The Biden Administration Abstains on Today’s Ceasefire Vote

The UN Security Council (UNSC) approved a resolution on March 25 calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. The resolution, led by the ten non-permanent members of the UNSC, calls for an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan, for the immediate and unconditional release of hostages, and for an urgent expansion of the flow of aid into Gaza. The United States abstained from the vote, with US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield citing several elements with which the Biden administration disagrees. This is the first time since December 2016 that the United States has abstained on a UNSC resolution seen as critical of Israel.

Today’s vote followed a failed US-led resolution from a week earlier. That resolution, vetoed by UNSC permanent members Russia and China, called for the importance of a temporary pause in fighting in Israel’s war on Gaza as well as for the release of hostages and a surge of humanitarian assistance to Palestinians. Reacting to that vote, Secretary of State Antony Blinken used the words “cynical” and “unimaginable” to describe China’s and Russia’s veto. There is quite a bit of irony in Blinken’s assertion, considering that the Biden administration had until very recently avoided the term “ceasefire.”

As such, the US push at the Security Council is the latest example of changing US rhetoric around Israel’s military campaign. Over the course of Israel’s war, the Biden administration has slowly abandoned the language of “humanitarian pauses” in favor of “ceasefire,” though progress toward a cessation of hostilities continues to be slow-moving. On March 18, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that Hamas had recently put a proposal on the table that the Israeli government rejected, and commented, “They regard some of those conditions as going too far. But that’s what a negotiation is about.” Despite a lack of progress, administration officials remain optimistic that a deal can be reached. Speaking from Tel Aviv on March 22, Blinken told reporters that “we’ve gotten it down to a few remaining gaps…So there are some hard issues to work through, but we’re determined to do everything we can to get there and to get people home.” With Blinken now having completed his sixth regional trip since October 7 without a hostage deal reached, negotiators will continue to hash out the details of an agreement.

Also Happening in Washington Last Week…

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Congress Passes UNRWA Funding Ban in FY2024 Appropriations Bill. On March 23, President Joe Biden signed into law the Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 bipartisan funding bill to fund the federal government through September 30. Of note, the appropriations bill includes a provision to halt funding for UNRWA for this fiscal year, a move that drew criticism from a number of Democrats. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) called the restriction “unconscionable,” a sentiment that was echoed by Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Pramila Jayapal (D-CA), Ro Khanna (D-CA), and other progressives. Senate criticism of the funding prohibition was led by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), each of whom expressed concern with the funding prohibition’s impact on the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

House Resolution Introduced Declaring Importance of US-Israel Economic Relationship. Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK) introduced on Tuesday H.Res.1092, which “recogniz[es] the importance of the economic relationship between the United States and Israel and affirm[s] that trade facilitated by the United States-Israel Free Trade Agreement is a tool to support the economy of Israel during the conflict with Hamas.”

Democrats Seek to Expand Human Rights Vetting in Security Cooperation Programs. On Thursday, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Sara Jacobs (D-CA) re-introduced S.4044 and H.R.7774, respectively, known as the “Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act.” The bills seek to close loopholes in the Leahy Law, which prohibits US assistance to foreign military units or individuals when there is credible information implicating them in the commission of gross violations of human rights. The proposed legislation would require two Department of Defense special operations security cooperation programs currently falling outside the purview of the Leahy Law to conduct human rights vetting for assistance recipients. Lawmakers assert that these programs may have been used to conduct operations in Libya, Mauritania, Somalia, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

Senator Tillis Introduces Resolution to Protect Iranian Political Refugees. Sen. Tom Tillis (R-NC) introduced S.Res.599 on Wednesday. The resolution condemns actions by the Iranian government and reiterates US support for the protection of Iranian political refugees residing in Albania’s Camp Ashraf-3, which houses members of the exiled Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.

Sen. Scott Introduces Resolution in Support of Israel. On Friday, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) introduced S.Res.617 expressing “the sense of the Senate that Israel has the inherent right to defend itself and take necessary steps to eradicate the terrorist threat posed by Hamas.”

Sen. Graham Demands International Accountability for Sexual Violence on October 7. On Friday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced S.Res.620 to demand “that the international community hold accountable those who perpetrated acts of sexual violence and sexual torture during and after the attack on the State of Israel on October 7, 2023.”

