Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Condemning Rep. Jayapal for Comments on Palestine. Republican Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (Pennsylvania) introduced H. Res. 431 to condemn his colleague Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) for drawing nuance around the conflict in historic Palestine. Jayapal told CNN, according to the resolution, that the latest round of fighting did not begin with Hamas rockets but with prior events. In addition, she questioned the viability of the two-state solution, all of which Reschenthaler found objectionable.

Iran China Accountability Act. Rep. Bob Good (R-Virginia) introduced H.R. 3465 that would scuttle any future nuclear deal with Iran until it severs ties with China and Hamas. It effectively blocks any US funds from facilitating such an agreement; however, it has little chance of passing the Democratic majority.

Condemning Rise in Anti-Semitism Due to Conflict in Palestine. Republicans on both sides of the Capitol introduced legislation condemning the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in the United States. Rep. Pete Sessions’s (R-Texas) H. Res. 428 condemns the vile acts documented in the United States recently and tied such events directly to the conflict in Israel and Palestine. In the Senate, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) introduced S. Res. 232 to condemn anti-Semitism as well, but he also laid the blame on public officials (i.e., Democrats) who he says spewed poisonous rhetoric about Israel. According to Hawley, pointing out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a questionable record of racism against Palestinian citizens of Israel or that Israeli bombs killed “babies, children and their parents” is incitement to violence. Senator James Risch (R-Idaho) joined the effort and introduced a resolution placing the blame for the spike in anti-Semitic violence on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

Expressing Sense of Congress Regarding Value of Palestinian and Israeli Lives. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) introduced H. Res. 429 that expresses the sense of the House of Representatives that “every Palestinian life matters” and “every Israeli life matters.”

Approval of Proposed Sale to Israel. In response to Senator Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vermont) failed effort to disapprove of and block the $735 million proposed arms sale to Israel, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced a symbolic resolution (S. Res. 237) approving of the sale, despite the fact that no such resolution is necessary for the sale to proceed. The resolution is pointless for the same reason that Senator Sanders backed off his push: the State Department already approved the deal.

Support Designating October 23, 2021 as Day of Recognition of Beirut Bombing. Rep. Greg Pence (R-Indiana) introduced H. Res. 442 to establish October 23, 2021 as a day of remembrance of the 1983 bombing of the US and French barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.

States Have a Say Act. Rep. Mark Green (R-Tennessee) introduced H.R. 3500 to prohibit refugees from being resettled in states that object to receiving refugees. While he raised the issue of refugees and migrants from Central and South America as a main concern in his press release, one only has to look back a few years (during the first exodus of Syrians from Syria) to see that a bill like this—which is unlikely to move forward—could bar citizens of the Arab and Muslim worlds from being resettled in a number of conservative states.

Stop Taxpayer Funding of Hamas Act. Senator Rick Scott (R-Florida) announced that he and his Republican colleagues have introduced legislation to bar Hamas from benefiting from any US funds sent to Gaza to aid in reconstruction and relief efforts. Hamas is a designated terrorist organization in the United States, so it is already illegal for public or private monies to go to the group. However, Senator Scott’s legislation blocks all US funds from going to all of Gaza until the administration certifies its plans to avoid benefiting Hamas and other groups, like Islamic Jihad.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Update on the Progress of Religious Freedom in Sudan. On May 24, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held a virtual event with Sudanese officials to discuss recent efforts by Sudan’s transitional government to promote freedom of religion. USCIRF representatives praised the repeal of laws that violated religious freedoms, which were passed under the previous regime. While commending significant expansions of religious freedoms, they urged Sudan to continue this process by abolishing its blasphemy law. The Sudanese ambassador to the United States, Nureldin Satti, and the minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments, Nasreldin Mufrih, both expressed support for the reforms and condemned previous violations of rights. Due to these developments and the commitments from officials in Khartoum, USCIRF recommended in its 2021 annual report that Sudan be removed from the US Department of State’s Special Watch List for countries with severe religious freedom violations.

