Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

National Defense Authorization Act. This week, the House of Representatives passed its version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with bipartisan majority support (295-125). A previous ACW report detailed general provisions on the House NDAA but, on final passage, the House adopted a spate of additional measures relevant to the Middle East. Democratic Reps. Ro Khanna and Ted Lieu of California both shepherded through amendments (amendment numbers 21 and 22) that would require reports on US support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen and Washington’s policy toward Yemen more generally.

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona) successfully included an amendment expressing the importance of the US-Israeli relationship (amendment 44) while Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) introduced amendments in support of Sudan’s transitional government and to help reduce harm to civilians in Somalia by security forces and international militaries

(amendments 126 and 129). Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska) was able to include an amendment (137) that expresses the sense of Congress that Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia must come to a just agreement on their dispute over Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project.

The NDAA also includes provisions relevant to Turkey and Egypt. The House agreed to provisions that would require the Trump Administration to make a determination regarding when it will sanction Turkey for its purchase of the S-400 missile system, as required under law (amendment 205). Furthermore, Turkey could potentially be affected by a provision that sanctions any entity that supports Russia’s energy projects in Europe and Asia, including Ankara’s TurkStream gas pipeline. As for Egypt, its fortunes are mixed in this fiscal year’s NDAA. One provision (amendment 240) requires the secretary of state to provide a “report on incidents of arbitrary detention of [US] citizens and their family members who are not [US] citizens” that could result in a suspension of US security assistance to Egypt. However, another provision (amendment 315) would authorize the Department of Defense to transfer two guided missile frigates to Egypt, if certain conditions are met.  Lastly, there are a handful of amendments that, should they be included in the final law, would have implications for states in the region. Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) successfully added an amendment (113) that, as ACW previously reported, would recognize oppressive government surveillance as a human rights abuse. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) also ushered through an amendment (122) that includes the language of the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act detailed in previous ACW reports. The nuclear ambitions of Saudi Arabia and Iran would potentially be curbed by the House’s prohibition (amendment 346) on US cooperation with states that refuse to sign what is known colloquially as a “123 agreement.” Reps. Bryan Steil (R-Wisconsin) and Stephen Lynch (D-Massachusetts) each secured amendments (365 and 237, respectively) related to Iraq, with the former seeking a report of Iran-backed militias in Iraq while the latter asking for more accountability for private contractors operating in Iraq and Syria.

The Senate, as of this publication, is still working to amend and pass its version, and it is certain to have the necessary votes. However, there are several notable differences between the two chambers’ bills, and this means the NDAA is most likely going to be referred to a conference committee to hash out a compromise bill.

Urging Turkey to Respect the Rights and Religious Freedoms of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) introduced H. Res. 1050 calling on Turkey to respect the rights of the Eastern Orthodox Church and to allow it to operate and practice freely in the country. As the resolution makes clear, multiple Turkish governments have hindered the body’s ability to recruit and train clergy and Turkey has failed to recognize the patriarchate’s international status.

NO BAN Act. On July 22, the House of Representatives passed, along partisan lines, legislation known as the NO BAN Act. The text of H.R. 2214, detailed in previous reports (here and here), was added as an amendment to another bill and will go back to the Senate for consideration where the Republican majority will likely scuttle it. Nonetheless, House Democrats are on the record as having tried to overturn the Trump Administration’s draconian immigration laws that have harmed countless numbers of would-be immigrants, including millions from Arab and Muslim-majority states. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) presided over the final passage of the bill.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Tlaib Talks Palestine, Israel in Local Interview. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) is one of the most outspoken progressives on Capitol Hill. This has consistently made her a target, especially by those who ascribe to a traditional view of US congressional support for Israel. In a recent interview with an outlet in her district, Tlaib discussed her views on Palestine, Israel, and the long-standing conflict and struggle of Palestinians against Israel’s US-backed occupation. The interview was thorough and Tlaib shared her perspective on several controversies that have animated Capitol Hill since she and fellow Israel critic, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), were elected to Congress. Tlaib also asserted that the criticism of, and opposition to, her “was anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab.”

Reps. Lamborn and McKinley Tell State It Is Inaccurately Calculating Palestinian Attacks. GOP Reps. Doug Lamborn (Colorado) and David McKinley (West Virginia) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week to ask for clarity about how the State Department decides what data will be included in its annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices. They take issue with the fact that the 2019 report lists 101 Palestinian attacks against Israelis in the West Bank when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israel’s security agency Shin Bet place the figure at over 1,000. However, it is noteworthy that the IDF and Shin Bet figures conflate violence like rock-throwing with “terrorist attacks,” thus skewing the number higher and painting Palestinians as uniquely violent.

