Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Expressing the Sense of the House Regarding US Efforts to Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. On July 17, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) marked up and passed five bills and resolutions related to Israel, Palestine, and the decades-long conflict between the two. The first resolution, H. Res. 326, is meant to put House members on the record as favoring a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict. The resolution was amended during the markup to remove any mention of the term “occupation.”

Opposing the Global BDS Movement. The HFAC adopted an amended version of H. Res. 246 that opposes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Among other things, the resolution’s authors call BDS a form of “collective guilt” and “mass punishment” and contrast it to the successful boycotts of apartheid South Africa, saying the BDS movement delegitimizes Israel’s “right to exist.” The resolution later passed the full House on July 23.

Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act. The committee also passed H.R. 1850, which sets forth sanctions for any foreign individual, agency, or government that provides support to Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or any affiliated or successor groups. Applicable sanctions include denying Export-Import Bank services, ending US financial or military support, and freezing assets in US jurisdiction. On July 23 the full House voted to adopt the bill.

US-Israel Cooperation Enhancement and Regional Security Act. Committee members approved an amended version of H.R. 1837 that outlines a host of new cooperation initiatives that lawmakers would like to see carried out between the United States and Israel. In addition, the bill codifies the 2016 memorandum of understanding that pledges $38 billion in US security assistance to Israel over a decade. This bill was also passed by the full House on July 23.

Expressing Support for Addressing the Arab-Israeli Conflict in a Concurrent Track with the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. Finally, the committee passed H. Res. 138, a resolution that applauds Arab and Muslim-majority states for improving bilateral ties with Israel despite the persistence of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Joint Resolutions of Disapproval. On July 17, a majority of the House voted to adopted S. J. Res. 36, 37, and 38. These joint resolutions, which have already been passed by the Senate, would end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) noted, these three are the most important of the 22 resolutions the Senate passed because they would end contracts for weapons that are intended for use in the war in Yemen. Despite the fact that these measures have passed both chambers, President Donald Trump is expected to veto them.

Promoting Security and Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act. On July 17, a bipartisan trio of senators introduced a bill that seeks justice for US victims of international terrorism as well as promotes “the important security cooperation among US, Israeli, and Palestinian security forces.”

Calling for the Repeal of Global Blasphemy Laws. A bipartisan duo—Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) and Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina)—introduced H. Res. 512 expressing the sense of the House that countries around the world should move to repeal laws criminalizing and punishing blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy. The resolution notes that 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa have such laws in effect.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Sen. Kaine Wants FBI to Investigate Khashoggi Murder. On July 17, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) wrote to Christopher Wray, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to request that the FBI open an investigation into “Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored execution” of Jamal Khashoggi. Citing criticism of the international community’s inaction, published in a recent UN investigation, Kaine told Wray it is important that the United States push for justice and accountability in the case of Khashoggi’s murder.

Fifty House Members Write to Pompeo Regarding New Human Rights Body. Last week, 50 members of the House signed on to a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regarding his plan to form a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” Like the plan’s other critics, these lawmakers shared with Pompeo their concerns that he is bypassing State Department career human rights experts in order to lessen protections for some of the world’s most vulnerable, including women and the LGBTQ community.

Senators Cardin, Rubio Ask Barr to Help Bring Justice to AMIA Bombing Perpetrators. On July 18, Senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) wrote a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr asking that the Department of Justice help support Argentina’s efforts to arrest six Iranians said to have been involved in the bombing in Buenos Aires of the Jewish Mutual Aid Society (known by its Spanish initials, AMIA). Following the 1994 bombing, investigators claimed that Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah operatives carried out the attack and, after Argentina issued arrest warrants for eight Iranians, INTERPOL issued “red notices” for six of the men. Since then, reports suggest that those six Iranians have traveled through countries that participate in INTERPOL, yet those states refused to act. Now, the senators are hoping Barr could bring pressure to bear on any state the suspects may visit, in order to detain and extradite them to Argentina.

Arab Israeli Knesset Member Writes, in Solidarity, to Omar, Tlaib. On July 19, Haaretz reported that an Israeli Knesset member, Aida Touma-Sliman, wrote a letter to Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) expressing solidarity with the two and thanking them for their “tireless work on behalf of the Palestinian people.” Touma-Sliman also told them that her party, Hadash, would do everything it could to ensure that the two representatives, who are active supporters of the BDS movement, would not be barred entry to Israel and the West Bank for their upcoming trip. Previous reports said that Israeli officials were deferring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to decide whether Omar and Tlaib would be prohibited from entering Israel and the West Bank due to their support for BDS. However, Netanyahu opted to allow them to enter when they visit in August.

