Congressional Update – Week Ending July 20, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act. On July 17, the full House of Representatives voted to adopt H.R. 3030, as amended, in an effort to prevent cases of genocide and other crimes against humanity. As outlined earlier, this bill seeks to elevate the prevention of genocide and other crimes against humanity as a leading goal of US foreign policy.

Renegotiating the Return of the Iraqi Jewish Archive to Iraq. On July 18, Republican Senators Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania) and Marco Rubio (Florida) introduced S. Res. 577, which garnered the support of Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer (New York) and Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut). This nonbinding resolution would call on the Trump Administration to renegotiate the return of the Iraqi Jewish Archive, which has been cared for by the US National Archives since it was discovered in the flooded basement of Iraq’s intelligence headquarters in Baghdad after the US invasion in 2003. Originally, the National Archives was to restore the collection of artifacts, and their safe return could be agreed upon at a later date (originally slated for 2014). At that time, Congress urged the Obama Administration to renegotiate the return of the archive; the State Department ultimately agreed to return it to Baghdad in September 2018. Now, however, citing the costs of restoring the work ($3 million, according to the resolution’s text) and fearing that Jews of Iraqi descent and other Jewish scholars who may have an interest in viewing it will not have access to the collection if its returned to Baghdad, the Senate is asking the State Department to renegotiate the return timeline for the Jewish Archive.

S. 3243. On July 19, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) introduced a bill that seeks to levy more sanctions on Iranian citizens. This bill would “impose sanctions with respect to Iranian persons who engage in politically-motivated harassment, abuse, extortion, or extended detention or trial of individuals in Iran.” The bill garnered no cosponsors at introduction, but it will be referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) for consideration.

2) Hearings

A New Horizon in US-Israel Relations: From an American Embassy in Jerusalem to Potential Recognition of Israeli Sovereignty Over the Golan Heights. On July 17, the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing to probe the possibility of the United States officially recognizing Israeli sovereignty over what has historically been considered the occupied Golan Heights. (Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the June 1967 war and has occupied the territory since that time.) To debate that question, the subcommittee hosted Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Dore Gold, Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University, Daniel Kurtzer of Princeton University, and Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America.

The majority of the witnesses agreed with the subcommittee chaired by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida) that the United States should recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Advocates cite a litany of reasons for doing so including national security, strategic defense, and international law. Morton Klein also pointed to religious reasons and to treaties and agreements from the early decades of the 20th century. Kurtzer was the lone dissenting voice and argued that recognizing the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory makes little sense at this juncture because it would not satisfy any pressing US national security concerns and because such a recognition would not materially enhance Israeli security. In fact, Kurtzer argued that in a region marked by chaos and conflict, such a move would simply prove to be a distraction at a time when the United States and its allies could ill afford one. In addition, for the United States to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan could strip Syria of any incentive to negotiate a peace treaty with Israel in the future—once Syria is rebuilt and returns to functioning as a normal state.

Ultimately, most analysts inside and outside the government would counsel the White House against recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. President Trump, however, was delighted with the positive press he received from supporters when he ignored conventional wisdom and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, so there is reason to believe he could do so again.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Sen. Van Hollen Discusses US Leadership in the Middle East. On July 16, Maryland’s junior Senator Chris Van Hollen (D) gave the keynote address at the Wilson Center’s annual Haleh Esfandiari Forum. He was tapped to discuss the topic of protecting US leadership at a time when the Trump Administration appears keen to disengage from the role the United States has held since the end of World War II. Senator Van Hollen was very pointed in his assessment of US global leadership, saying he has never been more alarmed about the waning confidence in Washington in capitals across the globe. The crux of the senator’s message was the following: Congress has to be a check on the executive branch and take the reins from the White House which has neglected its traditional duties in asserting global leadership.