Former Israeli Security Officials Thank Democrats for Opposing Annexation. Over 40 former Israeli security officials penned a letter to four House Democrats this week, thanking them for vocally opposing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to annex parts of the West Bank. The former officials sent the letter to Democratic Reps. Ted Deutch (Florida), David Price (North Carolina), and Jan Schakowsky and Brad Schneider of Illinois, all of whom spearheaded a letter that 191 House Democrats wrote to Israeli coalition leaders urging them to rethink moving forward with annexation.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Speaks with Presidents Macron, Erdoğan, Sisi, and UAE’s MbZ about Libya. President Donald Trump held a flurry of phone calls this week with the leaders of four countries actively involved in Libya’s civil war. He spoke with France’s Emmanuel Macron, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) about the ongoing conflict and the role of outside actors in perpetuating it. Trump reportedly stressed to Macron, Sisi, and MbZ—all of whom support Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar—the need to maintain the cease-fire and to rid the country of foreign fighters and foreign arms. With Erdoğan, on the other hand, the president appeared to give a nod of approval to Ankara’s deepening involvement on behalf of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord. Despite some inconsistency in the past, perhaps the White House has bought into the rest of Washington’s policy for supporting the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.

Jared Kushner Discusses His Role in the Trump Peace Plan in Interview. Newsweek published a lengthy interview with Senior Advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to explore the plethora of roles he has played since the onset of President Trump’s tenure. Kushner has been tasked with solving a spate of momentous problems, perhaps none as protracted and difficult as negotiating peace between Israelis and Palestinians. On that issue, Kushner sought to disabuse readers of the notion that his so-called peace plan was “a plan designed to provoke Palestinian intransigence so that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime Kushner family friend, could do whatever he wanted on the West Bank.” The seldom-heard Kushner also went to great lengths to continue defending friend and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the interview.

2) Department of State

Assistant Secretary Schenker Discusses the Present and Future in the Middle East.

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker participated in a virtual briefing this week with the German Marshall Fund of the United States to discuss current priorities in US policy in the Middle East and North Africa as well as to share his perspectives on the future. Schenker was asked questions about a number of North African and Middle Eastern states, including Egypt, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. His most noteworthy comments were about Israel, Egypt, and Lebanon. When asked about Israeli annexation of parts of the occupied Palestinian territories, Schenker bluntly said that he would “not be surprised” if Israel opted not to undertake annexation despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assertion otherwise. He also told viewers that annexation is an Israeli decision—despite the international community’s thinking that it would violate international law—and that Israel must balance domestic political considerations before making a decision.

As for Egypt, Schenker said that the United States is actively prioritizing freeing US citizens from wrongful detention or imprisonment there. While he briefly said Cairo’s human rights record is an issue, he maintained that the Trump Administration would only exert efforts to secure the release of US citizens. Finally, on Lebanon, Schenker told viewers that the United States and the Trump Administration would support Beirut in its efforts to secure International Monetary Fund assistance as long as the government sought reform, clamped down on corruption, and strove for greater economic and governmental transparency.

US Policy toward Syria after the Caesar Act. On July 22, Arab Center Washington DC hosted the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn for a discussion about US policy toward Syria. Rayburn reiterated that Washington is in the early stages of implementing the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act that passed into law as part of the fiscal year 2020 NDAA. Despite the legislation’s infancy, Rayburn argued that as a kind of all-encompassing set of sanctions, the law serves as pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad to negotiate a political solution to end the war in Syria. Rayburn dismissed the idea that US sanctions were causing additional suffering on Syrian civilians, and he assured the audience that there would be a steady stream of Caesar Act-based sanctions throughout the summer and into the fall.

US, GCC States Tout Multilateral Cooperation. The State Department released a pair of statements this week touting multilateral cooperation between the United States and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on counterterrorism and energy security. First, Washington and the GCC members of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center announced a tranche of sanctions levied against six individuals and entities accused of helping facilitate financing for the so-called Islamic State. Then, those same states released a statement alongside Iraq renewing their support for connecting the electricity grids of the six GCC states and Iraq. Aside from those discussions, Secretary Pompeo held a bilateral call with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to talk about US-Qatari relations and regional developments.

Secretary Pompeo Unveils Report on Unalienable Rights. Secretary Pompeo and the State Department unveiled a report on unalienable rights, a definition of rights that many are concerned will lessen the United States’ commitment to protecting rights for some of the most vulnerable. At a ceremony marking the launch of the report, Pompeo said that “Americans have not only unalienable rights, but also positive rights, rights granted by governments, courts, multilateral bodies. Many are worth defending in light of our founding; others aren’t.” This clearly illustrates observers’ worries about Pompeo’s effort: he and his team have striven to pick and choose which rights they deem as worthy of government protections and others that would not enjoy that support.

 III. Elections

Democratic Party Platform Outlines Middle East Policy. Delegates representing Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and presumptive Democratic nominee for president Vice President Joe Biden have crafted a draft platform outlining the Democratic Party’s policy priorities should Biden win in November. The platform, which leaked to the press this week, touches on a handful of issues relevant to US policy toward the Arab world and the broader Middle East, including the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen, the US military presence in Iraq, and Washington’s policy toward Iran. Notably, the potential 2020 platform goes further than its 2016 predecessor in calling for Palestinian rights, but it omits the word “occupation” and continues to emphasize Israel’s rights and security over a potential Palestinian state. As for Gulf powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, the platform calls for a mutual return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that the Obama Administration negotiated with Tehran and for an end to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, for which the same administration first lent support. The proposed platform, which will not be finalized for several more weeks, also supports a limited US military presence in Iraq.

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