Sen. Paul Meets with Iranian FM Zarif. This week, according to a report by Al Monitor, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) sat down with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York. Zarif had previously said he was meeting with US lawmakers, but the meeting with Paul was one of the only confirmed interactions. Politico originally reported that Paul received President Trump’s blessing to reach out to the Iranian regime, though administration officials told Al Monitor that he did not meet with Zarif in any official capacity as an envoy. Regardless, Paul and Zarif both seemed to believe there was an opening for negotiations between Tehran and the current administration.

Sen. Murphy Talks Middle East Policy. During the Aspen Security Forum, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) offered his vision of what constitutes a progressiveUS Strategy in an unstable Middle East.” He talked about everything from Iran to Yemen to US-Saudi relations, among others.

Lawmakers Call on Trump Administration to Extend Syrian TPS. A group of lawmakers in the House are drafting a letter to Trump’s Acting Secretary of Homeland Security urging the administration to extend the temporary protected status (TPS)—currently set to expire at the end of September 2019—to some 7,000 Syrians.

3) Nominations

Esper Confirmed as Secretary of Defense. On July 23, the Senate voted overwhelmingly, 90-8, to confirm Mark Esper as the next Secretary of Defense.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Kushner and His Team to Travel to the Middle East to Talk Peace Plan. This week, there were reports that senior administration officials Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, Brian Hook, and Kushner’s deputy, Avi Berkowitz, plan to travel to Israel and a host of Arab countries to follow up on their economic workshop in Bahrain that was held in June. The group is set to visit Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, as well as Israel. Essentially, this trip is intended to secure funding commitments to bankroll the economic development in the Palestinian territories that Kushner pitched in Bahrain.

Before visiting the region, Greenblatt went before the United Nations in New York City to urge UN members to “help to create conditions by which [the international community can] have a serious conversation” about solving the crisis. Perhaps to Greenblatt, this simply means being frank and candid about the issues facing Israelis and Palestinians, but to unbiased observers, Greenblatt again seemed to be absolving Israel of any wrongdoing in the conflict while pinning the lack of a solution over the years on faulty international consensus and Palestinian recalcitrance.

Prior to their trip, a recent report chronicled how Kushner pushed US government agencies to combine “data tools and human expertise for the first time to officially rank Arab media outlets over their coverage of the Middle East peace process.” The stated reason for this, according to officials familiar with the processes, was to “improve understanding of administration policy” by analyzing what is said by the most widely viewed media outlets in the Arab world and adjust administration messaging to be more palatable. In short, Kushner and his team were not trying to feel the pulse of the Palestinian street in order to adjust their policies accordingly. Instead, the report illustrates how the White House was hoping to tailor messages to elicit more support from Palestinians, particularly by going over or around the Palestinian Authority. In other words, Kushner was analyzing this data to push information to promote the administration’s particular point of view about what a solution to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis would look like. Quite plainly, this looks like an attempt to discern the best methods to propagandize and build support for a plan pitched by an administration that is distrusted by the Palestinian public.

Turkey is Officially Out of the F-35 Jet Program. Turkey and the United States have long been at loggerheads over Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Washington says that the Russian technology could be used to compromise sensitive technology in the United States’ F-35 fighter jet, which Turkey had plans to purchase. Ankara is also a partner in the F-35 program, helping finance it and craft components for the jet. But because the Russian-made air defense missile could undermine the long term security of the F-35 program, the US government has held that a country cannot simultaneously participate in the program and utilize the S-400 system; thus, Turkey was kicked out of the program after receiving delivery of the S-400.

2) Department of State

Pompeo Talks with Bahraini, Turkish Foreign Ministers, Kurdish Prime Minister. Over the last week, Secretary of State Pompeo spoke with Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (as did National Security Advisor John Bolton) and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu. Pompeo and Al Khalifa spoke about US-Bahrain relations, regional security initiatives, and the Bahrainis’ work hosting the economic workshop spearheaded by Jared Kushner. Pompeo and Cavusoğlu spoke about US-Turkish security cooperation in Syria and against the Islamic State (IS). The two also spoke about Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system, which prompted the United States to remove Turkey from the F-35 program.

Lastly, Pompeo fielded a call from Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Masrour Barzani to discuss Baghdad-Irbil relations and the United States’ continued support for the people of Iraq.