The Future of US Policy toward Lebanon. On May 26, the Middle East Institute hosted its inaugural Lebanon Policy Conference virtually and welcomed Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) to discuss current crises in Lebanon and US policy toward the struggling country. Kaine expressed his concern about conditions in Lebanon and condemned the government’s incompetence and corruption. He recommended that the United States continue its support for the Lebanese Armed Forces, press for the formation of a new government, and ensure parliamentary elections take place in May 2022. Kaine advocated for US assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon and for conditioning aid that would help to alleviate Lebanon’s financial problems and to incentivize reform. He also said the United States should work through humanitarian and international nongovernmental organizations operating in Lebanon. All of this must be done, according to Kaine, without inadvertently empowering Hezbollah.

Rebalancing US Security Engagement with Arab States. On May 26, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a virtual discussion on US-Arab relations with Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut). In his remarks, Murphy argued that US policy in the Middle East and its relationships with Gulf allies are outdated and static despite significant recent developments in the region. To adapt to these changes, Murphy advocated for the “de-securitization” of US policy in the region. He proposed closing some US bases there, which he said legitimize authoritarian regimes and are used as justification for recruitment by adversarial organizations. He also recommended a reevaluation of the US drone program, which he said has worsened Washington’s reputation among the region’s populations. Murphy showed support for a potential reconsideration of US-Gulf security relations that the Biden Administration might undertake.

Review of FY22 USAID Budget Request. This week, US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power appeared before both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees to explore President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2022 budget request that was released on May 28. As an aside, Power noted that President Biden elevated the USAID Administrator position to be a standing member of the National Security Council, highlighting the importance this administration places on development and assistance programs.

As for policy specifics, Power told both panels that some of her main priorities include carrying out the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, helping to stabilize and rebuild Gaza in the wake of Israel’s recent bombing campaign, and centering women’s rights and concerns in US development priorities around the globe, including in the Middle East.

FY22 Department of Defense Budget. On May 27, the House Committee on Appropriations held a hearing on the Department of Defense budget for the 2022 fiscal year. During the hearing, Iran was frequently referenced as a security threat to the United States and, in her opening statement, Chairwoman Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Connecticut) described Iran as a unique challenge to US forces. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III stated that the proposed budget will assist in efforts to counter Iran’s increasing missile capabilities. Austin also said that the budget will fund US troop presence and counterterrorism capabilities in the Middle East to address threats posed by the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers Write to Biden Administration on Yemen, Lebanon. Democratic lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol have written to the Biden Administration recently to push the White House to act on particular issues. First, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and 24 of his colleagues sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for immediate US action to provide assistance to the Lebanese people and avoid the country’s complete economic collapse. In the Senate, 16 members of the Democratic caucus sent a letter urging the White House to pressure Saudi Arabia to end its blockade of Yemen.

House Republicans Pan US Policy in Op-eds. Two House Republicans—Claudia Tenney of New York and Carlos Gimenez of Florida—took to the pages of the Washington Examiner to criticize what they consider to be failures in Democratic Party foreign policy positions. Tenney wrote that Biden’s policies are weakening US standing in the Middle East and called for an immediate end to all nuclear deal talks. Gimenez called for a return to bipartisan support for Israel, citing the Democrats’ criticism of Israeli government policies.

4) Nominations

SFRC Moves Jenkins for Arms Control Chief, White House Submits Treasury Names. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to approve Bonnie Jenkins as the State Department’s lead overseeing arms control issues. Despite some Republican opposition, this development bodes well for her chances of winning nomination. In the meantime, President Biden submitted a slate of new nominations, including naming two officials to serve at the Treasury Department. Brian Nelson and Elizabeth “Liz” Rosenberg have been tapped to serve as Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence and Assistant Secretary for Terrorism Financing, respectively. Both will be charged with formulating and executing efforts to combat terrorism through sanctions, many of which are aimed at Middle East state and non-state actors like Iran and the Islamic State. In addition to these efforts, President Biden reportedly decided to nominate Thomas “Tom” Nides to serve as the next ambassador to Israel, pending confirmation.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden, NSA Sullivan Speak with Arab Officials. In the wake of an Egypt-brokered cease-fire in Gaza, President Biden spoke with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to thank him for Cairo’s engagement and to discuss other regional developments. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also took time to speak with Sayyid Munthir of the Omani Royal Office regarding Muscat’s continued diplomatic efforts to end the fighting in Yemen.

