Congressional Update – Week Ending April 27, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

H.R. 4681. The House of Representatives passed the No Assistance for Assad Act, which conditions any US aid to Syria on the guarantee that the assistance does not benefit Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The bill was passed under suspended rules––that is, without debate––with overwhelming congressional support in the House.

H.R. 4744. Members in the House also passed the Iran Human Rights and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, as amended, by a vote of 410-2. The bill, should senators vote in favor of it, would levy additional sanctions on members of the Iranian regime for violations of human rights and the taking of hostages.

H.R. 5612. On April 25, Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Illinois) introduced another bill targeting Iran. This bill tasks the secretary of state and the Director of National Intelligence with crafting a report detailing the government of Iran’s expenditures that “support foreign military and terrorist activities.” The bill will move to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) for consideration.

2) Hearings

Grading Counterterrorism Cooperation with the GCC States. On April 26, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittees for the Middle East and North Africa and Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade held a joint hearing to assess how well states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are working to combat the threat of terrorism. Katherine Bauer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, David Weinberg of the Anti-Defamation League, and Leanne Erdberg of the US Institute for Peace testified before the subcommittees.

Many of the subcommittee members and most of the witnesses criticized Qatar for the shortcomings of the GCC’s efforts to combat terrorism financing. Bauer, Weinberg, and, most vociferously, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) criticized Doha for a range of behaviors they characterized as either contributing directly to terrorism or undermining the initiatives of its GCC neighbors in combatting the threat. Ros-Lehtinen went as far as to say that from Syria to Libya to Sudan, Qatar has undermined counterterrorism efforts time and again. Only later were the other GCC states mentioned, with Bauer noting that Saudi Arabia has the most progress to make in pushing back against terrorism financing and the exportation of the extreme religious ideology that, she said, underpins the region’s terror groups.

As for prescriptions to better shore up US-GCC efforts to combat terrorism and terrorism financing, the witnesses all agreed that the GCC crisis should be resolved politically and as soon as possible, and that the security measures taken to counter terrorism must be balanced with countering violent extremism (CVE) programs, diplomacy, and economic cooperation. More specifically, Weinberg also suggested that Congress move to encourage allies to craft and publicize designated terrorist lists if they do not do so already, including groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and any al-Qaeda or Islamic State affiliates that are absent from these lists. Additionally, he urged lawmakers to lean on GCC states to sanction companies that enrich Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), discourage them from paying ransoms to terrorists, and call for more terrorists and terrorist financers to be tried and convicted for their crimes. Weinberg, along with Ros-Lehtinen, also called on Doha to shut down Al Jazeera because of what they consider to be its incitement across the region.

Erdberg concluded with an assessment of the progress that GCC states have made in countering terrorism, as well as a brief list of recommendations for improvement in other areas. As for their successes, Erdberg commended the Gulf States for their work in rehabilitating and reintegrating former terrorists into their communities. Further, she assessed that despite the pessimism displayed by some of her colleagues, many of the GCC states have actually made great strides in combatting terrorism financing and engaging with religious actors in an effort to tone down their more extremist views. Moving forward, though, she suggested that the United States and its allies in the Arabian Gulf deal with terrorism by ensuring that citizens of the region have positive group identities to subscribe to and economic opportunities that can steer at-risk persons away from the propaganda of radical groups. Doing so would also include steps to reform governance and security apparatuses in the GCC states to ensure that their citizens have a sense of security and trust in the government. Erdberg advocated for strategies that empower local religious leaders and women to take active roles in addressing the needs of their communities.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Senate Approves Pompeo. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) barely mustered the votes to send Secretary of State Nominee Mike Pompeo before the full Senate with a favorable recommendation to be confirmed. Though not receiving a favorable nod from the committee would have been an embarrassment for the White House—never has a secretary of state nominee received a minority of affirmative votes of the committee and later been confirmed—Pompeo was likely to be confirmed nonetheless. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) originally vowed to vote against Pompeo in committee, but once he shifted positions, Pompeo’s path was cleared of any hurdles. The Senate confirmed Pompeo to the nation’s top diplomatic post 57-42.

