Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Senate Passes Bill to Compensate Victims of Lockerbie Attack. On December 22, the Senate passed S. 5357, the “Justice for the Living Victims of Lockerbie Act,” after Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the bill on the Senate floor the same day. The bill would provide compensation for US victims of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism, but it is unknown when or if it will be taken up in the new Congress.

President Biden Signs Iran Hostages Bill into Law. On December 27, President Biden signed into law S. 2607, the “Iran Hostages Congressional Gold Medal Act.” The bill and its House companion legislation, which were introduced by Senator Alex Padilla (D-California) and Representative Thomas Suozzi (D-New York), passed their respective chambers of Congress earlier in the month, and will award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 53 Americans held hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981.

President Biden Signs 2023 Appropriations Bill. On December 29, President Biden signed H.R. 2617, the “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023.” The $1.7 trillion spending bill includes foreign military financing for Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, as well as funding for other countries in the region.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Leahy Commemorates Shireen Abu Akleh’s Death. On December 22, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) spoke on the Senate floor to commemorate the six-month anniversary of the death of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot and killed by Israeli armed forces in May. Senator Leahy decried the State Department’s responses to Abu Akleh’s killing and welcomed a recent FBI investigation into her case. Leahy, who is retiring from his position as Senate Appropriations Committee chair, called for an investigation with full accountability, arguing that the Leahy Law should be applied to the Israeli military if necessary.

Democrats Seek Answers about Israeli Spyware and US Government Agencies. On December 22, Chair of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-California) sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) expressing concern that the agency is using Graphite, a spyware tool developed by the Israeli firm Paragon. In the letter, Schiff highlighted recent legislation that attempts to limit the spread of hacking software, requesting that the DEA respond to his congressional inquiry about its use of the technology. Separately, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation requesting information about the bureau’s purchase of Pegasus spyware from Israeli firm NSO Group. Pegasus has been used to hack phones and target dissidents and human rights defenders in the Middle East and elsewhere. Earlier this year, the FBI procured the Pegasus spyware, but claimed that it did so with a “limited license,” leading Senator Wyden to seek more information.

Senator Graham Criticizes Israeli Foreign Minister’s Talks with Russia. On January 2, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) responded to news that incoming Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s first official phone call would be held with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Before the call, Cohen said that although Israeli aid to Ukraine would continue, the new government would have “less talk” about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Cohen’s comments sparked criticism from Senator Graham, who responded “I hope Mr. Cohen understands that when he speaks to Russia’s Lavrov, he’s speaking to a representative of a war criminal regime that commits war crimes on an industrial scale every day.” His criticism also followed Foreign Minister Cohen’s phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken the same day, wherein Secretary Blinken congratulated his counterpart on his appointment and discussed the US-Israel relationship.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

Biden Administration Welcomes New Israeli Government. On December 29, President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the formation of a new Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the president saying that Netanyahu has been his “friend for decades.” In his statement, President Biden reaffirmed US support for the two-state solution, stating that the United States will continue to “oppose policies that endanger its viability.” The same day, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides congratulated Netanyahu on his swearing-in ceremony, saying, “Here’s to the rock solid US-Israel relationship and unbreakable ties.”

Biden Administration Working to Prevent Iran from Providing Drones to Russia. The Biden administration is reportedly working on a broad effort to prevent Iran from producing drones and transferring them to Russia for use in its war on Ukraine. According to intelligence, military, and national security officials, the efforts are aimed at preventing Iran from manufacturing and transferring the drones, while simultaneously working to increase Ukrainian air defense systems to protect against such aircraft. US forces in Ukraine are also helping the country’s military target Russian sites from which Iranian drones are being launched.

2) Department of State

State Department Expresses Concern about Osman Kavala Conviction in Turkey. On December 28, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel expressed concern about a Turkish court’s decision to uphold the conviction of Osman Kavala, a leading human rights defender and critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In April, Kavala was sentenced to life in prison for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government, a decision that this week’s appellate court decision upheld. The following day, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) condemned the decision as well.

US Embassy in Israel Responds to Israeli Minister Ben-Gvir’s Visit to Al-Aqsa Compound. On January 3, the US Embassy in Israel responded to a provocative visit by Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. According to the embassy, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides “has been very clear in conversations with the Israeli government on the issue of preserving the status quo in Jerusalem’s holy sites. Actions that prevent that are unacceptable.” Visits to the city’s holy sites—and particularly to the Al-Aqsa compound—by both Israeli settlers and Israeli government officials have often sparked violent confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Releases Yearly Review Summarizing Fight Against IS. On December 29, US Central Command (CENTCOM) released a summary of its operations in 2022 against the so-called Islamic State (IS). According to the statement, the US military’s 313 operations “degraded ISIS and removed a cadre of senior leaders from the battlefield.” The statement also says that regional partners, particularly the Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi security forces were critical partners in the fight against the group.

III. Judicial Branch

Families of US Soldiers Sue French Cement Firm for IS Ties. The families of three US soldiers killed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) are suing Lafarge, a French cement conglomerate that has admitted to paying IS and other armed groups in Syria to keep one of the company’s cement factories operating during the Syrian Civil War. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants knew that the material support they were providing to IS to keep the factory running “would be used to commit acts of international terrorism.”