Capitol Hill Turns to Public Diplomacy to Challenge Trump’s Policies

Until May 4, the House of Representatives and Senate were steering clear of Capitol Hill in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease to lawmakers, many of whom are considered part of a vulnerable population due to age concerns, and to their staff. For this reason, significant legislation that is not directly related to the United States’ domestic COVID-19 pandemic response has been put on hold. Instead, lawmakers are challenging President Donald Trump’s foreign policy positions in the court of public opinion.

Some Democrats Mobilize in Support of Palestinians

This week, members of the House set their sights on the Trump Administration’s policies toward Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. On April 28, 59 House Democrats sent a letter to the US ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, to urge that the United States restart US assistance to the Palestinians in order to enable them to better contain and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. These funds, according to lead author Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan), could simply be obligated from a government account that has already been authorized and funded and be used to support both the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and entities operating in and around East Jerusalem. These members of Congress are asking the administration to reverse its previous decisions to cut aid to the Palestinians and, noting that these funds require no special congressional actions, are perhaps proactively undercutting any argument about the Palestinian Authority’s inability to use this aid. But as the authors make clear, the funds they are asking the administration to shift to the Palestinians come from none of the accounts prohibited under current law.

Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and Alan Lowenthal (D-California) went a step further and published a joint op-ed in The Washington Post raising not just logical justifications, but moral ones, for why the United States must assist Palestinians. Their op-ed was designed to shock the senses of those in Washington because, as they outline plainly, the two vastly disagree on issues involving Israel and the Palestinian territories. Nevertheless, Tlaib and Lowenthal wrote that they “share a fundamental belief that the humanity, dignity, safety and rights of all people should be protected.” This rights-based approach to solving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been gaining traction, particularly among progressives in the United States, so the two representatives’ use of the argument neutralizes usual talking points predicated on distinctions between “Israeli security” and “Palestinian rights.”

However, the Trump Administration has made clear over the last three years that the president and his leading advisors do not view Israelis and Palestinians as equal parties who must negotiate their own solution. To the current administration, Israel can simply do no wrong and the Palestinians must live with whatever the United States and Israel impose on them. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman indirectly made this point this week when he launched a decidedly undiplomatic salvo against critics of the administration’s so-called “peace plan.” Friedman displayed a subtle sense of superiority that only he and his colleagues in the Trump Administration—all or most of whom subscribe to the most extreme right-wing Israeli policies, including support for illegal settlements—know the correct solution, without consideration of what the Palestinians or the international community have to say. Now lawmakers—at least some Senate Democrats—are challenging the administration’s policy toward Israel and Palestine. Democratic Senators Chris Murphy (Connecticut), Chris Van Hollen (Maryland), and Tim Kaine (Virginia), supported by the group J Street, are circulating a letter opposing Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank and Jordan Valley as part of the White House’s plan allows. The letter, which the senators will send to Israel’s coalition government leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, spells out plainly that Israel’s annexation of the West Bank will harm US-Israel relations.

Republicans and Democrats Alike Question Trump’s Gulf Policies

Many members of Congress are also growing increasingly concerned about President Trump’s policies toward Arabian Gulf countries, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran has been ravaged by COVID-19 and according to multiple experts, including those from the US Department of Defense, US sanctions are a significant hindrance in Iran’s attempt to halt the spread of the virus. In recent weeks, Democrats have urged the administration to relieve sanctions so Tehran could have more resources to import the medical supplies necessary for treating those affected by COVID-19. Republicans steadfastly opposed any relief. However, perhaps the Trump Administration overestimated lawmakers’ appetite for pressuring Iran at this moment. After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his team at the State Department announced their intention, if necessary, to unilaterally impose sanctions on Iran’s ability to buy traditional military equipment, an overwhelming majority of the House of Representatives penned him a letter opposing his preferred strategy. Though the signatories all support UN sanctions on Iran, they implicitly criticized the secretary of state for his willingness to go at it alone in trying to address Iran’s malign activities. The letter, spearheaded by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), was reportedly backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and it garnered a diverse group of signatories. These included Rep, Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), who has had a contentious relationship with the pro-Israel lobbying group since she arrived in Washington. Such an initiative speaks to the desire of Congress that Washington engage with US allies diplomatically to further its policies instead of disregarding the views of the international community.

Then there is Saudi Arabia that the Trump Administration views as a crucial US ally in countering Iran in the region. This week, Riyadh was in the news as lawmakers criticized the kingdom’s lack of accountability for the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 as well as the lack of transparency regarding its nuclear energy ambitions. In addition, May 3rd marked the second World Press Freedom Day since Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, a prominent writer for The Washington Post, was invoked by Senator Tim Kaine and Rep. Ilhan Omar on the occasion and both criticized the Saudi government’s lack of accountability for the brutal slaying. Saudi Arabia—which in recent weeks has also been criticized in the United States for its role in fomenting a global crash in oil prices and for committing piracy of intellectual property in the same manner as global trade manipulator China—was also named in a US Government Accountability Office report about the Trump Administration’s lack of transparency with Congress. The report, which was requested last year by Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida), illustrates how the Trump Administration has failed to keep Congress abreast of negotiations between Washington and Riyadh on nuclear power cooperation. Many members of Congress are skeptical of a nuclear Saudi Arabia and have called on the administration to ensure that the kingdom abides by the most stringent of rules if it wants US support in building a peaceful civilian nuclear energy program.

