Over the last week, President Donald Trump and his administration decided to release their long anticipated proposal to bring about a resolution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. While on travel to Jerusalem for the fifth annual World Holocaust Forum, Vice President Mike Pence met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top political rival, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, and formally invited them to Washington to discuss the president’s so-called peace plan.
When the duo arrived in Washington, each was welcomed to the White House, but it was Netanyahu who stood alongside President Trump at the press conference to unveil the plan. The “vision” that presidential advisor Jared Kushner spearheaded—a document titled “Peace to Prosperity”—is over 180 pages long with political and economic components as well as preliminary maps illustrating what Kushner and his team envision for a Palestinian “state.”
The political components of the plan alone comprise disastrous opening bargaining positions and they seem almost built to fail. The Palestinians, under President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization, rejected the plan immediately, understanding that this “vision” is akin to a sweetheart real estate deal for the Israelis. In sum, the plan outlines a two-state solution wherein the state of Israel annexes Israeli settlements built illegally in the occupied West Bank and keeps borders that are inconsistent with United Nations security council resolutions. In return, a future Palestinian state receives some unspecified plots of land in what is now Israel—likely to be arid desert land—and maintains control of some 30-40 percent of the West Bank and of Gaza in its entirety. The map, sleekly illustrated to distract from the nature of the proposal, shows what are essentially noncontiguous Palestinian Bantustans surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory.
Given the three years of work Kushner and his team have used to develop this plan, many hoped he would elaborate on the plan and inspire support for it. However, Kushner’s rounds of media interviews following the president’s press conference were dismal. Kushner spoke condescendingly of the Palestinians, expressed a conviction that “Israeli growth” (i.e., its illegal expansion of settlements) was inevitable, and even downplayed the usefulness of maps he included in the plan. He was hostile to any criticism of the plan, begging the question, does he even believe it is viable?
The president’s aide and son-in-law opined that this plan was the most detailed new plan ever, though many longtime observers of former peace processes noted the similarities between Kushner’s plan and early versions. But his confidence belies the fact that he either does not understand the Palestinians’ positions on thorny issues like Israeli settlements (which is possible, since he spoke with few Palestinians about the matter) or he does understand the Palestinian side but is so committed to supporting Israel that he does not care. The latter seems more logical, as this plan seems destined to fail, providing the most right-wing elements in both Israel and the United States the cover necessary to shun the Palestinians and continue their pursuit of a “Greater Israel.” Many in Washington do not believe the “peace plan” has any hope of being taken seriously by any of the crucial actors in the region. Does Jared Kushner himself even believe this proposal is serious?
Also Happening This Week in Washington
Amend the War Powers Resolution. This week, Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Maryland) introduced H. J. Res. 83 to amend the war powers resolution to strengthen Congress’s ability to reclaim its war powers authorities. War powers have resurfaced as a topic of import among House Democrats because it is through these authorities that Congress can seek to limit the president’s authority to wage war in the Middle East.
Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act. Though the name of this bill appears unrelated to US policy toward the Middle East and North Africa, H.R. 550 may actually prove to be important legislation in the near future.
This bill first passed the House then went to the Senate where it was amended and adopted in December 2019. When a bill is amended by one chamber, it must return to the other side for further action—either the clean adoption of the newly amended legislation or the addition of further amendments. This process has afforded House Democrats the opportunity to use H.R. 550 as a legislative vehicle for a pair of bills that affect US policy in the region.
First, House Democrats are offering one amendment taken from a bill that contains language that would bar the United States from financing a war against Iran. This amendment comes straight from Rep. Ro Khanna’s (D-California) No War Against Iran Act that would bar any US funds from being used to finance military action against Iran. Second, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) secured a vote for H.R. 2456—her attempt to clear the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq off the books.
NO BAN Act. This week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) released a statement on the three-year anniversary of President Trump’s signing of an executive order that many call a “Muslim ban.” In the coming weeks, the statement said, the House will move to consider legislation known as the NO BAN Act that would overturn the president’s executive order banning travel to the United States from certain countries. This comes at a time when the administration is considering growing the list of banned countries, not shrinking it.
Recognizing January 27 as the Anniversary of the First Refugee and Muslim Ban. In a similar refrain, a group of Senate Democrats along with Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) introduced S. Res. 484 to recognize January 27, 2020 as the anniversary of the president’s travel ban. In addition, the proposed legislation calls on the president to restore refugee resettlement numbers to former historical levels.
Supporting the Rights of the People of Iran to Free Expression. The House passed H. Res. 752 (previously discussed here) this week, expressing the sense of Congress that lawmakers support Iranians as they continue to confront the Iranian regime with popular protests across the country.