Sen. Cruz Seeks Prohibition of Funds for Iran. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced S.4073 on March 23. The bill would prohibit the use of funds to waive certain sanctions on Iran.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senate Democrats Push Biden to Establish Public Framework for Two-State Solution. On Wednesday, 19 Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), wrote to President Biden to urge his administration to establish a “bold, public framework” for achieving a two-state solution. The letter calls for reforms to the Palestinian Authority (PA), the PA’s recognition of Israel, and for the PA to commit to nonviolence, accept the principle of two states, and renounce Hamas and all terrorist activity. The letter also calls for Israel to take effective action against settler violence in the occupied West Bank, end home demolitions and evictions of Palestinians, cease settlement planning and construction in the West Bank, release customs revenues to the PA, and reactivate permits for West Bank Palestinians to work in Israel.

Leading House Republicans Issue Joint Statement on Hostage Negotiations. On March 21, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA), House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) issued a statement on negotiations to release Gaza hostages held by Hamas. The statement urges Qatar and Egypt “to use all of their leverage to immediately secure the release of the hostages on reasonable terms,” adding that “there must be tangible, severe consequences for delaying or impeding negotiations, and Hamas should understand that delays or further harm to these civilians will come at a cost.”

Lawmakers Decry Famine in Gaza. Some Democratic lawmakers continued to criticize Israel’s conduct in the war on Gaza. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) penned a letter to President Biden March 18 urging him to address the growing humanitarian crisis and famine in the Strip. In the House, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) gave a passionate speech on the floor on March 22, declaring that “a famine…is being intentionally precipitated through the blocking of food and global humanitarian assistance by leaders in the Israeli government. This is a mass starvation of people, engineered and orchestrated…If you want to know what an unfolding genocide looks like, open your eyes.”

3) Hearings and Briefings

House Committee on Homeland Security Holds Hearing on Iran. On March 20, the House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing entitled “Examining the Current Status of Iran’s Axis of Resistance and the Implications for Homeland Security and U.S. Interests.” The hearing featured testimony from officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of State.

House Armed Services Committee Holds Hearing on Force Posture in MENA. On March 21, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on US military posture and national security challenges in the Middle East and Africa. The hearing featured testimony from senior US defense officials, who addressed threats posed by Iran and by non-state actors across the region in addition to US relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia, among other topics.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden Speaks with Netanyahu. On March 18, President Biden spoke by telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, their first call in a month. The two leaders discussed ongoing hostage negotiations and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. According to the White House readout, Biden stressed the need to increase the flow of aid into Gaza and reiterated concerns about a potential Israeli ground operation in Rafah. Biden also affirmed the need to defeat Hamas in Gaza and asked Netanyahu to send a senior interagency team of military, intelligence, and humanitarian officials to Washington to discuss a strategy to target Hamas in Rafah and secure the Egypt-Gaza border without a major ground invasion.

2) Department of State

Department of State Comments on Kurdistan Parliament Elections. On March 18, Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel reacted to news that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) will boycott the upcoming Iraqi Kurdistan parliament elections to protest a recent ruling by the Iraqi federal supreme court. Patel stated, “we don’t think boycotting these elections will serve the interests of the IKR, the Kurdish people, or Iraq in general.” He added, “stabilizing Iraq through the protection of Iraqi minorities, preserving the electoral rights of those minorities, consistent with the Iraqi constitution, is going to lead to stability and security of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region broadly.”

Department of State Approves Arms Sales to Morocco and Bahrain. On March 19, the Department made two determinations approving Foreign Military Sales. For Morocco, the State Department approved the sale of Javelin Missiles and related equipment for an estimated $260 million. For Bahrain, the Department approved the sale of M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tanks and related equipment for an estimated $2.2 billion. Two days later, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced S.J.Res.66 expressing congressional disapproval of the Bahrain sale.

Department of State Encourages Israel to Allow Freedom of Movement of Humanitarian Staff. On March 19, Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel reacted to reports that Israel had prevented UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini from entering Gaza, stating that “our belief is that they should be able to visit UNRWA’s fields of operation, including in Gaza. And we’re going to continue to work with the Government of Israel to rapidly approve all requested visas for UN and NGO workers in an expeditious fashion.”

