Congressional Update – Week Ending March 9, 2018

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual conference this week in Washington, DC. Members of Congress and Trump Administration officials attended and gave speeches before what is considered to be the most influential pro-Israel lobby. In total, 33 members of Congress were scheduled to speak, alongside top officials like Vice President Mike Pence and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

I. Congress

1) Legislation

S. 720. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) released new legislative language for the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, claiming to have added adjustments to alleviate concerns about negative effects on Americans’ constitutional rights under the first amendment. While the updated version is demonstrably different—including removing mention of any prison sentences as possible punishment for breaking this law—outside observers argue it does little to alleviate the basic unconstitutionality of the bill. Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) penned a letter detailing that point to the senators who wrote the bill and to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate committee that holds jurisdiction over the legislation. The ACLU concluded that should the legislation become law, it would consider initiating legal challenges to the bill’s legitimacy. Nonetheless, it appears that senators may move to vote on the bill, which has garnered 54 cosponsors, particularly after this week’s AIPAC conference in which passing this legislation was proclaimed as a top priority for the year.

S. 2497. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) introduced a bill this week mirroring one introduced in the House last week by his colleague, Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. S. 2497, like its counterpart H.R. 5141, would offer a host of security assistance to Israel, going above and beyond what the United States already provides. The bill was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) for consideration.

S. J. Res. 55. Senator Todd Young (R-Indiana) joined a group of senators looking to hold the Trump Administration accountable for the United States’ involvement in the Saudi-led military campaign against rebels in Yemen. The joint resolution, which would be legally binding if it is adopted, would require the Trump Administration to provide certifications on specific Saudi actions in Yemen. Though the text has not been released, US military assistance to the Saudis would ostensibly be contingent on satisfactory certifications that they were not carrying out actions that contravene international laws governing the use of force and the rules of war. The legislation was referred to the SFRC for consideration.

2) Correspondence and Personnel

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Set to Retire. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee, announced he will retire effective April 1. Citing ongoing health concerns, Cochran will leave his post shortly after the final government funding legislation takes effect. Next in line for the chair, based on seniority, is Alabama Senator Richard Shelby. Shelby is widely expected to operate much like Cochran did, but, hailing from a state that is highly dependent on the military for jobs, Shelby could funnel even more money toward the Department of Defense in the coming years.

House Members Seek Investigation into Al Jazeera. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill sent Attorney General Jeff Sessions a letter this week urging him to open an investigation into the Arab world’s largest media entity, Al Jazeera. The combination of Republican and Democratic House members, plus one GOP senator, tried to make the case that Al Jazeera is essentially a foreign agent of the Qatari government and should have to register as such. This stems from a previously anticipated release of a documentary about the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, something that could cast negative light on some lawmakers.

3) Hearings

National Security Challenges and US Military Activities in Africa. On March 6, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) held a hearing to interview the commander of the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), General Thomas Waldhauser. AFRICOM oversees military activities for the entire continent, save for Egypt, which is in the jurisdiction of Central Command. Because Africa is such a vast continent, only portions of the hearing were directly relevant to Arab affairs, and the general divided his assessments by region. For the purpose of this update, only the East African (as it relates to Arab League states Djibouti and Somalia) and North African (as it relates to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) regions will be noted.

From a security and counterterrorism perspective, Somalia and Libya are AFRICOM’s major concerns in African Arab states. Indeed, the general noted that the US military is actively involved in training and assisting Somali security forces in combatting extremist groups like al-Shabaab and Somalia’s branch of the so-called Islamic State. Djibouti has proven a crucial partner in this regard and the United States operates from a safer military base there. Due to the poor security situation and a lack of a unified, capable security unit, the United States does not operate inside Libya, though it runs a wide-scale drone campaign. Instead, AFRICOM efforts center more on assisting Libya’s neighbors like Tunisia and Algeria to maintain their security and combat extremist groups that may cross Libya’s porous borders. Morocco receives a lot of US attention as well, the general said, because its security service is very competent—so much so that the United States views it as a “net exporter of security” and depends on its help to patrol and secure neighboring states.

Worldwide Threats. On the same day, the HASC’s counterpart in the Senate convened to hear testimony from two top intelligence officials in the Trump Administration regarding their worldwide threat assessments. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates and Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lieutenant General Robert Ashley offered similar testimonies as they previously did before the Senate Intelligence Committee. However, it is worth noting that Coates elevated his concerns about the burgeoning role of Russia in Libya; he also echoed AFRICOM’s General Waldhauser’s worries about Somalia.

Roundtable Discussion with Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem. Also on March 6, the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, which has jurisdiction over State Department decisions affecting US embassies, held a less formal discussion with the current mayor of Jerusalem. The chairman of the subcommittee, Ron DeSantis (R-Florida), and Mayor Nir Barkat spoke at length about the reasons the United States should move its embassy to Jerusalem and tried to dispel notions that opening the embassy (scheduled for May of this year) would cause an uptick in violence or outrage from those living in the occupied Palestinian territories.

4) Appropriations

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Kentucky)—chairs of their respective chambers’ subcommittees overseeing funding for the State Department—said this week that they were close to finishing a deal that reconciles differences between their separate appropriations bills. Graham’s bill (S. 1780) allocates over $51 billion dollars to the State Department, US Agency for International Development, and other relevant agencies. Rogers’s version (H.R. 3362), on the other hand, offers about $4 billion less, a number Graham has indicated he is not comfortable with. Given the value Graham puts on foreign aid, as well as an elevated spending cap for non-defense items, the final funding bill will likely hew closer to Graham’s expectations, if not exceed them.

