Trump Administration Sprints to Make Foreign Policy Irreversible before Elections

Tens of millions of American voters have already cast their ballots for president and there is less than one week before Election Day 2020. With warning signs flashing red for incumbent President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects, members of his administration are seeking to build a firewall around what they consider to be his diplomatic successes. Nowhere is that clearer than in respect to Israel and Iran.

This week alone, actions and statements by administration officials like Ambassadors David Friedman and Kelly Craft and Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz illustrate the extent to which the administration is seeking to give Israel material benefits before they potentially leave office. Even more extraordinary is their plan to fundamentally reframe what it means to be “pro-Israel” and what “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians would or should look like. Friedman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are set to sign an agreement that formalizes the US position that settlements in the occupied West Bank—what right-wing Israelis and Americans alike call Judea and Samaria—and the Syrian Golan Heights are not illegal (contrary to international law and consensus) and that the United States should recognize them as part of Israel.

More broadly, Craft and Berkowitz signaled to Israel and the international community that the Trump Administration’s radical departure from traditional views on settling the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians should be the new starting point from which any solution is negotiated. Ambassador Craft told the United Nations that there is no longer a need for the international community to use the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative—a proposal backed by the Arab League saying that Arab-Israeli relations should be based on Israel returning land occupied after 1967, for a future Palestinian state—as a framework for reaching peace. Instead, Craft asserted that President Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” is working, citing recent normalization agreements between Sudan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with Israel, and urged the international community to use it as the new basis from which to pursue peace. For his part, Berkowitz made an argument that US policy is not fundamentally opposed to “applying Israeli law”—a euphemism for illegal annexation—to parts of the occupied West Bank. He said that despite the claims that Israel suspended annexation in exchange for normalizing relations with Gulf Arab states, annexation “is very important to [officials in the Trump Administration].”

If this is indeed the twilight of the Trump Administration, such actions and rhetoric serve to shift the Overton window on what the international community—and particularly Israel and autocratic Arab states—find acceptable moving forward. At base, a potential Joe Biden presidency would not constitute a stark departure from the policies of the Trump Administration on Israel and Palestine; after all, de facto annexation has happened and continues throughout the occupied Palestinian territory. However, there are subtle policy differences that a Biden administration might propose to which the United States’ Arab partners and Israel may object, since they have had a look at what unfettered support for Israel’s right wing portends.

The Trump team’s attempt to hamstring a potential Biden administration on Iran policy is even less veiled. Just this week, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, Elliott Abrams, told The National that Joe Biden, as president, would not be able to lift the sanctions on Tehran, even if he wanted to. Abrams stressed that the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign is built on a litany of sanctions authorities, many of which are logistically and politically difficult to end immediately. Indeed, for some time, administration officials and outside advisors have been vocal about the need to prevent a Democratic administration from reversing sanctions, in an effort to hamper future efforts at diplomacy with Tehran. For good measure, the State Department announced a spate of new sanctions targeting Iranian entities this week. The administration targeted Iraj Masjedi, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force general and Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, for undermining Iraq’s security. The State Department also announced that the administration blacklisted the IRGC, its Quds Force, and three other Iranian entities for attempting to undermine confidence in US elections, as Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe laid out last week. Finally, on Iran, State levied sanctions on the Ministry and the Minister of Petroleum and 23 other government entities and state-owned companies for using the energy sector to finance the IRGC-Quds Force.

President Trump and his officials are undoubtedly worried about his reelection chances. As such, his top Middle East hands are working overtime to secure their longtime ambitions vis-à-vis Israel and Iran and even more strenuously to ensure that those policies cannot be rolled back. To accomplish these goals, they are shifting the perception of what is acceptable, hoping to make the political costs of pressuring Israel in any manner, or offering any kind of diplomatic olive branch to Iran, prohibitively high. One can expect them to go even further during the period between November and January if next week’s election results in a Biden victory.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

SAUDI WMD Act. Democratic Senators Ed Markey (Massachusetts) and Jeff Merkley (Oregon) announced that they are preparing to introduce legislation they are calling the Stopping Activities Underpinning Development In Weapons of Mass Destruction (SAUDI WMD) Act. Following reports of Chinese-Saudi cooperation in developing ballistic missiles and nuclear technology capabilities, the pair is pushing legislation that would expand reporting requirements about the steps Riyadh is taking to secure sophisticated weapons technology related to a nuclear program. If the kingdom is found to have engaged in efforts to develop a nuclear fuel cycle facility that does not comply with safeguards regulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency, then the senators’ bill would call for a termination of most US arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Day of Remembrance for the 1983 Beirut Barracks Bombing. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) introduced S. Res. 751 to recognize October 23, 2020 as a day of remembrance of the 1983 bombing of the barracks in Beirut where US Marines were housed.

Requesting Information on the Government of Turkey’s Human Rights Practices. Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) introduced S. Res. 755 requesting that the Trump Administration provide Congress with a detailed report about Ankara’s violations of human rights domestically and in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Menendez also calls on the State Department to provide details about how it has tried to push back against Turkey’s human rights violations, if at all.

