The Latest Congressional Drama over Israel

Once again, Democratic Party infighting—with the disingenuous prodding of House Republicans—has briefly roiled Capitol Hill. This latest round of drama features familiar faces and topics. Stalwarts of the House Democratic pro-Israel camp attacked Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) after she questioned both the United States’ and Israel’s willingness and ability to provide justice and accountability, after each of these countries commits acts of violence against civilians.

The whole kerfuffle started after a somewhat tense exchange—in a House hearing and then a tweet—when Rep. Omar asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken about alternative mechanisms Palestinians could pursue when Israel commits potential crimes against them. This administration, like all others before it, opposes International Criminal Court investigations into crimes committed by Israel, leaving Palestinians without recourse and justice. His response was unsatisfactory. A later tweet by Rep. Omar sparked controversy when her colleagues accused her of equating Israel or the United States with Hamas. Twelve Jewish Democratic members of the House released a statement pointing out that her comment—which reminded followers that the world has witnessed “unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban”—could do much to discredit her intended argument. However, that statement also accused her, albeit not by name, of “[giving] cover to terrorist groups” through “false equivalencies.” It is difficult to imagine such a charge being levied against non-Muslim lawmakers making the same criticism. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) went even further, parroting a Republican talking point that Rep. Omar supports Hamas by saying in part that it was “newsworthy” that Omar accused Hamas of committing atrocities.

As a result, Omar responded by criticizing her colleagues for failing to speak with her directly and accusing them of using “Islamophobic hate.” Her progressive colleagues expressed their support for her against what they called “tone policing” and “anti-Blackness.” The Congressional Progressive Caucus released a statement in support of Omar in the face of intra-party attacks fueled, in part the statement said, by the “right-wing media echo chamber.”

The progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party are publicly split on a host of issues, and allowing any one rift to jeopardize the party’s razor-thin House majority is completely unacceptable to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California). So, after Rep. Omar released a statement clarifying her previous statements, House Democratic leaders released a statement of their own hoping to quell the war of words.

At this time, it does not appear that Democrats will seek to remove Omar from her seat in the House Foreign Affairs Committee and party leaders are likely hoping this is the end of the matter. To be sure, Republicans jumped on the whole saga to again paint Omar and the party as somehow anti-Israel or pro-terrorism. In addition, it is popular to attack Rep. Omar in many districts represented by Republicans where voters distrust Omar. It will be important to watch how the Democratic caucus reacts when the House returns to session and Republicans undoubtedly move to make an example of Rep. Omar.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act. On June 4, Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) and Brian Mast (R-Florida) introduced H.R. 3685, which is likely the House counterpart to legislation recently reintroduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) known as the Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act. The bill seeks to sanction individuals believed to support Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both of which are already US-designated terrorist groups.

Emergency Resupply for IRON DOME Act. House Republicans have introduced H.R. 3706 (see bill text here) to move monies intended to help with reconstruction and humanitarian assistance to Gaza to Israel to help resupply its Iron Dome missile defense system.

Iran Deal Must Be a Treaty. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and more than a dozen of his GOP colleagues introduced S. 2030 declaring that any deal reached between the Biden Administration and Iran must be submitted to the Senate for consideration as a treaty.

2) Hearings and Briefings

FY22 Budget Hearings. After having to postpone his appearances because of a trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared before House (see here and here) and Senate committees (see here and here) last week to discuss the Biden Administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request and its impact on diplomacy and development efforts abroad. Unsurprisingly, the four hearings covered a range of topics, including issues relevant to the Middle East like the recent fighting in Israel and Palestine, negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, and building on the so-called “Abraham Accords.” There were hours of collective testimony, but the most notable takeaways include the fact that Blinken, while pouring cold water on the idea of a quick return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, indicated that the administration is considering some sanctions relief for Iran. This proved true later when the Treasury Department repealed some sanctions on blacklisted individuals and entities—although the State Department was adamant that the development was not related to ongoing negotiations. In addition, Blinken reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to satisfying Israel’s recent $1 billion in emergency military aid while also maintaining that the administration will move forward with its outreach to Palestinian officials.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley also participated in a similar hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Very little of the lengthy hearing focused on the Middle East, although Secretary Austin publicly acknowledged for the first time that he and his staff at the Pentagon are concerned about Iranian ships that are reportedly headed to the coast of Venezuela.