Lawmakers Call on Israel to Grant Access to Gaza. This week, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin)—who help spearhead a previous letter about protests in Gaza—wrote to Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, urging the Israeli government to allow members of Congress into Gaza. Noting that the United States contributes a significant amount of money to support humanitarian causes in the occupied territories, Pocan and colleagues Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) and Dan Kildee (D-Michigan) argued that they should be allowed to visit the Gaza Strip to assess the humanitarian conditions firsthand. Though lawmakers did not address the continued use of live ammunition by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) against unarmed protesters, their words of support were more positive than anything the Trump Administration offered.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

France, Germany Press Trump to Accept a New Deal. This week, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel visited Washington in an effort to win over President Trump’s commitment to uphold the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Macron arrived first, enjoying three days of meetings during which he spoke before a joint meeting of Congress. Though he seemed to flatter Trump often, his speech before Congress appeared to be a rebuke to the president’s foreign policy approach, and he voiced an appeal to maintain the nuclear deal with Iran. He did offer suggestions for how to craft a side deal to address the non-nuclear problems he, Trump, and many others in the international community share regarding Iran’s regional activities. Macron, however, gave a frank assessment of the success of his campaign for staying in the deal: he told reporters that he would “bet” Trump pulls the United States out of the deal. Secretary Mattis, on the other hand, told the senators that no decision was made and that the administration still expects significant changes to the deal. Merkel, for her part, will hold a three-hour bilateral meeting with the US president on Friday to reiterate the Europeans’ position on the deal.

White House Officials Meet with Israeli Defense Minister. On April 26, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt, and Jared Kushner, the White House staffer charged with crafting the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, met with Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman—an anti-Iran hawk who holds extreme, right-wing positions toward the Palestinians—said that he and administration officials saw eye-to-eye on conditions in the Middle East. Speaking directly on Iran, Lieberman opined that the regime in Tehran was nearing its final days in power, and he vowed to strike the Iranian capital should Iran challenge Tel Aviv. Lieberman also met with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who appeared to echo Lieberman’s sentiment about the probability of military conflict with Iran. During a congressional hearing on the defense budget, Mattis warned lawmakers that Israel and Iran seemed to be on a crash course for confrontation, likely in Syria.

Greenblatt Pins Blame on Hamas for Gaza Crisis. Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt said this week that the only real barrier to peace between Israelis and Palestinians was the latter’s “celebration” of violence and unruly behavior at the Gaza-Israel border. Greenblatt—echoing right-wing Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman—pinned blame for the deaths of civilians in Gaza on Hamas, making no mention of the IDF or Israel’s oppressive policies in Gaza.

2) State Department

Ambassador Sales to Visit Jordan. The State Department announced this week that its coordinator for counterterrorism, Ambassador Nathan Sales, will visit Jordan next week after attending a multilateral meeting about combatting terrorism financing in Paris. In Amman, Sales is expected to meet with Jordanian government and security officials to discuss regional cooperation in combatting terrorism.

Newly Confirmed, Pompeo to Visit Middle East. Just hours after he was officially confirmed to lead the State Department, Mike Pompeo departed for Belgium to attend a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members. Afterward, it was announced, the secretary will travel to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Jordan. Secretary Pompeo will use his first trip to craft meaningful relations with his counterparts in those countries and discuss multilateral and bilateral issues of concern with Saudi, Israeli, and Jordanian officials, respectively.

Haley Chastises Hamas. On April 26, US Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley chastised the Palestinian organization Hamas, at a meeting of the UN Security Council, for purportedly using civilians in Gaza as human shields. She was quoted as saying, “Anyone who truly cares about children in Gaza should insist that Hamas immediately stop using children as cannon fodder in its conflict with Israel.”

III. Judicial Branch

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of the Arab Bank. On April 24, the justices of the Supreme Court delivered a 5-4 ruling on a case involving the Arab Bank, which is US ally Jordan’s largest bank. The case—as detailed in an earlier Update—will have major implications for a US law known as the alien tort statute. In practical matters, the ruling says the Arab Bank does not have to pay costly settlements to the victims of terrorist attacks, thus evading the stigma of being seen as a facilitator and/or funder of terrorism. The Arab Bank, aside from being Jordan’s largest bank, operates in nearly 30 countries, including the United States.

Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments on Immigration Lawsuit. The Supreme Court finally heard oral arguments this week about the legality and constitutionality of President Trump’s sweeping executive order barring citizens of eight countries from entering the United States. The “travel ban,” as it is informally known, has been contested since late 2017, but the Supreme Court allowed the order to take effect until the adjudication process ran its course. The government left the one-hour hearing in good spirits, while the plaintiffs and anti-travel ban advocates sensed that the conservative majority members of the court were more sympathetic to allowing the ban to stay in effect. This report has a more nuanced description of the key arguments of the case.

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