Past Biden Staffers Write in Support of Palestinian Rights. Five hundred staffers who worked to help get Biden elected last year wrote to the president urging him to abandon status-quo policies toward Israel and Palestine and take concrete steps to promote and protect Palestinian rights and end Israel’s occupation. The letter specifically criticizes the fact that Israel uses US aid to imprison and torture Palestinian children. Nevertheless, the administration stood firm in recent comments, saying that it will not consider conditioning military aid or withholding arms from Israel.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken, Special Envoy Lenderking Visit Region. In the wake of the cease-fire deal reached between Hamas and Israel, Secretary of State Blinken jetted off to Israel for meetings with a host of Israeli and Palestinian officials and civil society representatives. In Israel, Blinken met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi—and, while the State Department did not publicize it, apparently he also met with Israel’s de facto opposition leader Yair Lapid. Blinken spoke about the recent hostilities and expressed ongoing US support for Israel’s “right to defend itself.” With Rivlin and Netanyahu, Blinken also noted, to varying degrees, the rise in anti-Semitism around the globe, threats posed by Iran, and efforts aimed at securing regional peace between Israel and Arab states.

After those visits, Blinken traveled to Ramallah, West Bank, where he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as well as representatives of Palestinian civil society. With Abbas, Blinken spoke about the need to uphold the tenets of the two-state solution, and he announced that the United States will be increasing assistance to Palestinians and reopening its consulate in Jerusalem to thaw direct US-Palestinian relations. Blinken also cited meeting with civil society actors as another way to deepen ties between the United States and Palestine. After leaving Ramallah, the secretary traveled to Cairo where he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and then departed for Jordan, where he met with King Abdullah II. Both visits involved discussions of bilateral relations and the efforts Egypt and Jordan have taken to broker peace between Israel and Palestine.

Aside from in-person meetings, Secretary Blinken also held a host of calls with regional and international leaders. He spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, and Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud about bilateral relations and their roles in supporting the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Lastly, Secretary Blinken held a phone call with UN Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace Tor Wennesland to discuss the vital humanitarian assistance needed by Palestinians in the ravaged Gaza Strip.

Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking departed for Saudi Arabia and Oman, where he is expected to meet with officials to help prevent a prolonged siege of Marib by Yemen’s Houthi rebels and take all steps possible to alleviate the humanitarian suffering facing the Yemeni people.

US Holds Joint Conference with Lebanon. The State Department announced that it inaugurated an annual Defense Resourcing Conference with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Officials of both countries met and the United States ultimately agreed to provide $120 million in foreign military financing to the LAF, a $15 million increase from last fiscal year.

State Says No Caesar Exemption for Oil Company in Syria, No to Syrian Elections. The Biden Administration ventured into Syria policy last week. According to a report, it is leaning toward declining to approve an extension of sanctions waivers to a small US oil company operating in northeastern Syria. The US law known as the Caesar Act places sanctions on the production of oil and other activities that might benefit the Assad regime or other nefarious actors in Syria, unless the US Treasury grants waivers. Until now, the company has been granted waivers to extract oil, but the Biden Administration does not like the appearance that it is in Syria “only for the oil,” as former President Donald Trump once said, so the administration is looking to end the US company’s ability to operate in the country. In addition, the United States joined the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany in condemning the Assad regime’s sham presidential election this week and calling for adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Commander Tours Middle East. General Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, traveled to the Middle East last week where he met with officials of Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia about issues relevant to their respective governments.

III. Judicial Branch

US Appellate Court Hears Case on AMP Liability for 1996 Attack. A court case in the Seventh Circuit of the US Court of Appeals is moving forward this week and it involves a number of defunct organizations accused of materially supporting Hamas. In 2004, a court judgment ruled that the family of David Boim, who was killed in the West Bank in 1996, could collect some $156 million from groups found to have provided support to Hamas, the group that is said to have carried out the attack that killed Boim. This current case, however, targets the group American Muslims for Palestine (AMP); the Boim family says it should be able to collect the $156 million sum from AMP because it alleges that AMP is an offshoot of groups found responsible in the 2004 ruling, and that it also provides support to Hamas.

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