Nomination Hearings. On June 9, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee held a nomination hearing for a slate of potential ambassadors, two of whom have been asked to serve in Algeria and Somalia. Elizabeth Moore Aubin testified about her priorities should she serve in Algiers, stating that security cooperation to fight terrorism, US business opportunities, and political and economic reforms will be the main priorities of her service. She emphasized the significance of Algeria’s oil and gas reserves and said she will promote the involvement of US companies in developing this energy sector. For his part, Larry Edward Andre, Jr., the nominee to serve in Mogadishu, said he would address the country’s governance issues by helping to create a national consensus on the relationship between the federal and state governments. Andre highlighted the need for a stable Somalia and said he would work to help reform Somali security forces and combat terrorist threats in the country. He also advocated for development and humanitarian aid to Somalia in light of the country’s major economic and institutional problems.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Democrats Urge Sen. Risch to Lift Hold on Palestinian Aid; Sen. Rubio Says No Diplomacy. Over 140 House Democrats recently wrote a letter to Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) imploring him to release his hold on “tens of millions of dollars in appropriated humanitarian aid” intended for Palestinians. As the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Risch, along with his House Foreign Affairs Committee counterpart Michael McCaul (R-Texas), have placed an informal hold on a tranche of aid allocated through the Economic Support Fund. Risch disputes the idea that his hold affects humanitarian aid, so he appears unwilling to relent.

In fact, he is trying to further disrupt the Biden Administration’s efforts at reengaging with Palestinian society and leaders, writ large. Risch wrote a letter to President Biden and Secretary Blinken calling on them not to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington that historically served as a key conduit for US-Palestinian diplomacy before President Trump shuttered the mission. Senator Marco Rubio and several of his Senate colleagues went further, arguing that in addition to keeping the PLO mission closed, the administration should also forego its decision to reopen its Consulate General in Jerusalem. It appears that even the hint of possible diplomacy with Palestinians is too much for many Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Committee Heads Call for Cross-Border Aid to Syria. As US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield was in Turkey seeking to secure access for cross-border humanitarian assistance between Turkey and Syria, leaders of the House and Senate committees overseeing foreign policy wrote a letter in support of such efforts. Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) teamed up with Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) to offer advice to Secretary Blinken about the United States’ role in ensuring the Syrian people are receiving crucial humanitarian aid.

Thirty-eight Senators Call for Full Funding of Israeli Defense Systems. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) led a bipartisan letter calling on the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee to ensure that the fiscal year 2022 budget fully funds US-Israel cooperative missile defense programs like the Iron Dome.

Senator Menendez Meets with Israel’s Erdan. Senator Bob Menendez had a meeting with Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan last week in which the pair spoke about US-Israeli relations and Israeli security concerns. Many in Washington were shocked by Menendez’s statement that appeared to be uncharacteristically critical of Israel during its 11-day bombardment of Gaza, so perhaps this was Erdan’s attempt to gauge the hawkish Menendez’s sentiment.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Meets with Turkish President in First International Travel. President Biden undertook international travel for the first time as Commander-in-Chief and, although the meeting was part of his broader outreach to North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, the president is slated to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Ahead of that meeting, Biden’s Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar about bilateral cooperation and regional issues.

Biden Considers Daniel Shapiro for Middle East Envoy Role. According to multiple reports, the Biden Administration and former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro have agreed in principle to appoint Shapiro to a Middle East envoy role. While details remain unsettled, Shapiro will likely take responsibility for Biden’s efforts to deepen and expand normalization agreements between Israel and Arab or Muslim-majority countries.

White House Releases Report to Congress under War Powers Resolution. The White House sent a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and President Pro Tempore of the Senate Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) outlining the deployment of US military personnel in countries around the globe, including the Middle East and North Africa. According to the letter, the United States continues military action and/or maintains a troop presence in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Somalia, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Holds Call with Omani Foreign Minister, Meets with Jewish, Palestinian Leaders. Secretary Blinken was busy over the last week with the aforementioned congressional appearances, but he also took time to hold a phone call with Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Al Busaidi. The pair spoke about efforts both countries have taken to address violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as well as in Yemen. In addition, the State Department released statements saying that Blinken met with leaders of both the US Jewish community and the Palestinian American community.

State Announces New Sanctions on Houthi Networks. The State Department issued a press release last week notifying the public that the United States has sanctioned 12 entities as part of an illicit network providing financial support to Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Statement on US-UAE Economic Policy Dialogue. Officials from the United States and the United Arab Emirates held talks during the eighth annual US-UAE Economic Policy Dialogue last week. After their meetings, the two sides released a joint statement outlining the desire to further entrench economic activity between the governments and private industries of both countries.

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