Congress Has Been Deafeningly Quiet on the Bahrain Meeting

On January 25 and 26, some of President Donald Trump’s top advisors held a workshop in Manama, Bahrain, titled “Peace to Prosperity,” to propose ways to improve the Palestinian economy. Since then, senior aides Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have spoken about it and international reporting, particularly from the Arab world, has covered its aftermath at length. The US media, however, save for a few editorials and op-eds from individuals who were in attendance, have not covered the event in any serious detail.

What is also interesting is that the workshop received a cool reception in the United States and on Capitol Hill. The reaction to Kushner’s exercise from elected members of Congress has been characterized by nearly universal silence. These lawmakers’ reluctance to weigh in on the event is not necessarily surprising, however. For some time now, they have been skeptical of Kushner’s proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace because, even for Israel’s strongest supporters on Capitol Hill, early glimpses of the plan have looked like a death knell for the two-state solution. In the early days following the announcement of the administration’s plan to host the Manama gathering, a number of lawmakers spoke out derisively or appeared doubtful about the success of Kushner’s economic plan. Others refrained from commenting, saying they did not know enough to make a statement.

Just weeks later, in early June, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a resolution supporting a two-state solution and a bill setting up a “peace fund” that would provide economic support to the Palestinians. This was clearly a way to signal to the Trump Administration that a robust group in Congress was not confident in Kushner’s plan, particularly because he and his partner in the process, Jason Greenblatt, had been vague on its potential political elements.

Now that Kushner and company have completed the Manama workshop—with no references to the Israeli occupation, the blockade of the Gaza Strip, the obstacles of illegal settlements, or any semblance of a political solution to the conflict—lawmakers have reason to believe that their concerns were well founded. Most members have not said anything to disclose their views on the outcome of the event. Even some of the stalwart supporters of Israel—and in some cases, President Trump himself—who observers might anticipate would speak up on the issue have either done so only tepidly or refused to offer an opinion at all. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), for example, gave a half-hearted endorsement of the administration’s effort in Manama. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida), an equally vociferous supporter of Israel and one of Congress’s more media-savvy members, declined to speak after a meeting with Greenblatt, even after the latter took to Twitter to state that he met with Deutch and others specifically to discuss the Bahrain workshop.

This near-total silence could still reflect lawmakers’ reluctance to speak about a plan that has not been revealed in its entirety. But that has never really stopped members from commenting on anything before. The silence on Capitol Hill most likely comes from a mix of skepticism and apathy: no one wants to comment on a workshop that was so profoundly ineffective, so lawmakers would rather just move on. Perhaps others hope that Manama was the extent of Kushner’s plan and that whatever political solution he plans to unveil in the future would never see the light of day.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Condemning Yemen’s Houthi Rebels. A group of Republican senators introduced S. Con. Res. 21 this week that would condemn Yemen’s Houthi rebels for the group’s violations of human rights, its use of violence against civilians, and its ongoing cooperation with Iran. Two Republican representatives introduced an accompanying concurrent resolution (H. Con. Res. 50) in the House for this same purpose.

Requesting the President Condemn Jamal Khashoggi’s Killing. Over 30 House Democrats cosponsored H. Res. 472 that urges President Trump to “strongly condemn” the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and to hold accountable anyone “identified as culpable” in his death.

Anti-War with Iran Amendments in NDAAs. As each chamber moves forward with its respective version of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA; see the House’s here and the Senate’s here), lawmakers have tried, with varying degrees of success, to add provisions to the bill that would serve to limit President Trump’s ability to wage an unauthorized war with Iran. In the House, Reps. Ro Khanna (D-California) and Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) spearheaded an amendment that would prohibit any funds from being used to go to war with Iran. In the Senate, Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and others successfully lobbied to force the body to vote on a similar amendment to that chamber’s version of the NDAA; however, the amendment fell short of the necessary 60 votes, even though a majority of the senators who cast a vote supported the measure.

Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Accountability Act. The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to move along H.R. 2037, which is known as the Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Accountability Act. The bill instructs the administration to issue a report about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and it requires that any Saudi citizen found to be violating human rights be subjected to US sanctions.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Information about the Applicability of Old AUMFs to War with Iran. Last week, Reps. Eliot Engel (D-New York) and Ted Deutch (D-Florida) wrote to the Department of State requesting its legal opinion regarding whether old authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) are applicable to a potential military conflict with Iran. Their question revolves around whether the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs could be interpreted in a way that would exempt the White House from consulting Congress prior to undertaking military action against Tehran.

Shortly thereafter, the State Department returned a letter saying that the Trump Administration “has not, to date, interpreted either AUMF as authorizing military force against Iran, except as may be necessary to defend U.S. or partner forces engaged in counterterrorism operations or operations to establish a stable, democratic Iraq.” That might seem like a reasonable interpretation, but the fact that it is vague coupled with the administration’s past positions on this question raise concerns among members of Congress that the White House would try and justify any use of force under either of the previous AUMFs.

Engel Calls for Sanctions on Sudanese Security Forces. Chairman Engel also wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin with a simple message: the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo should all be subjected to US sanctions for their use of violence against peaceful protesters in Sudan. The RSF, as Engel notes, are believed to be a rebranded version of the notorious Janjaweed that was integral in the campaign of genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region. This history, combined with more recent human rights violations, qualifies them for US sanctions under existing law.

Senator Menendez Calls on the State Department to Investigate the UAE over Libya. On July 1, Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), who serves as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Secretary Mike Pompeo demanding that the State Department— if it has not already begun to probe the allegations—investigate whether or not the United Arab Emirates transferred US-origin weapons to General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. Any such transfer would likely violate both US laws and UN resolutions and Menendez requested information about the department’s findings by July 15.

3) Nominations

Ambassador Satterfield Confirmed as Next Ambassador to Turkey. On June 27, the Senate voted to confirm Ambassador David Satterfield as the next US ambassador to Turkey.

Despite his confirmation, Satterfield traveled to Lebanon in what is likely his final act of mediation between Lebanon and Israel as they seek to settle their maritime border dispute.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Kushner, Greenblatt Offer Interviews after Manama. Immediately following the Manama workshop and in the days since, senior White House advisors Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have given multiple interviews defending the conference and outlining more of the administration’s views toward Israelis, Palestinians, and the prospects of peace. Most notably, Kushner told Al Jazeera that, in his view, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is not a viable path to ending the conflict and realizing peace. While he was quick to note what he is not willing to pursue that track, he also failed to tell CNN whether he and the administration supported the idea of a two-state solution.

Greenblatt, for his part, was rather blunt in highlighting the United States’ positions toward the sides in the conflict. He told CNN that he could find nothing for which to criticize Israel at present. In addition, Greenblatt plainly stated to Israel’s Walla News that there is “no such thing” as an honest broker in negotiations, clearly signaling that Washington is not even trying to play the part.   

Trump Administration Condemns Iran for Exceeding Stockpile Limitations. On July 1, Iranian officials confirmed that their nuclear program had exceeded the amount of low-enriched uranium Tehran was allowed to stockpile under the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This was a logical result of the administration abrogating the deal and barring countries from purchasing Iran’s excess uranium, as Iran would clearly not forfeit its ability to produce the substance according to the terms of the JCPOA.

Now that Tehran has exceeded this 300 kg threshold and thus has breached its obligations under the JCPOA, the Trump Administration released two official statements—one through the White House and the other through the State Department—as well as some unofficial comments by key officials (see here, here, and here) deploring the move. All of this comes despite the known and well-documented fact that the administration terminated Washington’s commitments under the JCPOA over one year ago.