What Does Bipartisan Support for Israel Look Like?

This week, Washington was abuzz with questions about the historically bipartisan nature of support for Israel and its number one lobbying group in the United States, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In recent weeks, AIPAC has called into question its ostensibly bipartisan approach to garnering support for Israel after it publicly tussled with popular progressives in Congress. First, the group drew the ire of Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) for demonizing her and her colleagues over their support for policies that would prevent US security assistance to Israel from being used to detain Palestinian children. Then, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), a popular Jewish progressive and potential Democratic Party nominee for president, announced he would not attend the AIPAC Policy Conference, citing that the group provides a platform to controversial speakers “who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”

Despite the public feuds, AIPAC tried to assure the public that bipartisan support for Israel remains strong and that the group itself is still committed to working with members of both parties to ensure Washington’s commitment to Israel. No matter what AIPAC stated, however, the events of its annual conference this week illustrated that “bipartisan support” for Israel means different things to different sides. Further, if one also takes into account the substance of the pro-Israel panels at this week’s American Conservative Union’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), it becomes even clearer that conservatives in the United States are eagerly crafting a new narrative for what supporting Israel means.

While Senator Sanders—arguably the most ardent supporter in mainstream American politics of Palestinian rights—and Rep. McCollum were admonished by AIPAC, the conservative speakers who flocked to the conference were even more forceful in denouncing not just individuals, but the entire Democratic Party, as insufficiently pro-Israel. Their contention is that these Democrats have called for more accountability from Israel and have urged officials to use US leverage to impose conditions on Israel in its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Conservative officials in the United States, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and a number of members of Congress stood before AIPAC and made it clear that supporting Israel means that one must support President Trump—whom they deemed the “most pro-Israel president” ever—and his exceedingly right-wing policies.

At CPAC, traditional conservatives and formerly fringe characters alike lauded the Trump Administration’s policies toward Israel and made clear that anything short of supporting Israel’s annexation and, essentially, permanent occupation of the Palestinian territories is not “pro-Israel.” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina) told conservatives that “the two-state solution is no solution at all” and that the West Bank is actually part of Israel (referring to the occupied territory by its biblical Hebrew name of “Judea and Samaria”). Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona) also plainly stated that settlements are not illegal under international law.

Democrats, for their parts, helped legitimize the new definition of pro-Israel support, at least tacitly. For obvious reasons, Democrats were not invited to CPAC, but longtime Israel supporters like Senators Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Reps. Eliot Engel (D-New York), Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), and others appeared at AIPAC to speak to the bipartisan nature of US support for Israel. However, by legitimizing the event with their presence, and their steadfast refusal to criticize Israel even when it uses US funds to perpetuate a brutal occupation, these Democratic Party officials are implicitly signaling that to be pro-Israel, Americans must support Israel’s worst policies.

This year’s AIPAC and CPAC conferences have made it clear: to many in Washington, being pro-Israel means walking in lockstep with the hard-right policies of President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many officials made it clear that Trump’s policies are what is best for Israel and anything short of full-throated support actually hurts the country.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Expressing the Sense that the US Should Initiate Negotiations to Enter into a Free Trade Agreement with Tunisia. This week, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) introduced S. Res. 506 expressing the sense of the Senate that Washington should work to craft a free trade agreement with Tunisia. Tunisian Prime Minister Elias Fakhfakh was recently able to win support for a new government and now senators are striving to show US support for the fledgling democracy by ensuring that US-Tunisian economic relations benefit Tunisia and support its continued transition toward democracy. The leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also commended Tunis’s newly formed government and expressed support for stronger economic ties with the United States.

Calling Upon the UNSC to Adopt a Resolution Extending the Dates by Which Restrictions Under Resolution 2231 Are Set to Expire. As the AIPAC annual conference loomed near, Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) introduced S. Res. 509a legislative goal of AIPAC’s and supported by Iran hawks in Congress—calling on the UN Security Council to extend restrictions on Iranian conventional arms purchases. US Special Representative Brian Hook called it “diplomatic malpractice” to let the arms embargo expire in October 2020.

Stop Evasion of Iran Sanctions Act. This week, Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wisconsin) introduced H.R. 6015 in an effort to assure that the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), which allows for limited trade with Iran, will not be used to evade US sanctions on Tehran. Steil released a statement saying that it is critical to ascertain that the Iranian regime does not acquire a nuclear weapon and, to do so, the United States must ensure that Tehran is not evading sanctions. As such, this bill “gives the Secretary of the Treasury the explicit authority to sanction a financial institution operating outside the United States that knowingly conducts a significant sanctionable transaction related to INSTEX.”

