Congressional Update – Week Ending February 23, 2018

I. Congress

Members of Congress were in recess and had the week off, so there were no hearings or legislation to note. Both chambers will be in session next week.

Congressional Delegations. Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce (R-California) and Rep. Paul Cook (R-California) led a congressional delegation visit to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates this week. In Egypt, the representatives met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and other top officials, but it does not appear that the two met with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Royce and Cook lauded Egypt as a security partner in its fight against extremists and encouraged the regime to embrace economic and civil reforms, but it is unclear how hard—if at all—the two pressed Egyptian leaders on the country’s human rights record. The same goes for the delegation’s visit to Riyadh, where they met with Saudi officials—including King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Interior Minister Abdulaziz bin Saud Al Saud—to discuss economic reform, security developments, and the war in Yemen. Royce applauded the Saudis’ recent efforts to loosen their blockade of Yemeni ports and, while he urged the government to allow even more humanitarian aid, he was noticeably reluctant to lay any of the blame for the humanitarian catastrophe at the feet of Riyadh. In the United Arab Emirates, the delegation discussed regional developments and other areas of mutual interest with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba, and other Emirati officials.

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) teamed up to lead a bipartisan Senate delegation to the region this week. The delegation—which included Senators Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire), and Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nevada)—first visited Jordan, followed by a trip to Jerusalem. In Jordan, the delegation met with King Abdullah II and other officials to discuss regional security. Opining about a recent memorandum of understanding between the United States and Jordan, Graham and Coons told officials that the agreed-to $6 billion of aid through 2022 was probably only the minimum and that total assistance would likely exceed that amount.

In Jerusalem, the senators met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss US-Israel relations and mutual security concerns in the region. Though the senators went out of their way to trumpet relations between the two sides, Graham and Coons were also adamant that Israel should make it a point to work to improve relations with Jordan because it is also a crucial ally in the region. The senators were not alone in their delegation visit to Jerusalem. Congressmen David McKinley (R-West Virginia) and Scott Tipton (R-Colorado) were also in the Holy City—even being questioned briefly at the holy sites—and they both met with Netanyahu as well. Interestingly, the two reportedly visited Hebron (known in Arabic as al-Khalil) in the West Bank; a congressional staffer noted that the two were in the city to “attend a seminar focusing on an overview of the shared city” and to pay a visit to the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The largest city in the occupied West Bank, Hebron is a flashpoint in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis due to the large military and settler presence in the occupied city. In addition, the parity there between the conditions for Palestinians and those of the illegal settlers is most pronounced. The members of the evangelical and pro-Israel groups that sponsored the trip typically view the land through the “greater Israel” lens. If recruiting members of the US Congress to join these trips is seen by Palestinians and others in the international community as legitimizing what most of the world considers an illegal occupation, this could have further adverse effects on any neutral mediation role for the United States.

Executive Correspondence. This week, a Department of Defense official wrote to Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia)—a vocal advocate for congressional authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF)—to notify him of the Trump Administration’s decision on the US military presence in Iraq and Syria. Critics of the last two presidents’ decisions to use force and station troops in Syria and Iraq argue that their decisions bypass the constitutional requirement that Congress formally extends to any such authority. Instead, the Trump Administration is arguing that it is allowed to continue to operate on the basis of two AUMFs that were approved by Congress in 2001 and 2002. This will likely infuriate many in the Senate, possibly prompting the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to take action on AUMF proposals that have thus far stalled in committee.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trouble Brewing in the Trump Administration? This week, many reports suggested that a shakeup was imminent in the West Wing. Following weeks of apparent infighting about Chief of Staff John Kelly’s management of staff—including what to do about President Trump’s son-in-law and chief advisor on Israel-Palestine peace plans, Jared Kushner, who cannot receive a permanent security clearance—Kelly could soon resign. In addition, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster frequently clashes with the president and is reportedly considering transitioning out of the White House and back to the Pentagon. This would be a blow to an already chaotic administration and Trump would lose one of only a few respected foreign policy minds on the team. Though he sometimes sides with administration hardliners, McMaster is generally thought to be a moderating factor, particularly when it comes to issues regarding Iran and other conflicts in the Middle East. If he leaves or is forced out, many suspect that Trump could tap Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo to be McMaster’s successor. The president reportedly considered a similar move last summer, and the idea has resurfaced as Kelly finds himself drawing Trump’s ire more frequently. Pompeo already has a good relationship with Trump and frequently delivers the presidential briefing himself, which is unusual for a CIA director. Pompeo could be a similarly moderating force for Trump, should he find himself in that position, but the question would be if their relationship would remain favorable once Pompeo starts to regularly deliver news that Trump does not like.

2) State Department

Trump Administration Considering Dismissing Anti-IS Envoy. The Trump team is considering scuttling yet another diplomatic position in the near future, this time dissolving the special envoy position appointed to represent the United States in the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition. Brett McGurk, the current envoy, has acted as liaison between the White House and foreign allies participating in the coalition. What is unclear is the kind of diplomatic engagement the United States will have in Iraq or Syria after IS if this position is eliminated, especially as the Syria envoy role remains unfilled.

Israel-Lebanon Mediation Efforts Are Foundering. Acting Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs David Satterfield continued his efforts to mediate a maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon this week, but little seems to have been accomplished. Lebanon has soundly rejected many of the preexisting offers the United States proposed, and recently, the rhetoric between Lebanese and Israeli officials has grown to be more inflammatory. The issue stems from an unresolved dispute between the two coastal countries centering on a section of the Mediterranean that is thought to be rich in natural gas. While Israel prefers diplomatic efforts spearheaded by the United States, Lebanon has sought a UN-led process similar to what unfolded during Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. It is noteworthy that the Trump Administration’s unabashed support for Israel in other international arenas may be further compromising Washington’s reputation as an “honest broker” in the diverse and critical issues of the region.

3) Cabinet

UN Ambassador Trades Barbs with PA President. This week, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech before the United Nations Security Council, calling on the international community to assist the Palestinians in negotiating with Israel, instead of just relying on the United States. Abbas, whose PA has boycotted the Trump Administration since the latter’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, gave the speech with Jared Kushner, peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in attendance. Haley rejected the idea of establishing an international framework to facilitate peace, saying that the international community is biased against Israel. Haley also lambasted Abbas for what she said was poor leadership and an unwillingness to seek peace with Israel. Many observers were quick to point out that Haley’s lengthy and fiery response to Abbas’s speech neglected any mention of Israel’s military occupation, a two-state solution, or settlements, arguing that the lecture only reinforces the ideas that the United States is not a fair arbitrator of the decades-long conflict, nor do its leaders understand what many consider as legitimate Palestinian grievances. As of now, it does not appear that the PA and the Trump Administration are any closer to working together again soon, especially as reports suggest that GOP mega donor Sheldon Adelson has offered to bankroll the US embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and that Trump and his team are considering the proposal. This offer comes as the administration makes plans to open a temporary embassy in Jerusalem in May. Such a move will be particularly unpopular for Palestinians because the embassy opening would coincide with the 70th anniversary of the 1948 nakba and the mass expulsion of Palestinians from historic Palestine.

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