Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

No Funding for Terrorists Act. One of Congress’s most controversial members, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia), made her first foray into foreign policy, filing H.R. 2445 to prohibit US assistance from flowing to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. According to her office’s brief press release, the legislation is set to end any and all US Agency for International Development aid that directly benefits the Palestinian Authority (PA). It would also revoke the secretary of state’s ability to use discretion in granting assistance to the PA.

Recognizing the Commencement of Ramadan. Congress’s sole Muslim members—Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), and André Carson (Indiana)—spearheaded H. Res. 302 recognizing the commencement of Ramadan.

Commemorating the Centennial of the Founding of the Jordanian State. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate introduced resolutions this week commemorating 100 years since the founding of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) introduced the Senate version as S. Res. 154 (the text of which can be read here) while Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska) and Adam Schiff (D-California) introduced H.R. 305.

Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living under Israeli Military Occupation Act. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) introduced wide-ranging legislation that conditions US assistance to Israel on its treatment of Palestinian children and policies regarding Palestinian property. The bill is known as the Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act. It bars Israel from using US assistance in the occupied Palestinian territories for two main human rights abuses by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF): the military detention, abuse, and ill-treatment of Palestinian children, and the seizure and destruction of Palestinian property and homes. Furthermore, no assistance may be used for Israel’s unilateral annexation of Palestinian territory.

It was not clear how much support there is for the bill, as it received only 13 cosponsors, almost all of whom are considered progressives. Stalwart pro-Israel lobbies in the United States, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Democratic Majority for Israel, immediately came out in opposition.

Counter Saudi Arabia’s Possible Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) introduced H.R. 2506 with the stated purpose of countering any Saudi attempt to secure weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Though the text of the bill has not yet been released, lawmakers have been suspicious of Riyadh’s nuclear ambitions and have introduced legislation in recent years to bind the kingdom to a robust set of nuclear guardrails, so it is likely that is Castro’s intent as well.

2) Hearings and Briefings

“The Dissident”: A Conversation on Human Rights and Accountability. On April 8, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hosted a virtual panel with members of Congress to discuss US-Saudi relations and global human rights protections. Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey), and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) discussed the implications of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and potential action that could be taken during President Joe Biden’s administration to hold Riyadh accountable for the assassination.

Rep. Meeks, chairman of the HFAC, opened the roundtable by explaining that restoring US leadership is a high priority for President Biden and that the documentary film, “The Dissident,” shines light on Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. Meeks pointed out that Saudi Arabia continues to threaten journalists both in the kingdom and abroad, and that “business as usual” between Washington and Riyadh is not tenable as long as such actions continue.

Rep. McGovern continued to discuss Saudi Arabia’s abuses and violations of human rights and he strongly opposed Riyadh’s lack of accountability on matters of human rights. McGovern said that President Biden deserves credit for declassifying the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) report that detailed Khashoggi’s murder and actions taken to sanction 76 Saudi individuals involved in the murder. However, McGovern argued that US credibility is generally undermined by defending Saudi Arabia and, in order to put more distance between the sides, Washington should end arms sales to the kingdom while undertaking a review of the entire bilateral relationship.

Congressman Malinowski, for his part, focused on how Khashoggi’s murder represents a threat to US security, considering that the murder did not happen within the kingdom. He charged that the Saudi government acted with arrogance by reaching beyond its borders—believing that it can punish people who are under the protection of democratic countries around the world—which is reckless and dangerous. Rep. Jackson Lee closed out the roundtable by building on the sentiments of her colleagues and calling the Khashoggi murder a crime that will not be forgotten.

Worldwide Threats. On April 14, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a pair of hearings—one open to the public and the other closed—to explore the ODNI’s recent report on global threats to US interests. The committee hosted a slate of government officials, including Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns, and the heads of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), National Security Agency, and Defense Intelligence Agency. On Iran, DNI Haines said in her testimony that Tehran will continue to pose a threat to US interests, particularly through its efforts to maintain or grow its influence in Arab states like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) asked panel members for their assessments of how the so-called Abraham Accords signed between Israel and some of the region’s Arab governments contribute to the intelligence community’s threat assessment in the Middle East. CIA Director Burns argued that the agreements further the goals of peace and security in the region.

During a subsequent House Intelligence Committee hearing on the same topic—and featuring the same witnesses—Director Haines and her colleagues were asked about different regional threats, with Haines at one point telling the committee that at present, the intelligence community considers al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Syria, and Yemen to be the most dangerous and most capable iterations of the terrorist group. As for the Islamic State (IS), Haines said that Iraq and Syria remain the group’s staging grounds from which threats are most likely to emanate.

“Old Bullies, New Toys: Confronting Iran and North Korea. On April 14, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) participated in a virtual webinar examining the potential threats posed by Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear energy programs. He argued that the United States should invest more resources in missile defense systems to preempt the threat of an Iranian attack on both the US mainland and its forward deployed troops in neighboring Arab states like Kuwait. On Iran’s nuclear program, Turner asserted that the current administration’s approach actually makes the United States less safe, despite the fact that every major intelligence outfit agreed that the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement constrained Tehran’s nuclear program in a verifiable way.

