Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

AUMF Repeal. In a 268-161 vote, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the 2002 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against Iraq. With the White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) on board for repealing the law, this is a serious opportunity to nullify the measure this year. However, support for the measure in the Senate is still unclear.

Republicans’ Resolutions Aimed at Censuring, Removing Democrats. Following the latest round of drama in Congress over Israel and its conduct in the occupied Palestinian territories, House Republicans have offered measures to censor and otherwise punish their Democratic colleagues. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Florida) introduced H. Res. 474 to censure some of the chamber’s most high-profile women of color for what he and his colleagues described as “defending foreign terrorist organizations” and “inciting anti-Semitic attacks across the United States.” According to the resolution, Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez (New York), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) were inciting violence for describing Israel as an apartheid state. Furthermore, it appeared likely that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) would try to force a vote to remove Rep. Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), although that seems exceedingly unlikely as time has passed.

Despite McCarthy’s newfound reluctance, other House Republicans sent letters to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) calling on her to strip Rep. Omar of her seat on the HFAC, at minimum, or to remove her from all of her committee assignments.

America Stands with Israel Act. Rep. Ted Budd (R-North Carolina) introduced H.R. 3976, titled the America Stands with Israel Act. It would help expedite arms transfers to Israel if it faced imminent threats, but would also authorize the president to use force to protect Israel in the face of an attack.

Iron Dome Reinforcement Act. Rep. Budd introduced another bill—H.R. 3977—to benefit Israel, this one called the Iron Dome Reinforcement Act. The legislation would essentially allow the president to divert funds intended for the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to Israel, to use to replenish its Iron Dome missile defense system.

Stop Taxpayer Funding of Hamas Act. Senator Rick Scott (R-Florida) is seeking to block all US assistance to Gaza in the hopes of depriving Hamas of potential sources of funding. Last week, Senator Scott tried to “hotline” the legislation through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) in hopes of forcing a full floor vote. However, SFRC Chairman Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) blocked the effort, arguing that Scott’s bill is too broad.

Combating BDS Act. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) reintroduced his Combating BDS Act, listed as S. 2119, which is his ongoing effort to allow state and local governments to pass laws barring participation in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Despite the fact that multiple lawsuits have called state-level bills targeting BDS activities unconstitutional, Rubio has introduced such a bill annually in recent years to try and advance this measure to muzzle activism against Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories.

US-Israel Artificial Intelligence Center Act. Senator Rubio introduced another piece of legislation friendly to Israel, this one (S. 2120) providing some $50 million over five years for Washington to team up with Israel on a joint artificial intelligence center.

US Supports Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced S. Res. 271 that seeks to show US support for efforts by Israel, the PA, Egypt, and Jordan to create a shared gas pipeline with its neighbors in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Countering Iranian Aggression Act. Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Georgia) and several of his GOP colleagues introduced H.R. 3966, a bill that would bar the Biden Administration from rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and would maintain the Trump Administration’s so-called “ maximum pressure campaign.”

Standing against Houthi Aggression Act. In another effort to return to Trump-era policies, Rep. Clyde introduced H.R. 3965 that would redesignate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization.

2) Nominations

White House Formally Nominates Tom Nides for Ambassador to Israel. President Joe Biden has tapped Thomas “Tom” Nides to potentially serve as the next US ambassador to Israel. Nides, a vice chairman at Morgan Stanley, will have to sit for a confirmation hearing in the coming weeks, but all early indications point to a relatively smooth path to the ambassadorship.

3) Hearings and Briefings

The Biden Administration’s Priorities for Engagement with the United Nations. On June 16, the House Foreign Affairs Committee hosted US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield to assess the administration’s priorities before the international body. Between Thomas-Greenfield’s prepared remarks and statements made during the question-and-answer session with lawmakers, the ambassador made clear that US Middle East priorities at the United Nations include ensuring the flow of humanitarian aid to Syrians, protecting Israel and punishing Palestinians, maintaining international pressure on Iran through UN sanctions and an arms embargo, and holding the UN Interim Force in Lebanon accountable for failing to enforce measures that call for the disarmament of Hezbollah.

A Review of the FY 2022 Department of Defense Budget Request. The Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee held a hearing with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to explore the Biden Administration’s proposed Pentagon budget. This was their second appearance on Capitol Hill for such a meeting. As for the Middle East, Secretary Austin reiterated the administration’s support to quickly satisfy Israel’s requested $1 billion in emergency military aid.

4) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmaker Call for Review of Any Iran Deal, Maintaining Pressure on Iran. A group of House Republicans wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken reminding him that any nuclear agreement with Iran must be submitted to Congress for review. Even if a new deal is not submitted as a treaty, Congress passed legislation in 2015 requiring all administrations to first submit a planned deal with Iran for congressional review—although the law does not require Congress to assent to such a deal for it to take effect.

Other House Republicans sent their own letter to Blinken, this one expressing concerns about the Biden Administration’s recent decision to waive sanctions on five Iranian entities formerly blacklisted by the United States. Like the group that is pushing the aforementioned legislation renewing the so-called “maximum pressure” campaign, these signatories argue that instead of being a show of diplomacy, the lifting of sanctions weakens Washington efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear energy program.

