On Palestine, Congress Is Not Quite Different from Trump

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Since President Donald Trump took office, he and his administration have assumed a uniquely biased posture toward Israel, Palestine, and the conflict between the two sides. As has been noted before, his administration—staffed by ardent supporters of Israel’s right-wing policies—has taken every conceivable step to back Israel’s actions, punish Palestinians, and normalize Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Israeli media outlets now describe the US Congress—an institution that is normally firmly in support of pro-Israel policies—as recently having taken the unusual step of balancing the United States’ posture toward the two sides. One publication explained how, if not for the pragmatism and wisdom of some in the US Senate, the United States would have completely cut off economic support to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

While it is true that the administration was content with obligating no US funds to the Palestinians, the stances and actions of members of Congress were not simply benevolent. Instead, the legislation they proposed over the summer and into fall 2019 comprises, at base, attempts to blackmail the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Instead of extending economic support to alleviate suffering and to try and utilize US soft power to build Washington’s credibility among the Palestinian public, lawmakers have inserted caveats and conditions on aid that look like poison pill provisions. The conditions are apparently meant to punish Palestinians outright for accepting aid or to construct a narrative that Palestinian officials are unwilling to take steps to provide for their populace.

Take S. 2132, Promoting Security and Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, as one example. The bill has been described as a legislative “fix” for the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA) which, as its name implies, amended a previous law known as the Anti-Terrorism Act. ATCA includes several provisions, but most relevant to Palestinians is the one that subjects the PA and PLO to the jurisdiction of US federal courts if the PA accepts US aid from certain accounts. Therefore, if the PA were to accept aid from the economic support fund (ESF) or international narcotics control and law enforcement (INCLE) accounts, it would then be assenting to the jurisdiction of US federal courts, meaning it could be sued by American victims of terrorism carried out by any Palestinians. This, for obvious reasons, is unacceptable to the PA, in no small part because it would lead to its complete bankruptcy. Once ATCA took effect, the PA declined to accept US funds, most of which are allocated through the ESF and INCLE authorities.

US senators value some aid to the PA because the authority facilitates security coordination with Israel’s security network. The lawmakers understand that to cut off funding—or rather, to force the PA to decline such support—is to then directly jeopardize Israel’s security. So Senator James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and others introduced S. 2132 as a stand-alone bill and have also offered the bill’s language as an amendment to the fiscal year 2020 State and Foreign Operations bill that funds the State Department and US Agency for International Development and provides economic support to foreign entities. At first glance it may seem like a good decision to amend ATCA to allow the PA to accept US aid that, aside from guaranteeing security cooperation, also helps alleviate some of the everyday problems Palestinians face under occupation. But on closer inspection, Lankford’s bill and the bipartisan amendment to it include just more coercive conditions that the PA would not accept. Except, they go even further.

S. 2132 stipulates that unless the PA and PLO resolve any covered claims by US citizens—“covered claims” being defined as “any pending action by, or final judgment in favor of, a national of the United States, or any action by a national of the United States dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction, under section 2333 of title 18, 23 United States Code, against the [PA] or [PLO]”—those entities would be subjected to the courts’ jurisdiction if the PA does not abide by new conditions. In short, this bill would allow the PA to accept some forms of US support, but it adds even more stringent conditions, like requiring the PA to downgrade its status at the United Nations. Furthermore, an amendment to this bill adds Taylor Force Act-like conditions barring the PA from providing welfare assistance to the families of Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces if Israel determines the victim was undertaking an act of terrorism.

S. 2132 is one example, but there are others. Another attempt to rectify the shortcomings of ATCA may result in the passage of H.R. 1837, which has already passed the House and includes a provision subjecting the PA and PLO to US lawsuits if the PLO pursues actions at the United Nations. H.R. 1837 and other legislation like the Partnership for Peace Fund Act (see the House version and the Senate version) also provides funds to Palestinians for economic cooperation with Israelis. This sounds harmless, and even productive, but as one analyst noted, these bills will possibly result in “US active support for Israeli projects in the West Bank, i.e., with settlers or projects that entrench Israeli control.”

In sum, it is not entirely untrue that Congress is acting more responsibly than the current administration in addressing the conflict between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. However, that reading of the situation can belie the fact that even in a more “responsible” congressional strategy toward the Palestinians, the sole intent of many lawmakers is to support Israel’s interests—and no longer just the government but possibly even settlers’ interests—and to tighten the proverbial screws on an already weak and dysfunctional PA.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Sen. Murphy Explores a Working Progressive Foreign Policy. This week Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), a leading progressive voice on foreign policy, penned an op-ed for The Atlantic outlining a progressive foreign policy and the tools necessary to execute it. His main principles include “a clear articulation of the circumstances that justify the use of military force, and those that don’t; a recommitment to security and economic alliances; and, most crucially of all, a focus on building up the United States’ non-military capabilities for dealing with challenges around the world.”