10 Years of War: Examining the Ongoing Conflict in Syria. On April 15, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Global Counterterrorism held a hearing to examine the 10-year-old conflict in Syria. After recounting Syria’s recent history, lawmakers and witnesses dove into strategy, with witness Lina Khatib, Omar Alshogre, and Jennifer Cafarella offering recommendations. One theme was common throughout the hearing: that Bashar al-Assad and his regime have no future in Syria and the possibilities for their replacement in the near future or otherwise.

Lina Khatib began by outlining 10 steps Washington could take to help make progress on ending the war, including linking its words with meaningful actions, initiating bilateral talks with Russia on Syria’s future, ensuring that the UN-led peace process is reformatted in order to continue effectively, pursuing a comprehensive strategy of limiting Iranian influence in the region while linking it to ongoing negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, and keeping US troops in northeastern Syria as a bulwark against extremist groups and the Assad regime. In addition, she argued that the United States must maintain pressure on IS and initiate social and economic reforms that address grievances that drive people to IS. Finally, Khatib called for engagement with Turkey on jointly supporting the Syrian opposition in Idlib, offering robust US support for civil society groups that seek accountability for war crimes, holding the United Nations accountable for providing needed humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians, and maintaining sanctions on the Assad government and its supporters while affirming that these sanctions do not harm civil society.

Omar Alshogre largely agreed, adding that the United States should ensure strong enforcement of the Caesar Act and maintain pressure on Assad’s war machine. Jennifer Cafarella urged lawmakers to consider drafting policies that reinforce the successes that have been achieved, bolstering support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, and maintaining the cross border flow of humanitarian aid even if Russia vetoes relevant UN measures. In addition, she argued that Washington must continue efforts to constrain adversaries by maintaining sanctions and conducting counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and IS. She also called for the commissioning of a congressional study to examine and hold Moscow accountable for war crimes. Lastly, Cafarella recommended that the United States provide economic and political support to Turkey to ensure that there are no further attacks on Idlib and that it build for the future by launching broad diplomatic outreach to as much of Syrian civil society as possible.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Bowman Meets with Acting Israeli Consul General. Months after causing a stir when he wrote to Israel’s acting consul general about vaccination disparities in Israel and the occupied territories, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) met with the same official—Israel Nitzan—this week at the consulate in what both described as a constructive meeting.

Congress Writes Officials about Defense Nominee, Troop Deployments in Middle East. Senator Bill Hagerty (R-Tennessee) led 17 of his Senate GOP colleagues in writing to FBI Director Wray demanding the FBI immediately investigate President Biden’s nominee for the third-ranking civilian position at the Pentagon, Colin Kahl. Members of the group—all of whom publicly oppose Kahl’s nomination—assert that he potentially shared, handled, and solicited classified information in his time away from government. Kahl is already President Biden’s most imperiled of the remaining nominations and, should the FBI move forward with an investigation, it would likely be difficult for him to garner the necessary support to win confirmation.

Across the Capitol, three Democratic House members wrote a separate letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III urging the administration to boost public transparency and resume publishing the number of troops deployed in conflict zones like Iraq and Syria. The three lawmakers are asking Austin to reverse the Trump Administration’s practice of withholding these figures.

HFAC Ranking Member Wants Answers about China-Iran Relations. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking member of the HFAC, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week asking for details about the growing Chinese-Iranian bilateral relationship. Despite the fact that the two countries’ growing cooperation was a possible result of the Trump Administration’s efforts to isolate Iran from the regional and global economy, McCaul voiced concern in his letter that deepening ties between Tehran and Beijing would undermine the interests of the United States and its allies. McCaul also noted that China has increased its trade and cooperation with Iran, despite the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign on Iran that he and his Republican colleagues laud. Now, he is asking for details from Secretary Blinken, hinting at the fact that the ranking member may want the Biden Administration to levy sanctions on Chinese entities in an effort to weaken Beijing’s growing relationship with Iran.

No More Waiting: House Democrats Write to Biden on Refugees. After waiting for President Biden to fulfill his campaign promise and issue directives to ease the refugee admission and resettlement process, a group of House Democrats led by Rep. Ilhan Omar sent the president a letter urging him to finalize the necessary paperwork known as an Emergency Presidential Declaration. Until now, the Biden Administration has slowed the process, fearing a political backlash if the American public ties refugee resettlement policies to the completely unrelated immigration policies that have resulted in the arrival of immigrants and asylum seekers to the US border with Mexico. Shortly after the letter was publicized, President Biden signed the order expediting refugee resettlement, though he left in place the historically low cap on the number of refugees able to be resettled this fiscal year.