Van Hollen’s message applied to US foreign policy writ large, but he spoke at length about how Congress should lead on policy related to the Middle East. First, he outlined the ways that the White House has exacerbated problems in the region. He criticized the Trump Administration for failing to protect key allies in Syria (e.g., the Syrian Kurds), abandoning European allies by abrogating the Iran nuclear deal, and undercutting US credibility in the region by ceding recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without extracting any concessions in return. When pressed on specific actions that members of Congress should explore, the senator suggested that Congress first and foremost pass an updated authorization for the use of military force that gives the president the authority to continue combatting groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS), but one that constrains this and future administrations from having a blank check to use force anywhere in the world under the guise of national security. Further, he said that Congress should take steps to ensure the United States has the necessary resources to finish off IS in Syria, but that Congress should also ensure the United States keeps its commitments to protecting the Syrian Kurds. Finally, Van Hollen argued that Congress should be more assertive in condemning Saudi Arabia’s execution of its war on Yemen. He said the United States must hold the Saudis and their coalition partners accountable and ensure that those countries are playing a constructive role in bringing an end to the brutal conflict.

Menendez, Engel Express Concern Regarding Trump’s Posture Toward Syria. Before President Donald Trump convened his bilateral meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a joint statement expressing their concern about Trump’s posture regarding Russia’s role in Syria. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) said they feared President Trump would offer unilateral concessions to Putin that would allow Russia a freer hand to consolidate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s power and which would also afford Iran more space to entrench its presence in Syria.

Syria Caucus Urges More US Military Involvement at a Time Pentagon Seeks Smaller Role. Late on July 13, members of the Friends of a Free, Democratic, and Stable Syria wrote to members of the Trump Administration urging them to establish “no-fly” zones in southern Syria. Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) and Brendan Boyle (D-Pennsylvania) sent the letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. In addition, the two Congressmen asked that the Department of Defense refrain from decreasing any US presence in Syria, particularly by forfeiting the US Forward Operating Bases located within Syrian territory. These requests come at a time when the Department of Defense, which lacks a broader strategy for the Syrian conflict other than defeating IS, is looking to reduce its forces and give up on previous policy goals like enforcing cease-fire or de-escalation zones in Syria.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Greenblatt, Kushner, and Friedman Pen Op-Ed to Criticize Hamas. The Special Envoy for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, joined forces with White House Advisor Jared Kushner and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to write an op-ed pillorying Gaza’s Hamas and blaming all the suffering of Palestinians in the besieged territory on the Palestinians themselves. The op-ed—ostensibly aimed at turning attention toward the supposed misdeeds of Hamas— focuses on US aid and funding to Gaza. However, it failed to mention the land, air, and sea blockade of Gaza since 2007.

2) State Department

Pompeo Meets with UN Envoy to Yemen. Secretary Pompeo met with the United Nations’ Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, Martin Griffiths. The two reportedly spoke at length about the envoy’s outreach efforts to the parties to the conflict in Yemen in order to construct a workable plan for ending the brutal fighting. Griffiths was appointed to the position at the beginning of 2018 and has since worked to engage all sides of the fighting.

3) US Ambassador to United Nations

Nikki Haley Decries UN Human Rights Council, NGOs. On July 18, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley spoke at an event in Washington titled “US Withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council: Impact and Next Steps.” The event took place nearly one month after Haley and Secretary Pompeo made the announcement that the United States would no longer be party to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), citing its perceived bias toward Israel. She argued that the UNHRC has actually become a “bully pulpit for human rights violators” and not a “place of conscience.” Nonetheless, Haley asserted that much of her dissatisfaction with the council is its positions toward Israel, saying that “Agenda Item Seven [“Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”] is not directed at anything Israel does. It is directed at the very existence of Israel.”

For these reasons and the United States’ inability to gain significant reform guarantees from the UNHRC, Haley argued that Washington was justified in abandoning the body. She did not note that, since the United States joined the UNHRC under the Obama Administration, the number of resolutions criticizing Israel decreased significantly, a fact that flatly contradicts Haley’s point that the strategy of reforming the council from the inside had failed. While many conservative supporters of the administration—in tandem with critics of the UNHRC—applauded Haley’s speech, others offered more sober critiques of her presentation. Indeed, aside from omitting the statistic that illustrates the positive effect the United States can have in the council, she hardly—if at all—mentioned the strong cases where US leadership did, in fact, bring to the council’s attention serious human rights abuses (e.g., regarding Syria, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka). Additionally, Haley criticized a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for speaking out against the administration’s reform efforts. Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were specifically singled out by Haley because they were skeptical about her and the administration’s efforts to reform the UNHRC. These and other NGOs urged caution in the administration’s reform efforts, arguing that they could do more harm than good by opening up the “Council’s institutional framework at the General Assembly

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