The Middle East, where US foreign policy has routinely failed to improve or, worse, has exacerbated problems, is a litmus test for Murphy’s foreign policy strategy. He invokes US policy there to illustrate what not to do: don’t wage secret wars (like in Syria); don’t try to solve political conflicts with military force (again, see Syria, or more so, Yemen); and don’t overestimate the effectiveness of military intervention (such as in Libya).

Finally, Senator Murphy cites the Middle East as he details some of the principles and strategies that should be considered in a progressive foreign policy scheme. He says progressives should be careful not to incorporate partners or allies under a US security umbrella that do not share a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Here the senator explicitly rules out forging a security pact with Saudi Arabia. In addition, Murphy argues that a progressive presidential administration, alongside Congress, should invest in soft-power tools that prioritize helping states to improve their actions in implementing—or transitioning to—democracy and institutionalizing greater respect for human rights. Both of these issues would go a long way in benefiting the people of the Middle East if the United States could remain committed to this approach and uses soft power to complement grassroots pursuits of democracy and improved human rights conditions.

Members of Congress Visit Israel, West Bank. Congress currently has a two-week recess and a few members of the House took the time off to travel to Israel and the occupied West Bank. The bipartisan delegation met with US Ambassador David Friedman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah. In Israel, the delegation spoke with US and Israeli officials about issues pertaining to bilateral relations, while Shtayyeh spoke to the group about Trump’s unilateral pressure campaign on the Palestinians.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Defers to Erdoğan, Prompting Fears of a Turkish Incursion. This week President Trump apparently blindsided his own military advisors when, during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, he decided the US military would withdraw troops from parts of northeastern Syria and tasked the Turks with securing Islamic State (IS) prisoners from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In short, President Erdoğan threatened to carry out his threat to cross the Syrian border where the SDF, which is largely headed by Syrian Kurdish fighters and which Ankara views as an offshoot of the Kurdish militant group known as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), controls territory.

To soothe Turkish anxieties over the SDF, US officials were working to establish a buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The SDF even demolished fortifications along the border that unsettled Ankara. Now, however, few are sure of the nature of the policy Washington is pursuing in Syria. Trump has long wanted to withdraw from the country and early assessments understood the current troop withdrawal decision to be consistent with that desire. However, other officials have said that troops were not withdrawing from Syria entirely—only from positions along the northeastern border where Turkey intended to carry out an incursion into Syria.

Due to the ambiguity surrounding US policy in Syria and its partners on the ground, many in Congress expressed concern and outrage about what they considered Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian Kurds.

2) Department of the Treasury

Mandelker, Trump’s Top Sanctions Chief, to Leave Treasury. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 2 that Sigal Mandelker, the Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, will be leaving the administration to return to the private sector. Mandelker has been instrumental in coordinating and executing the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign to wreak havoc on the Iranian economy. Set to leave office in the coming weeks, she has repeatedly boasted of some 190 tranches of sanctions the administration has imposed since its inauguration. This illustrates the importance the current administration ascribes to the use of sanctions and, as the head of the terrorism and financial intelligence office, Mandelker played a critical part in formulating and implementing the strategy.

3) Department of State

Trump Administration Officials Discuss US Policy toward Syria. On October 2, the Council on Foreign Relations held an event titled “Syria: State of the Conflict and US Policy.” Since it was held only days before Trump’s phone call with Turkey’s Erdoğan, many of the policies laid out by administration officials there were later contradicted by the president’s seeming willingness to end US support for and cooperation with the SDF. The administration officials on the panel included Michael Mulroy, who is the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, and Joel Rayburn, who serves as deputy assistant secretary of state for Levant affairs and a special envoy for Syria.

The two repeatedly praised the SDF for their competence and dedication as well as the necessity to work with them for ensuring the enduring defeat of the Islamic State. Furthermore, many of the goals that the administration has for Syria, as outlined by Rayburn, require some kind of US presence and the commitment of a strong, capable, and willing partner on the ground. For instance, Rayburn noted that the administration wants to ensure the defeat of IS, force Iranian troops and militias to withdraw from Syria, and achieve a political solution to the conflict under the framework outlined by UN Security Resolution 2254. In light of the president’s current decision, all of these goals would ostensibly become harder to achieve if the United States withdraws from Syria and the SDF is routed by Turkey. It is obvious, in hindsight, that the two officials were not expecting the president’s withdrawal order. Now, however, observers are forced to grapple with mixed messages to understand US policy in Syria.

Ambassador Friedman Interview. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman gave an interview to The Jerusalem Post this week in which he outlined the administration’s positions on a host of issues, including peace between Palestinians and Israelis, Iran, and Israeli annexation of the occupied West Bank. The interview was entirely consistent with Friedman’s overall posture as ambassador: it was inflammatory toward Palestinians, dismissive of any policy not sufficiently supportive of the right wing in Israel, and highly partisan.

Secretary Pompeo Speaks with Iraqi Prime Minister about Violence in Iraq. Protesters throughout Iraq have taken to the streets to stand against the rampant corruption and the pervasive sectarianism plaguing the national government. In response, Iraqi security forces have responded violently, thus far killing over one hundred and wounding thousands more. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi about the government’s response, condemning the security forces for their violent repression.

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