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments. This week the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance released its annual compliance report on US efforts to limit the proliferation of weapons around the world. The report recounts both Washington’s compliance and that of other countries, including states in the Middle East like Syria and Iran.

US Ambassador, AFRICOM Commander Want Ceasefire, Negotiations in Libya. This week the US ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, and General Stephen Townsend, commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), met with President Fayez al-Sarraj of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA). According to an embassy readout, Norland and Townsend told Sarraj the United States seeks a ceasefire and political negotiations as recommended by the United Nations.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM’s Deputy Director of Strategy, Plans, and Policy Talks Mideast Security. On June 23, US Central Command’s (CENTCOM) Deputy Director of Strategy, Plans, and Policy participated in a virtual briefing to discuss the US military’s challenges and opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa. While much of the discussion was technical and focused on issues relevant to the US military, General Duke Pirak did provide some insight into US policies toward the Middle East generally and, more specifically, regarding Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

In both Iraq and Syria, Pirak said CENTCOM is dedicated to ensuring the enduring defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS). In Iraq, this task has resulted in the Pentagon’s in-depth training of Baghdad’s soldiers to ensure they have the skills and resources necessary to carry out counterterrorism tasks. In neighboring Syria, Pirak said US military personnel are still dedicated to working “by, with, and through” Syrian Democratic Forces to ensure IS fighters in the country do not pose serious threats.

As for Lebanon, Pirak lauded the cooperation between the US military and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The LAF, according to Pirak, is a bright spot in Lebanese society and, despite the administration’s earlier efforts to reduce aid to the entity, Pirak said that this US security assistance is one of Washington’s better investments in the region. On the GCC, Pirak noted that criticism of the Gulf Arab partners was warranted since countries like Saudi Arabia were spending massive amounts of money on arms sales but were hardly advancing their own safety or the region’s mutual security goals. However, Pirak argued that the Pentagon has been effective in training Riyadh to advance its war strategy in Yemen without harming civilians.

4) Department of Justice

Sudan Near an Agreement to Settle Terrorism Claims. Sudan’s Foreign Minister confirmed this week that Khartoum is nearing an agreement with US litigants to compensate them for terrorist attacks that Sudan, according to the US government, had a role in facilitating. Khartoum has before agreed to pay settlements to victims’ families as a precondition to being removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

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