It is unclear whether lawmakers will have any success with the Trump Administration; however, US allies and partners like Israel and Saudi Arabia may be more reluctant than President Trump to frustrate Congress. Indeed, just this week President Trump conceded to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that he would not be able to protect the kingdom from the vengeful Senate GOP that was fuming over Riyadh’s oil war. That message rang loud and clear even with the reckless crown prince; it could prove useful again for lawmakers trying to put their fingerprints on US policy in the Middle East.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Celebrating the Heritage and Culture of Arab Americans in the United States. This past week Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) introduced H. Res. 948celebrating Arab Americans and expressing support for recognizing the month of April as Arab American Heritage Month.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Cruz Urges US-Israel Cooperation, Asks DOJ to Watch for Jewish Discrimination.Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) participated in a conference call with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) this week to discuss US-Israel cooperation on everything from combatting COVID-19, to a mutual defense pact, to pressuring Iran. He discussed at length his legislation for US-Israel medical cooperation and he also repeated typical talking points about Iran. Cruz also came out in support of a US-Israel mutual defense pact, which JINSA and other supporters of Israel are eager to formalize.

Domestically, Cruz called on the US attorney general to be vigilant against religious bias against Jewish people in New York City after its mayor made some questionable remarks that many in the Jewish community found hurtful. As he compared the treatment of New York City’s Jewish community to its Muslim community, Cruz said the former was being dangerously singled out.

Rep. Lamborn Seeks Cosigners on Letter to Algeria Regarding Church Closures. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado) has circulated a “dear colleague” letter seeking signatures, one he intends to send to Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune, about what he fears to be an unfair application of Algerian law. Noting that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom recently suggested that Algeria be placed under greater scrutiny for “engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom,” Lamborn calls on Tebboune to end the unfair enforcement of Algerian law and abide by the Algerian Constitution’s guarantee to the right of freedom of religion for all.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senate Intelligence Holds Nomination Hearing for DNI. This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing for Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) who has been nominated to serve as the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The DNI oversees all 17 US intelligence agencies and is typically viewed as a sober advisor to the president who provides truthful, unbridled assessments of threats facing the United States. For that reason, Ratcliffe has garnered much skepticism, largely for his theatrical and partisan defense of President Trump during the president’s impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives. Despite what at one point was a bipartisan agreement that Rep. Ratcliffe was not a good fit for the role of DNI, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) said in the hearing that he was ready for a quick confirmation process, indicating Ratcliffe might have the required support.

In addition to Ratcliffe’s hearing, the Senate received new nominees and moved forward on older nominations. President Trump, for example, submitted nominations for Marshall Billingslea and Christopher Miller to oversee arms control at the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, respectively. In addition, the Senate continued its consideration of nominee William Evanina, Trump’s choice to head the country’s highest counterintelligence agency, after a top Senate Republican lifted an informal hold he had placed on the nomination.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Ambassador Jeffrey Discusses the Future of Idlib and Syria’s IDPs. Ambassador James Jeffrey, who serves as both the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State (IS), engaged with Turkey’s presidential spokesperson to discuss the future of Syria’s Idlib and the millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria.

Ambassador Jeffrey stressed that the fate of Idlib will determine the future of the conflict. He lauded the cease-fire between Russia and Turkey and discussed possible future steps. Jeffrey was somewhat optimistic about finding a solution to the Syrian conflict, arguing that due to the financial ruin of Bashar al-Assad and his backers, the Russians might be willing to compromise with the United States and its partners to find a solution, should the Idlib cease-fire hold. If that were to happen, Jeffrey said, then Washington and its allies would try to get Russia and its partners to implement the international community’s framework for peace. In Jeffrey’s assessment, the framework clearly outlines provisions calling for a new Syrian constitution and UN-monitored elections, robust accountability for Russian and Syrian war crimes, and minimizing some of the lingering threats to Syria’s neighbors like Israel and Turkey. Until that comprehensive goal is reached, however, Jeffrey said he hoped the United States would work with Turkey to deliver crucial humanitarian aid to internally displaced Syrians.

Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook Provides Press Briefing. Brian Hook gave a press briefing this week to outline the State Department’s strategy for renewing the UN arms embargo on Iran (for background information, read this earlier ACW report).

Sudan to Send Ambassador to Washington for the First Time in 23 Years. Khartoum announced this week that it would dispatch an ambassador to the United States for the first time since Sudan was designated a state sponsor of terrorism over 20 years ago. Noureldin Sati, an experienced Sudanese diplomat, will be the country’s representative in Washington.

2) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Sanctions Supposed IRGC-Quds Force Front Company and Its Leader. The Treasury Department stated that it has officially designated a dual Iranian-Iraqi citizen, Amir Dianat, for US sanctions for allegedly helping to both generate revenue for and smuggle weapons to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force.

3) Department of Justice

FBI Hints That Israel Interfered in 2016 Election in Favor of Then-Candidate TrumpThe United States has very publicly rebuked Russia for its meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections, but less has been said about the potential influence of other states in US democratic processes. Some reports have sparked questions about the United Arab Emirates’ and Saudi Arabia’s potential interference, but this week a redacted memo from the Federal Bureau of Investigation raises the idea that Israel also interfered in the election to aid then-candidate Donald Trump.

III. Judicial Branch

Court of Appeals Dismisses Case against PA and PLO. In September 2019, ACW provided insight into a lawsuit leveled against the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Since that case was heard, the US Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of the Palestinians, dismissing the case and stating that US courts do not have the jurisdiction to hold the defendants responsible for the violent attack that triggered this lawsuit.

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