1) Hearings and Briefings
Russia, Libya, and the 2019 Libya Stabilization Act. On December 3, the Libyan American Alliance hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill about the conflict in Libya and the prospects of a new bill aimed at helping to find a solution to it. That legislation, the Libya Stabilization Act (S. 2934), was introduced by a bipartisan group of senators in an effort to clarify and strengthen US policy toward Libya. The expert speakers addressed an audience of congressional aides and members of the public about the problems facing Libya, Russia’s role in further entrenching those problems, and ways this new piece of legislation might help disrupt the status quo.
All the experts—including George Washington University’s William Lawrence, Theodore Karasik of Gulf State Analytics, and Libya scholar Jason Pack—were generally uniform in their belief that the Libya Stabilization Act is a good piece of legislation and that it would pass Congress with bipartisan support. Pack, for example, praised the bill for its attention to what he called the “war economy” that perpetuates the fighting and, in his opinion, is the most difficult issue to solve in the country. However, the speakers differed on whether the legislation would be effective in forcing the current administration to craft and execute a coherent policy toward Libya.
2) Personnel and Correspondence
Lawmakers Meet with Controversial Duo from the West Bank. This week, according to a report by The Hill, members of the “Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce”—a joint initiative by Palestinian and Israeli businessmen—toured Washington to meet with members of Congress and government officials. Though the report did not name the members of Congress with whom the group’s founders, Ashraf Jabari and Avi Zimmerman, met, Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) confirmed that she held a meeting with them and others seeking investment opportunities in the occupied West Bank. The outfit is controversial among most Palestinians as it looks to normalize the occupation of the West Bank through economic integration with Israeli settlers. Even the name elicits some hostility, as Judea and Samaria constitute the biblical Jewish name for the West Bank and it is used in Israel to infer the Jewish claim to the territory. The Jerusalem Post chronicled how Jabari proves controversial among some Palestinian businesspeople.
Rep. Tlaib is Keynote Speaker at American Muslims for Palestine’s “Palestine Convention.” Throughout the last weekend of November, the civic group American Muslims for Palestine hosted its annual Palestine Convention. The keynote speaker was Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), the first Palestinian American woman and one of the first two Muslim women elected to the United States Congress. Tlaib is also an outspoken supporter of Palestine and backs the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. As has become common in grassroots activism, Tlaib took an intersectional approach and tied the plight of the Palestinians with other injustices in the United States. She particularly mentioned injustices against persons of color, like the disconcerting conditions people from Central America endure at the United States’ southern border as a result of Trump Administration policies.
Senators Van Hollen, Graham Demand Turkey Sanctions. On December 2, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding that the administration levy sanctions on Turkey for its continued integration of the Russia S-400 missile defense system into its military. The two, who have previously worked together to craft a sanctions bill on Ankara for its foray into neighboring Syria, correctly pointed out that simply purchasing Russia’s S-400 system was grounds for Turkey to be sanctioned under US law. The administration, however, was reluctant to do so and Ankara has since moved toward actually testing a component of the system. The senators say that now is the time to sanction Turkey and apply pressure so it ceases moving forward with the Russian equipment.
Palestinian Authority Lobbies Congress on ATCA. Last week, Al-Monitor reported that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has hired a major Washington lobbying group to persuade lawmakers to amend a law known as the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, or ATCA. The PA has refused to take US aid since the law took effect for fear of being liable for damages in civil court cases. Even subsequent “fixes” to the law have put the PA in jeopardy of being subjected to lawsuits that could drain it of its already meager financial resources. Despite its efforts, the PA faces an uphill battle with members of Congress and competing interests in Washington.
New Energy Secretary Confirmed. Dan Brouillette overcame the final hurdle in his confirmation process and, by a vote of 70-15, was cleared to take over as secretary of energy. Middle East-related issues relevant to Brouillette’s new role were outlined in an earlier column.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
Israel’s Netanyahu Phones Trump, Meets with Pompeo in Lisbon. On December 1, President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone, nearly two weeks after the United States reversed its long held position that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal under international law. After the call, Netanyahu promptly told the press that he had raised the issue of annexing the West Bank. This is not surprising, as most observers have suspected, that the logical step that would follow Washington’s announcement would be for Israel to assert sovereignty over some or all of the territory it occupies. Trump and Netanyahu also reportedly spoke about implementing a US-Israel defense treaty, a development largely undesired by the military establishments of both countries. Separately, sources say that the administration has been pushing Israel’s regional neighbors to initiate a “non-belligerence pact” as a bridge between their secret ties and outright normalization with the Israeli state.
Because of his legal troubles, Netanyahu may be feeling politically vulnerable and, as Arab Center Washington DC nonresident fellow Yousef Munayyer notes, he is trying everything possible to bolster his standing, especially domestically. The prime minister hoped to travel to the United Kingdom to meet with President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and European officials on the sidelines of a gathering of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) states. However, the United Kingdom’s government told the prime minister they could not accommodate him due to the high security already necessary for the other leaders at the NATO meeting. Therefore, Netanyahu will reportedly fly to Lisbon to meet with Secretary Pompeo during the latter’s visit to Portugal.
Trump Lifts Freeze on Military Aid to Lebanon. This week the Trump Administration quietly lifted a freeze on some $105 million in foreign military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The ban on LAF support was mysterious and, at times, the administration gave contradicting explanations for the freeze on aid. Now, however, the White House has paved the way for the aid to be delivered, seemingly without conditions.
2) Department of State
Assistant Secretary Schenker Provides US Response to Iraqi PM’s Resignation. This week, Iraq’s embattled prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, resigned amid ongoing protests against the country’s ruling elite and its corruption. Though he did not address the resignation directly, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker held a brief press conference to issue a prepared statement of the department’s reaction to the unrest. Schenker characterized the recent uptick in government violence against the protesters as “abhorrent” and called on Baghdad to respect the right of citizens to protest. He also repeatedly warned of the threat of Iranian influence in Iraq.
Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to Schenker’s superior, Secretary Pompeo, requesting an update on the department’s efforts to hold the Iraqis accountable for the death of hundreds of protesters. McCaul notes that the State Department has authorities to sanction individuals within and outside the current Iraqi government for gross abuse of human rights and for corruption. He asked for clarification about how the administration plans to ensure that those responsible for ordering the violent crackdowns on protesters will suffer consequences.
US Looks to Elevate Relations with Sudan. On December 4, the State Department announced the US government’s intention to “elevate diplomatic representation with Sudan.” This will include appointing diplomats in each other’s capital—a first since the United States withdrew its ambassador from Khartoum in 1997. To mark the thawing of relations, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale met with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and “expressed unwavering U.S. support for Sudan’s democratic transition.”