The two have not offered many details about their compromises thus far, but Graham did mention one caveat this week. He was cited as saying that the Taylor Force Act the House passed last year could be included in the funding legislation. Depending on which chamber had its way, the United States would withhold funding from the Palestinian Authority (PA) until it ceases providing financial assistance to families or to individuals who are arrested or killed by Israeli forces, with the House version offering exclusions for institutions offering critical aid and services. This has become a controversial issue for lawmakers because the PA does not distinguish between Palestinians who are killed or arrested on the basis of their involvement in violent acts and those who are otherwise swept up in the Israeli military’s judicial system. Due to this lack of distinction, lawmakers claim that the PA is offering Palestinians money and aid to commit “acts of terror” against Israelis, and those on Capitol Hill have mobilized in recent years to withhold US aid from the Palestinian governing body.

Senator Graham and Representative Rogers have little time to hash out all the details as senior GOP lawmakers in the House have indicated they hope to vote on the $1.3 trillion omnibus (i.e., 12 individual spending bills combined into a single piece of legislation) as early as next week.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Gulf Drama Reaches Trump Administration. Fallout from the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis appears to have reached the inner offices of the White House. It is reported that President Trump’s top aide, Jared Kushner, may be under investigation for alleged attempts to use his proximity to the president to benefit his private business dealings. US media outlets have reported that Kushner supposedly endorsed the Saudi-led bloc’s decision to boycott neighboring Qatar after he was rebuffed by a wealthy Qatari citizen in a bid to secure financing toward a business project. While the allegations are still being investigated, their very existence does not bode well for Kushner’s standing in the White House. Trump’s son-in-law has had his temporary top-secret security clearance revoked and he is starting to run afoul of Chief of Staff John Kelly. Whether the saga ends in Kushner’s dismissal is difficult to predict, but he will be hard-pressed to be successful in finding effective solutions to any of his projects—be it solving the Israel-Palestine conflict or overseeing US relations with the Gulf States—while he is under heightened scrutiny.

To make matters worse, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly secured cooperation from Lebanese journalist, businessman, and advisor to the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), George Nader, in his probe into the Trump campaign. Nader is of interest because of his ties to the UAE, which was recently accused of discussing how to manipulate Kushner in order to gain preferential treatment with the new administration. Mueller is apparently investigating a meeting that Nader tried to facilitate between UAE officials and people close to both the Trump team and the Russian government. In addition, there is speculation that Nader could have facilitated money transfers from Emirati officials to the Trump campaign, which, if proven true, would constitute a crime. It is noteworthy that in 2012, Nader brokered a multibillion-dollar arms deal between the Russian government and Iraq.

Trump Reportedly Asking for Military Options to Confront Syrian Regime. Following yet another report of the use of chemical weapons in Syria by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, President Trump reportedly asked his top advisors to present him with viable military options for pushing back against the Syrian government. Trump took similar measures last year after a chemical attack on the city of Aleppo, but it appears that the president is hoping to monitor the situation longer before he decides on any potential attacks.

Envoy Charged with Brokering Peace Blasts Palestinian Group. On March 8, President Trump’s special envoy tasked with brokering a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, Jason Greenblatt, penned an op-ed blasting Hamas and blaming it for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. His attack may not be acknowledged by those outside the United States and Israel because Hamas enjoys considerable support among Palestinians and has an organized structure of governance. More alarming, however, is how little responsibility—in fact, none whatsoever—Greenblatt attributes to the longstanding blockade and siege of Gaza by Israel. This will likely just further obviate any legitimacy the United States has as an “honest broker” in the eyes of the 1.8 million Palestinians living in the difficult conditions of Gaza.

2) Departments of State and Defense

Interdepartmental Agency Approves New Military Deals. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency reported to Congress this week that the Departments of State and Defense have approved two individual military deals totaling around $467 million. Qatar is seeking nearly $200 million in upgrades to equipment and support for its air force, while the balance has been approved for the United Arab Emirates to purchase both lethal and training missiles as well as tactical guidance equipment. Though there are still many steps that must be met before either country receives its weapons or support, this is an important step that, until recently, was not even being considered because Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) was effectively wielding a veto over any arms deal to GCC states because of their ongoing crisis. Now that the senator has relented, though, it is possible that the GCC states will again turn to the United States for their weapons needs.

III. Judicial Branch

More Anti-BDS Legislation Being Challenged in Court. Arizona State University has been sued due to its campus prohibition against participating in BDS activities. As mentioned before, the ACLU has already notified Congress it could challenge any federal laws infringing on the right to participate in political boycotts, but one group is already challenging a state law on that point. The Council on American-Islamic Relations’ legal defense fund filed the suit on behalf of a student group at Arizona State University that had arranged to host a pro-Palestinian Muslim speaker on campus. In order to complete the request, the group and the speaker were required by the university to sign an agreement stating, among other things, that they do not engage in a political boycott of Israel. Because they refused to sign such a statement, the university is signaling the group will not be allowed to host the event next month. The university’s agreement included the statement about boycotts in order to abide by the state’s anti-BDS law that passed in 2016. This is at least the second legal challenge to the state’s law—among other challenges around the country—and both lawsuits are seeking to have the law overturned as an infringement of the first amendment guarantee of free speech.

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