Blocking the Implementation of a Recent Presidential Proclamation Restricting Individuals from Certain Countries from Entering the United States. Just weeks after the House of Representatives passed the No BAN Act in an attempt to repeal President Trump’s ban on certain individuals entering the United States—colloquially referred to as a “Muslim ban”—Democrats in the House and Senate introduced legislation that would prohibit the implementation of President Trump’s recent extension of that ban. The new presidential order extends the original travel ban, which largely targeted individuals from Muslim-majority and Arab countries, to include, among others, Sudan. Both pieces of legislation will go to committee for consideration; however, while this legislation could probably pass the House, it is unlikely to pass the Senate or survive a presidential veto.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Warren Seeks Reassurances That Sanctions Will Not Affect Iran’s Coronavirus Response. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seeking assurances that US sanctions on Iran will not hamper the country’s ability to import humanitarian and medical supplies to address the growing threat of the coronavirus. Despite assurances that these items were acceptable, US sanctions have scared entities away from trading in humanitarian goods with Iranian citizens, even though articles like medicine and other medical equipment are specifically exempt from sanctions. Since hundreds of Iranians have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, both Secretary Pompeo and the State Department’s Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook have stated that the Trump Administration has offered assistance and will work to identify ways it can make sure that sanctions do not stymie Tehran’s response to what many fear could become a global pandemic.

Sen. Ted Cruz Wants to Cut Off UN; Pompeo Aids Businesses over Settlement “Blacklist.” Arab Center Washington DC detailed in February how a UN database outlining the ways businesses contribute to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is being demonized by many in Washington as a “blacklist” that seeks to delegitimize Israel. The trend continued this week, with Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) backing the idea that the United States should halt financial contributions to the United Nations until the database is taken down. Secretary of State Pompeo went even further, however. The State Department released guidance urging businesses named in the database essentially to ignore the United Nations body and, if they experience harassment due to being on the list, they are to contact the State Department—where, presumably, Secretary Pompeo will use a mechanism of the state to counter this effort. All of this is despite the fact that the database is not a “blacklist” and the UN body is not dictating that anyone boycott these companies. Rather, the list is meant to be a tool for conscientious consumers.

House Democrats Write to Egyptian Ambassador on Human Rights. This week, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and eight of her Democratic colleagues in the House wrote a letter to Egypt’s ambassador to the United States expressing concern about Cairo’s continued violations of human rights. Coming just months after a US citizen died in Egyptian custody, these lawmakers are calling on Egypt’s government to immediately release political prisoners, end its reprisal policies against human rights defenders, and stop its practice of torturing detainees. The group told the ambassador that they will continue to monitor Egypt’s human rights record and consider what progress, if any, is made. If there is no progress, the lawmakers made the point that bilateral US assistance to Egypt could be in jeopardy.

Lawmakers Still Seeking “Justice for Jamal. This week, congressional lawmakers made a point to press the Trump Administration for details on the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California), who heads the House Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote a letter to the new acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Richard Grenell, calling on the administration to make public the intelligence report on Khashoggi’s murder, pursuant to the law. The chairman and ranking member of the Senate’s Select Intelligence Committee followed up on the effort later, also calling on Grenell to make public the Office of the DNI’s (ODNI) own internal assessment of who was responsible for ordering Khashoggi’s murder.

On March 3, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) continued to mount pressure on the administration by cohosting an event on Capitol Hill with the fiancée of the late Khashoggi. Wyden and Malinowski pilloried the Trump Administration for failing to abide by the law. Further, Senator Wyden outlined a rarely used procedure he plans to invoke to assure that the public has access to the information that lawmakers have seen from the ODNI on Khashoggi’s murder. The process is lengthy and includes multiple votes in the Senate, but Wyden sounded committed to forcing a debate. Wyden and Malinowski both said the information they saw in the ODNI’s classified report is critical for the US public in order to have a debate on the fundamental relationship between Washington and Riyadh. They suggested that the Trump Administration is refusing to declassify its own internal assessment for fear of embarrassing the Saudi government.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Lawmakers Discuss Defense Policy and New Visions for US Foreign Policy. This week, members of Congress participated in multiple events around Washington that were intended to explain how lawmakers perceive the US role in the world. Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona), Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington), and Ro Khanna (D-California) as well as Senator Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vermont) top foreign policy aide appeared on panels at an event focused on crafting a “New Vision for America in the World.” In addition, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) appeared at the Brookings Institution to discuss Congress’s role in crafting the country’s defense policy.

Reps. Biggs, Jayapal, and Khanna were clear that Congress has to strengthen its role in crafting foreign and defense policy. They all expressed the need to stop endless wars in the Middle East and to reform the authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) there. They also discussed the need to reorient US policy starting with auditing the Pentagon, writing budgets that prioritize the national security challenges facing the United States now (and not those the United States faced in 2001 and 2002 when Congress passed the AUMFs), and reining in some of the president’s expanded authorities that nearly 20 years of the “War on Terror” have unleashed. Rep. Thornberry, on the other hand, took a different approach. He was skeptical about Congress’s role in constraining US foreign policy and was generally deferential to the Executive Branch’s authorities and priorities. Thornberry, who is retiring at the end of his current term, is more in line with the national security establishment’s consensus that has embraced massive Pentagon budgets and a sprawling defense bureaucracy, as opposed to a new and growing bipartisan movement to rethink Washington’s approach toward the world.

