Biden Revamps Middle East Policy. Some Lawmakers Won’t Stand for It

Although Congress has been on recess and many members have been away from Washington, DC, recent developments pertaining to Iran, Yemen, and Palestine have elicited action from some lawmakers. Policies regarding these three states are among the most polarizing in Washington, so it is no surprise that President Joe Biden’s policy proposals sparked support—or, in a couple cases, ardent opposition—from foreign policy-minded legislators.

Perhaps the most significant development, however, came when 73 members of the House signed onto a letter demanding that the Biden Administration pressure Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners to lift its blockade on Yemen. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) and his colleagues noted that millions of Yemenis are on the brink of starvation and Riyadh’s blockade, which limits the flow of fuel and food provisions into the country, is a main driver of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding there. The signatories call on Biden and his team to use US leverage over Saudi Arabia to demand an immediate end to its blockade.

Elsewhere, members of Congress have been highly critical of the president’s foreign policy initiatives. First, Biden Administration officials have been criticized for their efforts to renew diplomacy with Iran. Although the two sides reportedly did not meet face-to-face, the signatories to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) gathered in Austria to facilitate indirect talks between Washington and Tehran. The negotiations were aimed at finding common ground for the United States and Iran to return to full compliance with the nuclear accord and lift US sanctions that were reimposed under the Trump Administration. According to reports, all sides hailed the talks as a constructive first step and there is cautious optimism that a deal could be reached.

Nevertheless, this early and indirect show at diplomacy was opposed by some in Congress. A quartet of Senate Republicans sent the president a letter denouncing the administration’s reported consideration of lifting sanctions and calling for their continuation until Iran agrees to a list of Republican demands. Other members have been active on social media castigating the diplomatic efforts as well. This opposition was not unexpected, but it is telling that Iran hawks in Washington continue to try and undermine peace efforts while pushing for wildly unrealistic policies to which Tehran would never agree. Fourteen Senate Democrats have stood up in support of diplomacy with Iran, however, in a recent letter led by Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) and Tim Kaine (D-Virginia).

Lastly, Biden’s State Department announced a resumption of US assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and, more broadly, to Palestinians in the occupied territories. Unsurprisingly, this action resulted in an uproar from Republicans, with Democrats also taking more subtle steps to express concern. The Biden Administration’s decision will release some $235 million to Palestinians through either the PA or the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). However, many lawmakers disagree with the decision to resume this aid, which was a mainstay of US policy until hard-liners in the Trump Administration cut it out. The ranking members of the House and Senate committees overseeing foreign policy came out against the move, arguing that President Biden should have sought more concessions from the Palestinians before resuming assistance.

Others pushed an erroneous argument, which Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace dismantled in a recent report, that resumption of aid violates US law. In essence, many lawmakers in Washington simply oppose any assistance to the Palestinians because they do not view this population as worthy of equal rights or opportunities. But it is not just Republicans who hold this view. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California), who bills himself as a progressive, teamed up with Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-New York) to spearhead legislation that would require State Department reporting on educational materials produced by the PA. H.R. 2374 (the substance of which can be read here) is known as the Peace and Tolerance in Palestinian Education Act and it implies that Palestinians are inherently more violent and that the PA incites violence against Israelis. It should be noted that no such concerns are expressed about Israeli educational materials in, for example, Israeli settlements where many Jewish settlers conduct visible and persistent violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. The question, therefore, is should the State Department also be required to report about what Israeli youth are being taught in their educational materials that could potentially fuel violence in their communities?

It is the nature of Washington that the minority party opposes policies of the party in the White House. But it is illogical that many of these voices champion diplomacy while opposing diplomatic efforts. Further, they counter such efforts with unrealistic demands that will not be accepted by US adversaries, just because their political opponents push for them. The United States clearly needs a fundamental rethinking of many of its Middle East policies; however, such opposition and internal divisions are likely to make US policy devolve into the same approaches and practices—many of them fruitless or ineffective—that have been used for the last few decades.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Expressing the Sense of the Senate Regarding the Practice of Politically Motivated Imprisonment of Women.Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced this week that he and some of his colleagues introduced a resolution condemning the practice of politically motivated imprisonment of women around the world. The resolution singles out Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—among other states—for their unjust detentions and abuse of women’s rights activists. Ironically, some of the same cosponsors of the resolution support sanctions and maximum pressure on Iran where, according to one analysis, US policy has decimated the prospects for Iran’s women of the middle class.

NOPEC. In its most recent report, Arab Center Washington DC detailed a Senate bill known colloquially as “NOPEC” that lawmakers hope to use to treat the Saudi-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as a criminal cartel. This week, House members introduced their counterpart to that bill in H.R. 2393.

US-Israel Cooperation Act. Rep. Fred Keller (R-Pennsylvania) introduced H.R. 2409, titled the US-Israel Cooperation Act, which would make it official US policy for the two countries to cooperate on law enforcement training. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a US police officer in the summer of 2020, countless protests erupted across the country and people began to question US police ties to Israel, where law enforcement harshly targets Palestinians as inherent security threats.

 II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Biden Administration Determines Former Egyptian PM Immune from Lawsuit. Recent reporting demonstrates that the State Department submitted a document asserting that Egypt’s former prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, is immune from a federal lawsuit filed by US citizen Mohamed Soltan. El-Beblawi, who now serves on the executive board of the International Monetary Fund, is accused by Soltan of direct responsibility for his imprisonment, torture, and abuse between 2013 and 2015. While the US intervention does not immediately doom Soltan’s suit, it is weighty and will go a long way in helping el-Beblawi triumph against one of the Biden Administration’s own constituents.

Sudan, Iraq, and Environmental Concerns Also among Diplomatic Priorities This Week. State Department officials also focused this week on issues relevant to Sudan and the raging climate crisis that is sure to challenge the wider region. Secretary Blinken spoke with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok about Khartoum’s ongoing political transition and its concerns about Ethiopia’s Nile dam project. The United States also concluded its Joint Strategic Dialogue with Iraqi officials, culminating in security, counterterrorism, and economic agreements meant to further entrench US-Iraqi relations. The dialogue also outlined the need for Iraq to diversify its economy away from the fossil fuel industry in order to help alleviate climate-related concerns.

On this topic, State Department officials were also active with the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Israel. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry visited the UAE and, afterward, the two governments released a statementexpressing their joint commitment to addressing the existential threat of climate change. As one of the region’s wealthier countries, it is important that Abu Dhabi agreed, alongside the United States, not only to address this issue within the UAE but also to contribute financial support to address climate change in the broader Middle East. As for Jordan, the State Department appealed to the Israeli government to provide its water-poor neighbor, Jordan, with assistance. Apparently, Biden Administration officials broached the topic with Tel Aviv after Jordanian officials raised the issue with State Department official Hady Amr. As an aside, Secretary Blinken also spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah II after a whirlwind week that included reports of a supposed coup in Amman, one that appears to have been the result of simmering tensions in the royal family.

2) Department of Defense

Secretary Austin to Visit Israel as Pentagon Seeks to Reduce Troop Presence in Gulf. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III will reportedly travel to Israel in the coming week to meet with Israeli officials and discuss US-Israel security arrangements. According to the report, topics of discussion will include Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Israel’s qualitative military edge. This visit comes at a time of heightened tension in the region, but it could also serve as reassurance to Israel as the administration looks to reduce the US military presence in the Gulf. That limited troop presence in places like Saudi Arabia has been touted as a form of deterrence to Iranian aggression in the Gulf and, to a lesser extent, the Red Sea, where Israel has taken recent action against an Iranian ship.

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