Congressional Update – Week Ending August 10, 2018

I. Congress

Members of both the House and Senate remain on recess. The Senate is expected to return for legislative business August 15, and the House after Labor Day in September.

1) Personnel

Palestinian American Poised to Become First Muslim Woman in Congress. This week, amid regularly scheduled primary elections and a handful of special elections, a former Michigan state legislator won the Democratic primary for Michigan’s 13th district, essentially making her the first Muslim woman ever elected to the US Congress. Rashida Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, won a hotly contested primary for the vacated seat of former Congressman John Conyers, Sr. Michigan’s 13th district is a Democratic stronghold and Tlaib will run in November’s general election unopposed. She will join Republican Justin Amash as Michigan’s only Palestinian-American representatives.

II. Executive Branch < 1) White House

White House Team, said to be Nearing Release of “Ultimate Deal,” Promptly Postpones. President Trump’s top negotiators on his “ultimate” peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians had reportedly been preparing to release the details of the plan in the near future. According to one report, the plan will include proposals that administration officials say will both anger and please the Israelis, Palestinian Liberation Organization officials, and leaders of other Arab states. However, an Israeli newspaper’s report late last week, confirmed by US and Arab officials, says that the administration is already planning to delay the release (it is noteworthy that a release date had not been made clear in the past). Citing the US midterm elections in November, the report explained that the administration wishes to hold off on releasing the plan for fear that the Israeli concessions supposedly being requested would harm Republican reelection bids. Additionally, many in the region are speculating that Israel will undertake snap elections sometime in 2019, so the US administration is planning to further postpone revealing the deal to avoid harming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election chances. Despite the reports, spokespersons for the State Department and the National Security Council flatly denied them, saying the plan would be unveiled “when [it is] ready.”

Trump Administration Issues First Round of Iran Sanctions. The first round of previously suspended sanctions on Iran were reimposed this week, some three months after President Trump announced that the United States would no longer uphold the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). These sanctions—targeting Iran’s access to the US dollar and hampering its ability to export gold, precious metals, and popular Persian products—were originally suspended in 2015 as a condition for Tehran’s entering the Iran nuclear deal, as the JCPOA is known. Over the last few weeks, President Trump has made a number of head-turning pivots in his rhetoric toward the Iranian regime, but one thing has remained consistent since even before he entered the Oval Office: he has despised his predecessor’s agreement and intended to reapply sanctions on Iran because of its allegedly military elements. The next round of sanctions, which will include prohibitions against the purchase of Iranian exports of oil and gas, are scheduled to be reimposed in November.

2) State Department

Secretary Pompeo Meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister. On the heels of the Trump Administration releasing millions of dollars of aid to Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to Washington to meet with Secretary Mike Pompeo and other officials. Though the two said they spoke about the importance of protecting human rights—Egypt’s abysmal human rights record is the reason that the White House had withheld some $195 million in funding, in compliance with US congressional legislation—they said most of the discussions focused on issues of mutual concern such as  counterterrorism and security. To critics of US aid to Egypt, releasing those funds and welcoming the foreign minister represent a win for Cairo: it received the aid it believes it deserves without offering any reforms to its domestic policies of cracking down on dissidents and journalists.

Chief of Conflict and Stabilization Operations to Visit North Africa. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Pete Marocco headed for a three-state tour of North Africa this week. Marocco—not to be confused with stop number one, Morocco—will meet with officials of the states that are most susceptible to the conflict and chaos that continue in Libya. After Morocco, the deputy assistant secretary will visit Tunisia and Egypt, both of which receive security aid from the United States to help shore up their borders with Libya; there, he will discuss conflict resolution and stabilization efforts. In Cairo, Marocco will also meet with delegates of the Arab League to discuss some of the same issues. In Tunis, he will meet with Libyan leaders who receive US grants for stabilization efforts.

3) Defense Department

New Judge to Oversee USS Cole Bombing Tribunal. It has been 18 years since a devastating blast ripped through the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen and killed 17 American sailors, but the trial for one of those suspected of being involved remains unresolved to this day. While this seems like a judicial issue normally within the purview of US courts, the accused—Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri—has been held in the Guantanamo Bay military facility, thus he is subjected to a military tribunal instead of the criminal court system. It was reported this week that a new Air Force colonel is stepping in to oversee the war court’s death penalty case against al-Nashiri. However, it is uncertain when the new judge, Air Force Colonel Shelly Schools, will take to the bench because the Pentagon must resolve the outstanding issues that prompted the outgoing judge to freeze the pretrial proceedings indefinitely. Al-Nashiri is just one example of the cases that have gone unresolved as suspects remain detained indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay.

US Faces New Scrutiny about Role in Saudi-led Coalition’s War in Yemen. This week, the anti-Houthi coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates struck a bus full of Yemeni children, killing at least 29 and wounding nearly another 50 people, mostly children. This attack has garnered outrage at the coalition, but fresh attention is also being paid to Washington’s role. The United States sells billions of dollars of lethal weaponry to the Saudis and it directly aids the coalition’s bombing runs by offering intelligence assistance and providing midair refueling of military jets. This latest strike on civilians drew condemnation from US lawmakers. It could have legal implications as well, considering that the new Defense authorization bill (Section 1290) conditions US aid to the Saudis on verification that Riyadh and its allies are taking necessary precautions to protect civilians. Whether or not Washington will decide to limit its support is unclear, as the same bill also provides Secretary Pompeo a waiver to allow US support to continue regardless of incidents like these—as long as he deems continuing assistance to the coalition as necessary for national security reasons.

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