Evaluating the Trump Administration’s Policies on Iran, Iraq, and the Use of Force. The House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) finally secured testimony from Secretary of State Pompeo, nearly two months after the administration assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. The hearing was contentious and fiercely partisan, with Republicans unanimously supportive of the administration’s policies toward Iran and Iraq and the use of military force, while Democrats repeatedly pressing Pompeo on the administration’s policies more generally, and specifically, the legal justifications for striking and killing Soleimani.

While the hearing was ostensibly intended to probe the administration’s policies regarding the use of force, Democrats repeatedly prodded Secretary Pompeo about the spread of the coronavirus, whether the American people can trust an administration to tell them the truth after it changed its justifications for killing Soleimani, and whether the United States has offered to help the Iranian government arrest the spread of the pathogen in Iran. By the end of the hearing, however, it was clear that neither party was serious about tackling the crucial issues surrounding the administration’s policies for the use of force against Iranian elements in Iraq.

Fifty Years of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: Strengthening the NPT in the Face of Iranian and North Korean Nonproliferation Challenges. On March 4, two HFAC subcommittees held a joint hearing for the 50th anniversary of the signing of the nonproliferation treaty (NPT) that governs the international community’s build-up of nuclear weapons. Democrats largely criticized the Trump Administration’s nonproliferation strategies, but like their Republican counterparts, they were also critical of the threats Iran poses when it comes to nonproliferation. However, the expert witnesses were adamant that despite Tehran’s posturing, a full withdrawal from the NPT is unlikely. Nevertheless, since the Trump Administration abrogated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran has stockpiled much more enriched uranium than allowed under the deal, raising alarms for those who fear the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the Middle East.

4) Nominations

President Trump Picks Nominees for DNI, Top State Position. Despite only recently naming Richard Grenell as acting DNI, President Trump notified the Senate that he would formally nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to oversee the ODNI. Trump wanted to move forward with this nomination despite skepticism even from Republicans in the Senate. Ratcliffe caught the president’s attention for his full-throated defense of Trump during the House’s impeachment process. In addition, President Trump also nominated Ronald Mortensen to serve in the top State Department position overseeing the bureau responsible for refugees. Both are controversial picks: Ratcliffe is deemed inexperienced and highly partisan while Mortensen is an anti-immigration hawk whom many think would be a poor fit as he would oversee refugee issues at a time when refugee numbers are heightened and fighting in Syria continues to displace hundreds of thousands of more.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Secretary Pompeo Speaks, Meets with Arab Officials. This week, Mike Pompeo held  a phone call with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani as well as a later in-person meeting. He also met with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha. While in Doha, the secretary spoke with Qatar’s top officials about the US-Qatari relationship, regional security developments, and the integral role Doha has played in facilitating peace negotiations between Washington and the Taliban fighters of Afghanistan.

On his return to the United States, Pompeo talked with Tunisian Prime Minister Elias Fakhfakh about the future of US-Tunisian relations under Fakhfakh’s new government.

State Department Designates Ahmad al-Hamidawi a SDGT. The Department of State announced this week that it has designated Ahmad al-Hamidawi, the head of Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq, as a specially designated global terrorist (SDGT). The designation cuts off al-Hamidawi from the US financial system and discourages any US entities from engaging in any transactions with him.

Clark Cooper Travels to Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia. This week the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, R. Clarke Cooper, traveled to three Arab League states in North Africa—Mauritania, Algeria, and Tunisia—to “expand US security cooperation and defense trade that enhances … shared security across Africa and the Maghreb.” In all three countries, Cooper met with civilian and military officials to discuss regional security issues.

2) Department of Defense

Secretary Esper Speaks with Turkish Defense Minister after Increased Fighting in Syria. Fighting in Syria’s Idlib province has intensified over the last week, forcing hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee and resulting in a direct clash between the Russian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Turkish military. After at least 20 Turkish soldiers were killed in an Assad-regime counteroffensive, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke with his Turkish counterpart about the situation in Syria. The Pentagon’s readout said the two spoke about efforts that the United States, Turkey, and the international community could undertake jointly to ease tensions. The State Department also put out statements, held press briefings, and sent officials to the Turkish-Syrian border to confirm that the United States supports Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally.

3) Department of the Treasury

Treasury, State Department Announce New Humanitarian Efforts for Iran, Syria. This week, the Departments of Treasury and State announced new efforts intended to help alleviate the humanitarian suffering of people in Iran—who are suffering under sanctions that, until recently, blocked access to humanitarian goods and medicines—and in Syria. The Treasury Department announced that a Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement it helped develop is now fully operational and “will help ensure that humanitarian goods continue to reach the Iranian people without diversion by the regime.” It is curious that the department felt obligated to tout the now-unabridged flow of humanitarian goods to Iranian citizens because, for months, administration officials denied that sanctions blocked Iranians from importing crucial items, even though multiple reports illustrated just that. For Syria, the State Department announced it had pooled funds from different accounts and tapped another $108 million to help support Syrians fleeing their homes as the Assad-regime fights Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib.

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