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Emirati Officials. Secretary of State Blinken spoke with Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan on March 20. The officials discussed ongoing humanitarian needs in Gaza, including the maritime corridor to deliver additional aid to Gaza by sea, as well as progress toward reaching a ceasefire/hostage deal. Blinken also underscored the US commitment to the creation of an independent Palestinian state with security guarantees for Israel.

United States to Provide Additional Humanitarian Assistance for Sudan. On March 20, the Department announced more than $47 million in US humanitarian assistance for Sudan and neighboring countries, including Chad and South Sudan. The announcement states that “the assistance provides life-saving assistance including food, water and sanitation facilities, shelter, medical services including mental health support, and protection to those fleeing the conflict, bringing total US humanitarian assistance for people in Sudan and neighboring countries to more than $968 million since FY 2023.” The next day, Special Envoy for Sudan Thomas Perriello added that the Department remains committed to negotiating a ceasefire in Sudan to open up full humanitarian access, end ongoing abuses, and advance the peace process.

Secretary Blinken Travels to Region. Secretary Blinken traveled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel last week, his sixth regional trip since October 7. Blinken met with the Saudi and Egyptian leaderships to discuss efforts to reach an immediate ceasefire and hostage agreement, efforts to increase humanitarian assistance to Gaza, coordination on post-war planning for Gaza, and Red Sea security. According to the Department of State, Blinken focused on “the need to ensure the defeat of Hamas, including in Rafah, in a way that protects the civilian population, does not hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and advances Israel’s overall security.” In Israel, Blinken spoke with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Israeli war cabinet.

Blinken Optimistic About Israel Integration Efforts. At a joint press briefing with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on March 21, Secretary Blinken provided an update on US-led efforts to facilitate the regional integration of Israel. Following talks with Saudi leaders, Blinken said that “good progress” is being made, and that he “believe[s] we can reach an agreement which would present a historic opportunity for two nations, but also for the region as a whole.” Blinken stressed that “what’s changed recently is the commitment of virtually every country in the region to really pursue the integration of Israel into the region.”

Department Reportedly Receives Assurances on Israel’s Use of Weapons. In accordance with the Biden administration’s February 2024 national security memorandum, Israel reportedly has submitted written assurances to the Department of State that it will abide by international obligations in the use of US-supplied weapons and that its use of American-supplied weapons are not being used to violate humanitarian laws in Gaza. The Department will now review the assurances by early May, assess whether they are credible, and report its findings to Congress. Israel’s compliance with the memorandum has been the subject of scrutiny by some members of Congress in recent weeks, many of whom continued to make their concerns known last week.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Conducts Additional Airdrops in Gaza. With assistance from the Royal Jordanian Air Force, CENTCOM carried out additional airdrops of humanitarian assistance–primarily food assistance–into northern Gaza throughout last week.

US-led Coalition Continues Operations in Red Sea. On March 20, US and coalition forces in the Red Sea conducted attacks on Houthi targets that the coalition deemed “an imminent threat to merchant vessels and US Navy ships in the region.”

Secretary Austin speaks with Israeli Defense Minister. On March 20, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant about negotiations for the release of hostages and a temporary ceasefire in Gaza. According to the Department of Defense readout, “Secretary Austin raised the need to consider alternatives to a major ground operation in Rafah, while reiterating the shared goal of defeating Hamas. The two also discussed the need to do more to protect civilians and urgently increase the flow of aid into Gaza through land crossings.”

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Announces Sanctions Targeting Iran Weapons Proliferation. On March 20, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control targeted three procurement networks that have supported Iran’s ballistic missile, nuclear, and defense programs. These networks have procured missile-applicable goods for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force Self Sufficiency Jihad Organization (IRGC ASF SSJO), Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), other US-designated entities in Iran’s defense industrial base, and Iran Centrifuge Technology Company (TESA), which is linked to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).

5) United States Agency for International Development

Administrator Power Addresses Imminent Famine in Gaza. On March 18, USAID Administrator Samantha Power issued a statement in response to a recent Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report assessing that famine is imminent in northern Gaza between now and May. Power said, “We continue to call on Israel to open more land routes into Gaza and reduce bottlenecks and inspection delays to get land crossings operating at full capacity, even as we pursue air and maritime options to supplement these land routes. We also continue to demand that Hamas release all hostages and cease its attacks and use of civilians as human shields, and refrain from any action that would make it more difficult for assistance to reach people in need.” On March 22, Power met with medical doctors who recently returned from providing medical care in Gaza.