Pompeo Talks Hezbollah in Argentina. Secretary Pompeo also traveled to Argentina this week to participate in the Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial Plenary with representatives from Central and South America. He used his remarks to warn of the threats facing that side of the globe from groups like al-Qaeda and IS, but he also spoke at length about Hezbollah’s presence, especially in South America.

State Department Officials Pay Visits to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Three high-ranking State Department officials were in the region, or are traveling there soon, for meetings this week. Assistant Secretary for Energy Resources Frank Fannon traveled to Egypt to participate in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) and to talk about international energy cooperation. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations Denise Natali traveled to Saudi Arabia and Jordan to speak with government officials, nongovernmental organizations, and civil society leaders about regional stabilization efforts. Lastly, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad will travel to Doha, Qatar to resume negotiations with Afghan Taliban officials, a meeting that Qatar hosts.

Ambassador Jeffrey Discusses US Role in Syria, Visits Turkey. During the Aspen Security Forum, Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, spoke at length about “the role of the US in Syria.” Jeffrey was quite confident that Bashar al-Assad has not won on the ground in Syria, as some analysts suggest, and he repeatedly stated that the United States feels confident that Assad will have to negotiate an end to the conflict. Among other things, Jeffrey said that one of the top US goals in Syria is to root out the Iranians. He added that pressure from Washington, the international community, and Israel will eventually result in Assad, Russia, and Iran conceding to negotiations. After the event, Jeffrey flew to Turkey to hold discussions about Syria with officials in Ankara.

Ambassador Booth Addresses Events in Sudan. The US Special Envoy for Sudan, Ambassador Donald Booth, spoke with reporters this week to outline the current situation in Sudan and to highlight US efforts to further a political solution that would give civilians control of the government.

3) Department of Defense

New CENTCOM Commander Travels to Syria. General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, traveled to Syria for the first time since taking over from General Joseph Votel. McKenzie met with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leaders to discuss ongoing US-SDF cooperation and the SDF’s detention of IS fighters.

US Troops Deploying to Saudi Arabia. Amid heightening tensions in the Arabian Gulf region, Saudi King Salman issued an order to allow for hundreds of US troops to return to an air base outside of Riyadh. US soldiers have been deployed inside the kingdom in the past, but not since 2003. This is undoubtedly another show of force as US-Iranian tensions grow, but it could also be intended to be a calming development for Saudi officials now that Riyadh’s partners in Yemen seem to be growing tired of the conflict there.

US Shoots Down Iranian Drone. The tit-for-tat cycle of escalation between Washington and Tehran persisted this week after the US Navy downed one Iranian drone, with some reports suggesting multiple drones. This comes after Iran shot down an expensive US surveillance drone in June. Further, Iran claimed to have uprooted a network of Central Intelligence Agency assets in Iran, an allegation that President Trump denied on Twitter.

4) Department of Treasury

Treasury Levies New Iran, Hezbollah Related Sanctions. This week, the Treasury Department announced a host of new sanctions related to Iran and its proxy group Hezbollah. The department targeted Hezbollah operative Salman Raouf Salman for having “directed terrorist operations in the Western Hemisphere”; a network of entities supporting Iran’s nuclear enrichment network; and a Chinese company for purchasing Iranian oil. Some of these sanctions are redundant and may not significantly increase pressure on the Iranian regime, but the sanctions on China could ostensibly exacerbate China’s frustration with the United States’ cavalier use of sanctions.

Treasury Sanctions Two Iraqi Militia Leaders, Two Former Governors. The Treasury Department announced this week that it was sanctioning four Iraqis—two heads of Iranian-aligned militias and two former governors— for human rights violations under the Global Magnitsky Act.

Sanctions Czar Discusses Iran. During the Aspen Security Forum, Sigal Mandelker, the Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, appeared on a panel to discuss “Containing Iran.” Mandelker is a critical player in the administration’s attempt to exert “maximum” economic pressure on the Iranian regime. She cited Iran’s threatening posture toward Israel and the regime’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war as reasons for punishing Tehran. She also said she knows sanctions are working because oil exports are low and groups like Hezbollah are not getting the funds they expect from Iran.

5) Department of Energy

Secretary Perry Travels to Israel, Egypt. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry traveled to Israel this week to discuss regional energy issues. In addition, he was set to travel to Egypt to represent the United States at the EMGF in Cairo.

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