US-Israel Common Defense Authorization Act. Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) and Brian Mast (R-Florida) are working together to introduce legislation that is intended to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) in the Middle East and, for Israel and the United States, “secure both … countries from the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.” The legislation will reportedly leave open the possibility that the United States could provide Israel with “bunker busters” known as “massive ordnance penetrators” (MOPs), the largest non-nuclear bombs the US military employs. Delivery of such bombs would ostensibly come with permission for Israel to use them to attack fortified nuclear sites within Iran, though it is unclear whether Tel Aviv has the capacity to carry out such attacks without US support.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers Call for ODNI, DOJ, and FBI Briefings on Iranian Electoral Meddling. Following an announcement by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe that Iran and other countries have been interfering in the 2020 US elections to hurt President Trump, three lawmakers are calling on the administration to provide classified briefings to Congress on the matter. Senator Todd Young (R-Indiana) is asking Ratcliffe and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to provide a classified briefing on interference efforts to all 100 members of the Senate. In addition, Florida Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D) and Michael Waltz (R) have called on Ratcliffe, as well as the heads of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to provide a briefing to Florida’s congressional delegation about Tehran’s efforts to meddle in the US electoral process.

Sen. Cruz Wants Billions for Israel, but Does Not Want to Mandate Decisions on Palestine. As members of the House and Senate are in conference seeking to craft a compromise National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) joined Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) in sending a letter to House and Senate Armed Services Committee leaders calling on them to ascertain that all of the provisions benefiting Israel make it into the final version of the bill. Cruz and Gillibrand are insisting that the United States codify billions of dollars in US assistance to Israel as agreed in a 2016 memorandum of understanding, signed during the Obama Administration, and they want to ensure provisions are included that further expand US-Israeli military and civilian cooperation.

Prior to this letter, Senator Cruz made his displeasure known in a press release about having to join a resolution applauding the signing of so-called peace agreements, known as the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, because it included support for the two-state solution. While he has repeatedly praised Israel and the Trump Administration for the normalization deals, Cruz was miffed that the resolution he reluctantly signed included language supporting a two-state solution as the United States’ preferred strategy for solving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. According to his statement, Israel is a sovereign state and the United States “has no business trying to dictate” that Tel Aviv make peace through concessions with Palestinians (although many would argue that the provision of billions of dollars of US subsidies gives the US government an inherent right to push certain policy goals). Cruz supports a policy that ignores the Palestinians’ pursuit of ending occupation and argues that it is wrong for the United States to “[refocus] on a Palestinian state.”

House Members Raise Concerns about States Reinstating Ties with Syria. The chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee led 29 of their colleagues in writing a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to express concern about various states renewing formal diplomatic relations with Syria under Bashar al-Assad. The members outlined a list of the brutal crimes Assad and his backers in Russia and Iran have committed and expressed worry that unnamed countries in the Middle East and elsewhere have begun reinstating formal ties with the regime. The lawmakers were likely referring to efforts by Arab states like the UAE and Oman and European states in the Mediterranean like Greece and Cyprus. These House members are urging Pompeo to publicly and privately dissuade states from renewing relations with the Assad regime at this time.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

State Department Announces New Sanctions in Connection to Hezbollah. The State Department announced new sanctions on officials tied to Lebanese Hezbollah. The department blacklisted Nabil Qaouk and Hassan Al-Baghdadi as officials of the designated foreign terrorist organization. It also announced a $10 million reward for information that could help the United States find Muhammad Qasir, Muhammad Qasim al-Bazzal, and Ali Qasir, who are accused of playing key roles in financing Hezbollah.

Small Group on Syria Reiterates Support for UNSC Resolution 2254. The top diplomats representing countries in the Small Group on Syria, which is comprised of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, released a joint statement this week reaffirming their support for ending the crisis in Syria through the parameters set forth in UN Security Council resolution 2254.

US and Bahrain Sign MOU on Combatting Anti-Semitism. The State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, Elan Carr, signed a memorandum of understanding with Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, of the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence in Bahrain, to push for the eradication of anti-Semitism and to “promote respect and peaceful coexistence between Arab and Jewish people through education and programs.” The memorandum specifically dictates that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic and aims to stop what the authors say is the “delegitimization” of Israel.

Sudan Reportedly Transfers Restitution Payment, Clearing Way for Delisting. This week, Sudan reportedly transferred $335 million, as compensation to families of victims of the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, to an escrow account to wait for final clearance. Per an earlier tweet by President Trump, he will notify Congress imminently of his intent to delist Khartoum as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST). Though Sudan is not completely free of the consequences of being an SST, the aforementioned payment and Khartoum’s decision to normalize relations with Israel cleared the way for the State Department to issue over $80 million in humanitarian assistance this week. During a phone call on October 22, Secretary of State Pompeo congratulated Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on the developments.

Secretary Pompeo Under Investigation for Jerusalem RNC Speech. An independent government watchdog has reportedly opened an investigation into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to deliver a speech to the Republican National Convention while on diplomatic travel in Jerusalem. The investigation seeks to determine if Pompeo violated the Hatch Act, a law that limits the kinds of political activities individuals can undertake while working with federally funded programs, such as international diplomatic travel.

2) Department of Defense

Secretary Esper, Defense Minister Gantz Sign Statement on Israel’s QME. Israeli Defense Minister and Alternative Prime Minister Benny Gantz was in Washington this week to meet with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the Pentagon. They discussed developments in the Middle East and Israeli security before signing a joint statement reaffirming the United States’ commitment to ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) in the region. They also reached an agreement for Israel to secure even more US weapons; Israeli defense officials reportedly raised the prospect of securing F-22 fighter jets from Washington since the UAE may secure the less sophisticated F-35 warplanes. The United States stopped producing the F-22s nearly a decade ago, however; therefore, Washington would have to give up some of its own fighter planes in order to fulfill the order—assuming US law could be amended to allow the sale or transfer of the jets in the first place. Esper is also expected in Israel on October 29 to meet with Gantz once again.

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