Lawmakers Spark State Dept. Rift with PA, Clarify Trump’s Policies toward Israel. This week, two reports highlighted previously unreported details about US-Palestinian relations. First, Axios reported that, in part due to concerns raised by Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-New York), and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), the State Department raised concerns to the PA about ongoing intimidation and death threats against Palestinian-American activist Fadi Elsalameen. According to details from the report, the PA rebuffed State Department officials and the administration says it will monitor the situation. In a separate report, the Huffington Post uncovered private remarks by Rep. Michael McCaul in which he plainly stated that the Trump Administration’s policy in the search for peace between Israel and Palestine was to marginalize the Palestinians, including by pressuring Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel despite a lack of a broader solution to the conflict. To many observers of US policy, this came as no surprise—except in that it elucidates the intent behind the unilateral policy that Trump Administration officials tried to sell as groundbreaking and conducive to peace.

4) Nominations

SFRC Holds Hearings, Votes for Administration Nominees. On April 15, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) met to conduct a confirmation hearing for two nominees for top State Department positions. It also voted on the nomination of Samantha Power, who has been tapped to head the US Agency for International Development. The committee hosted Victoria Nuland, who is slated to serve as Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and Uzra Zeya, who was nominated for Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. Because both will oversee portfolios much broader than just the Middle East and North Africa, a good portion of the discussion focused on US policy outside the region. However, the Biden Administration’s effort to negotiate a return to the Iran nuclear deal was discussed and Nuland, for her part, toed the administration’s line that argues for a return to a deal followed by more negotiations on “lengthening and strengthening” an agreement reached with Tehran. Nuland was also asked about the ongoing threat of unilateral action taken by Israel that will formally end prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict—though it is probable that prospects for such a reality have already evaporated—and she asserted that it is still in the United States’ interest to ensure that a two-state solution remains viable. To achieve this goal, Nuland argued that first and foremost, Washington needs willing and able partners in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps with whom to forge a path to peace. Until this happens, Nuland said the United States must pressure both sides to avoid unilateral actions that jeopardize the viability of the administration’s preferred solution.

During the business meeting, the SFRC agreed to advance Power’s nomination to the full Senate for consideration and, most likely, eventual confirmation. Power’s progress comes after the full Senate voted by a margin of 56-42 to confirm Wendy Sherman as deputy secretary of state. Finally, the White House published a list of nominees it intends to submit to the Senate. These nominees include Barbara Leaf for assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Steven Bondy for ambassador to Bahrain, Larry Edward Andre, Jr. for ambassador to Somalia, and Elizabeth Moore Aubin for ambassador to Algeria.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

As JCPOA Negotiations Resume, NSA Sullivan Meets with Israeli Counterpart. This week, the Biden Administration’s negotiating team resumed consultations with the signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to lay the groundwork for a resumption of the deal. At the same time, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with his Israeli counterpart as part of an ongoing US-Israel strategic consulting group, during which he reaffirmed the US commitment to Israel’s security, presumably as it relates to threats posed by Iran.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Qatari Foreign Minister. On April 9, Secretary Blinken held a phone call with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to thank him for Doha’s support for US military personnel based in the country, as well as for its role in facilitating negotiations between the United States and Afghan parties.

State Department Announces US Will Move Forward with Arms Deal with UAE. Despite Democratic opposition to the last hour agreement, the Biden State Department told Congress that Washington will move forward with a multibillion dollar deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), even as the administration continues to review the proposal. The nearly $23.37 billion agreement would provide Abu Dhabi with sophisticated fighter jets, unmanned aerial systems, and other miscellaneous munitions. Anticipating opposition due to the UAE’s role in the disastrous war in Yemen, the Biden Administration was adamant that it would hold recipients of US military hardware to a higher standard vis-à-vis human rights and the safety of civilians.

State Department Officials Visit Lebanon, UNRWA Office in Jordan, and the Gulf. A trio of high-ranking State Department officials continued to further the Biden Administration’s renewed diplomatic efforts this week. First, Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale traveled to Lebanon where, according to the department’s press release, he met with Lebanese leaders, including president Michel Aoun, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Dian, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and PM-designate Saad Hariri. He urged all those he met to facilitate the formation of a new government for the country. Under Secretary Hale also offered to help mediate a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel after previous efforts had failed and Beirut later expanded its territorial claims.

Meanwhile, US Ambassador to Jordan Henry Wooster visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), shortly after the Biden Administration resumed US  aid to the body. His visit also came at the same time that the Biden team was highlighting that it extracted from UNRWA a commitment to take a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism.

Lastly, the administration’s special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, traveled to Germany and the United Arab Emirates for comprehensive meetings with foreign officials, including UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary of Defense Austin Visits Israel to Meet with Top Officials. Secretary of Defense Austin became the highest-ranking member of the Biden Administration to visit Israel this week, traveling there ahead of his visit to Europe. While in-country, Austin met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Interestingly, Israel allegedly took the occasion as an opportunity to conduct an attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility in an operation reportedly carried out by Mossad. While Austin did not address the recent escalations between Israel and Iran, he said publicly that the United States is committed to upholding the two countries’ mutual security interests.

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