Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

Congress was away on recess for the July 4th holiday.

1) Personnel and Correspondence

CODEL Travels to Israel, Occupied Territories, Qatar. After about a week of wrangling over who would join him, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) finally departed on a 10-person, bipartisan congressional delegation (CODEL) to the Middle East. Meeks billed the CODEL as one intended to bolster relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), conduct oversight of US programs in the region, and explore Israel’s security concerns. It was not clear from Rep. Meeks’s press release whether he still intended to meet with Palestinian officials in Ramallah as had previously been reported, but the group was slated to meet with officials of the new Israeli government. They then traveled to Qatar for meetings with Qatari officials as well as US Central Command forces stationed there, to explore bilateral security concerns and threats posed by Iran.

Chairman, Ranking Member of HFAC Call for UN Authorization of Border Aid. Ahead of the UN Security Council’s planned vote on humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria, Rep. Meeks, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), and Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) released a statement urging the body to renew desperately needed cross-border assistance into Syria.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden Administration Hosts Saudi Arabia’s Khalid bin Salman. Saudi Vice Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman, who is the brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), visited Washington for multiple meetings with Biden Administration officials. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan hosted bin Salman to discuss mutual security concerns and efforts to combat climate change, among other subjects. Prince Khalid also met with Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl at the Pentagon for more discussions about joint security concerns and Saudi Arabia’s ongoing role in the war in Yemen. Lastly, Prince Khalid met with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland and, briefly, with Secretary Antony Blinken. State Department officials spoke with bin Salman about Saudi security concerns, the war in Yemen, and the strife in Lebanon.

The prince’s visit came at an uncertain time as Saudi Arabia’s status as a key partner in Washington is once again under scrutiny. Hosting Prince Khalid—the deputy to MbS at the Saudi Defense Ministry—appears to violate the spirit of the “Khashoggi ban” that the Biden Administration implemented earlier this year. Although the individuals barred from securing visas under that ban were not publicly named, at best, MbS dispatched his brother to Washington to circumvent the visa restrictions, and at worst, the Biden Administration failed to uphold the ban against Khalid bin Salman himself.

Regardless of whether Prince Khalid should have been allowed to visit the United States, it is notable that he was not invited to hold court with President Joe Biden himself, depriving Riyadh of an opportunity to boost its image amid what is essentially an international boycott of MbS, due to his involvement in ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The fallout from that crime is still reverberating throughout Washington and the Biden Administration is actively arguing in court against releasing crucial information about the murder. Biden’s team has also taken steps to avoid divulging what, if anything, the Central Intelligence Agency or others in the intelligence community knew about the killing as well as information about Egypt’s newly reported role in the crime. All of this comes at the same time that some prominent Senate Democrats once again are calling for the executive branch to release information regarding Saudi Arabia’s alleged involvement in facilitating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

2) Department of State

US Ambassador to Lebanon Travels to Saudi Arabia. US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea joined her French counterpart, Ambassador Anne Brillo, for a visit to Saudi Arabia. This marked the second time in over one week that US, French, and Saudi officials have met to explore a solution for Lebanon’s political deadlock and declining economy. According to one report, Shea and Brillo were seeking to secure a commitment from Riyadh to extend substantial aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces as well as broader humanitarian assistance, and for the kingdom to lean on those in Beirut over whom it has influence to end the political dysfunction that has stymied the formation of a new government.

“The Gaza Ceasefire: What’s Next?” On July 6, the Wilson Center hosted a virtual event on the Gaza cease-fire and its implications for the future. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood spoke about the Biden Administration’s response to the recent violence between Israel and Hamas and its general position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hood stated that the United States and allies used “quiet diplomacy” to help bring about the cease-fire. He said the Biden Administration supports the multilateral humanitarian effort to stabilize Gaza, with US assistance amounting to $360 million in aid to the West Bank and Gaza. Hood assured that rigorous vetting and transparency would ensure that funding will reach Palestinians directly without benefiting Hamas. Looking ahead, Hood stated the Biden Administration’s position in support of a two-state solution and any steps toward it. He encouraged Israel and the Palestinians to refrain from unilateral actions that exacerbate tensions and condemned Israeli settlement activity, annexation of West Bank territory, demolition of Palestinian homes, and evictions of Palestinians in Jerusalem as antithetical to the viability of a two-state solution.

The fact that Acting Assistant Secretary Hood called out Israel’s controversial unilateral policies—in addition to the administration’s criticisms of Israel’s collective punishment practice of home demolitions—is heartening. However, in his following remarks, he immediately reverted to criticizing Palestinians for what he said was incitement of violence. Hood also mischaracterized and criticized the PA’s social welfare program that compensates Palestinians imprisoned or killed by Israel. Critics of what the PA calls the “Martyrs’ Fund” argue that it incites Palestinians to commit terrorist acts against Israeli citizens, ignoring that Israel’s military tribunal system routinely detains and imprisons Palestinians on “security” charges related to resistance, stone-throwing, and other acts of defiance that are not considered terrorism. The fact that Hood claimed that the PA’s social safety net incentivizes terrorism illustrates how even the Biden Administration, committed as it says it is to being more even-handed in the conflict, subscribes to “unfair” Israeli propaganda talking points about Palestinians.

Secretary Blinken Speaks to Kuwaiti Foreign Minister. Secretary Blinken and Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammad Al Sabah spoke by phone on July 9 to discuss regional security concerns and the global COVAX effort to vaccinate people around the world against COVID-19.

3) Department of Homeland Security

Biden Administration Extends TPS to Yemenis. The Biden Administration announced that it has extended temporary protected status (TPS) to some 2,100 Yemenis living in the United States. TPS allows migrants from unstable or war-torn countries to reside and work legally in the United States. With the Yemenis’ TPS due to expire in September, the extension will permit them to remain in the United States through March 2023.

4) Department of the Treasury

Biden Administration Delists Group of Iranians, Reviews Sanctions Policies. The Biden Administration is grappling with how and when to best use sanctions. Sanctions are some of Washington’s favorite tools to try and punish adversaries or elicit changes in behavior that officials find problematic. There is growing sentiment in Washington, particularly among Democrats, that the United States’ dependence on unilateral sanctions is harmful and counterproductive. As such, the president’s team is reportedly conducting a review of US sanctions policy to see if the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran produced any results. Administration officials are also seeking to return to the practice of using multilateral sanctions with allies instead of forging ahead with sanctions alone. Critics will likely try to paint the more conservative use of sanctions, especially toward Iran, as appeasement.

Opponents of Biden’s sanctions policy will no doubt point to recent decisions to lift sanctions on certain Iranian individuals as proof that the administration is willing to appease Tehran to entice it to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal. The Treasury Department, however, insisted that the move was not related to ongoing negotiations over the nuclear agreement, which the United States and its partners hope to renew for a seventh round in the near future.

5) Department of Defense

US Troops Come under Increased Rocket Attacks. In the wake of President Biden’s decision to strike Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, US troops stationed in both countries  have been subjected to multiple attacks by those same groups. The tit-for-tat between US forces and militias in Iraq and Syria should be a concern because it has the potential to escalate into more sustained hostilities.

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