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) found himself in some hot water with some of his constituents thanks to his stated Iran policies. Lieu had previously singled out Iran, arguing that the United States should not aid the country with its COVID-19 vaccination efforts until Washington helps India control its rapid spread of the virus. Some Iranian Americans in his district took issue with the statement as their families in Iran have suffered through abysmal COVID-19 outcomes; this is due, in part, to a number of sanctions that continue to hamper Iran’s economy, rendering the government unable to import crucial medical goods. After speaking with his constituents, Lieu backtracked and released a statement calling for vaccine access for every eligible person in the global community.

Egypt Human Rights Caucus Co-Chairs Condemn Persecution of Civil Rights Activist. Reps. Don Beyer (D-Virginia) and Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey)—who co-chair the Egypt Human Rights Caucus—issued a statement condemning Cairo for its persecution of Egyptian human rights activist Hossam Bahgat. The duo also called on the Biden Administration to raise Bahgat’s treatment and his case to the highest levels of the Egyptian government.

Reps. Deutch and Hill Launch Hostage Task Force. Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) and French Hill (R-Arkansas) teamed up to launch a task force focused on securing the return of Americans held hostage abroad. Although there are high-profile cases of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained in countries across the globe, both lawmakers represent families with loved ones who disappeared in the Middle East. It is unclear how the task force will operate, but it is expected that its work will focus, in part, on Americans held in Iran and Syria as well as in other states like Egypt, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia, where there have been notable cases involving imprisoned Americans.

Senate Republicans Want More Pressure on Yemen’s Houthi Rebels. Four Republican Senators, led by Jim Risch (Idaho), sent a letter to Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield urging her to use her position at the United Nations to include Houthi human rights violations in any discussion or measures regarding the Yemen conflict.

GOP Senators Oppose Aid to Gaza. Senators Jim Risch (Idaho) and Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who serve as the ranking members of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, respectively, both came out in opposition of US aid to the reconstruction of Gaza this week. First, Senator Risch responded to a letter from Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) and stated plainly that he will not lift his hold on US assistance to the war-ravaged Gaza Strip. In short, the senator argued that his “hold,” which he maintains is nonexistent, is of no concern and if Raskin and his colleagues cared about Palestinians, he would condemn them for supporting what Risch erroneously describes as a scheme of social welfare payments for families of alleged terrorists. Inhofe followed up later in an op-ed with The Times of Israel in which he vowed to stop the Biden Administration’s efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza for many of the same reasons Risch outlined in his letter.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Calls New Israeli PM, Meets with Turkey’s Erdoğan. Following the formation of a new Israeli government—the first one in over 12 years that does not include Benjamin Netanyahu—President Biden released a congratulatory statement and later spoke with new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. In public, the president and his team are expressing an eagerness to work with Bennett and the new government, but in private they are reportedly taking a cautious approach in order to see what Bennett—a relative unknown in US policy circles—prioritizes in his first few weeks.

Later, on the sidelines of this year’s NATO summit, President Biden had a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which both described as “fruitful” and “positive.” This was the first meeting between the countries’ two leaders since President Biden was elected and it also came after the White House decided earlier this year to formally recognize the early 20th century Armenian genocide.

Nearly 700 Sign Letter Urging Biden to Uphold Palestinian Rights. A coalition of international civil society leaders, businesspersons, and public intellectuals published an open letter to President Biden recently, calling on him to do more to combat Israel’s systemic oppression of Palestinians. Noting that President Biden has vowed to center human rights in his foreign policy considerations, the signatories called on him and his team to hold Israel accountable for its continued violations of international law.

2) Department of State

Special Envoy Kerry Meets with Arab Leaders on Climate Change. Former Secretary of State and current Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry traveled to the Middle East and North Africa for discussions with Arab officials about combating the effects of climate change. Kerry’s tour took him to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, where he met with some of the top officials of each state. After his meeting in Riyadh, the United States and Saudi Arabia released a joint statement committing each to fighting climate change and, among other things, supporting a Saudi Green Initiative and a broader Middle East Green Initiative to reduce the region’s dependence on fossil fuel production.

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Israel’s Lapid, Libya’s Mangoush. Secretary Blinken held a congratulatory phone call with Alternate Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid after the formation of Israel’s newest government. Later, the pair shared another phone call during which they discussed ways in which the Biden Administration and the new Israeli government could work together to address mutual concerns in the Middle East.

Aside from his talks with Lapid, Secretary Blinken also took time to speak with Libyan Interim Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush about the upcoming Berlin Conference on Libya, the looming elections slated for December 2021, and the full implementation of a nation-wide cease-fire between warring factions.

Special Envoy Lenderking Returns to Saudi Arabia. Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking returned to Saudi Arabia last week, spending two days in Riyadh to meet with his counterpart with the United Nations, Martin Griffiths, as well as Saudi and Yemeni government officials. According to a State Department readout marking Lenderking’s return, the meetings were focused on making progress on a host of issues, including securing a nation-wide cease-fire and ending the Houthis’ fighting in Marib.

3) Department of Defense

Pentagon Reportedly Restructuring Middle East Posture. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the Department of Defense is drawing down its posture in the Middle East to some extent. The restructuring will affect Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan as the Pentagon removes antimissile defense systems, reduces the number of fighter jets serving the region, and further withdraws some US troops from Iraq.

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