2) Personnel and Correspondence
Rep. Engel and Senator Menendez Pen Letter in Support of Two-State Solution. Ahead of the unveiling of President Trump’s so-called peace plan, the chairman and ranking member the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees, respectively, released a statement in support of a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) are both staunch pro-Israel hawks, yet even they sense the end of the possibility of a two-state solution under this administration. Other prominent Democrats, or those running as Democrats, more vocally opposed the plan that was released. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and other progressives came out in opposition to the plan. A group of senators penned a letter to the president after the plan was unveiled, panning the proposal.
3) Hearings and Briefings
Escalation with Iran: Outcomes and Implications for US Interests and Regional Stability. On January 28, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a hearing to explore the implications of the heightened tensions between the United States and Iran. There was a spate of shared themes expressed in the witnesses’ testimonies. The first—and most stressed—point was the need for the Trump Administration to formulate a clear and concise plan of action toward Iran and to clearly state its goals and expected outcomes from its interactions with Tehran. On a similar note, the witnesses suggested that the administration needs to clearly define what the United States would tolerate from Iran; in other words, Washington needs to clearly lay out its “red lines.”
Moving forward, the witnesses agreed that Iran’s domestic and regional posture is unlikely to change anytime soon. At least one witness was steadfast in believing that Tehran has not yet satisfied its desire to retaliate for Washington’s assassination of General Qassem Soleimani. Some of Iran’s retaliatory actions will likely focus on hardened targets in the region like US embassies, the witnesses said, but the administration must also be ready for actions against soft targets like US personnel in Jordan or Bahrain. It must be capable of a coherent response to these threats.
While the House Foreign Affairs Committee was holding its public hearing, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee received a classified briefing from Trump Administration officials regarding “US-Iran Policy and Authorities for the Use of Force.” Though it was closed to the public, some reporting specifically states that the committee’s Democratic members, as well as Republican Rand Paul (Kentucky), were extremely frustrated by the administration’s position on Iran and its stance on its authorities to use force against Tehran.
Revitalizing American Diplomacy. This week the organization, Foreign Policy for America, hosted Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) and Rep. Andy Kim (D-New Jersey) about the tenets of progressive foreign policy at its first annual conference. Murphy, who has been cited as a leader in formulating a progressive foreign policy vision, used his time to explain that Iran has exploited the current status of the US diplomatic corps, arguing that Washington is facing a “diplomacy crisis.” On Iran in particular, Murphy opined that Washington’s failure to grow its non-military tools, like diplomacy, has made it more difficult to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East. The senator described how Tehran is competing with the United States in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq and he expressed concern that the United States will continue to fail to counter Iran if it persists in ignoring the importance of investing in robust diplomacy.
II. Executive Branch
1) Department of State
Secretary Pompeo Speaks with Iraq’s Prime Minister, Qatar’s Emir. This week, Secretary of State Pompeo fielded calls from both Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. With Abdul-Mahdi, Pompeo talked about, and “expressed his outrage” at, the latest attack on the US embassy in Baghdad. The secretary spoke with the emir about regional developments, Iran’s destabilizing influence, and the bilateral US-Qatar relationship.
Schenker Travels to Israel and Oman. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker left this week for visits to Israel and Oman. In Israel, Schenker is participating in a conference and holding bilateral meetings with Israeli officials.
In Oman, the assistant secretary met with Omani officials to express condolences for Sultan Qaboos’s death and to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to strong US-Omani ties. Furthermore, Schenker and his counterparts discussed regional security concerns, including those regarding Iranian activity.
State Department Levies More Sanctions on Iran. On January 23, the State Department announced that it would place new sanctions on Iran and “deny the Iranian regime all sources of revenue to fund its destabilizing activities.” The latest round of sanctions is targeting Chinese and Iranian entities involved in the petrochemical industry.
Counterterrorism Ministerial Heavily Focused on Hezbollah. This week, a senior State Department official held a press conference to outline the outcomes of a recent counterterrorism ministerial meeting held in Colombia. According to the official, the meeting thoroughly discussed the activity of Lebanese Hezbollah in Latin America and designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization by six countries.
Ambassador Jeffrey Gives Update on Syria, Travels to Europe. Over the last week, Ambassador James Jeffrey held a press conference to give an update on the latest developments in the mission to counter the so-called Islamic State (IS) and he traveled to Europe to participate in the Syria Small Group. During the press conference, Jeffrey acknowledged that despite normal coalition operations in Syria, operations in Iraq have been paused as a result of the fallout of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani.
2) Department of Defense
Secretary Esper Meets with French Defense Minister. On January 27, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper met with his French counterpart to discuss, among other things, the ongoing counter-IS campaign as well as security in the Middle East and North Africa, more generally.