Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Biden Signs NDAA into Law 2024. President Joe Biden signed the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2024 into law shortly before the new year. The NDAA authorizes appropriations for Department of Defense, Department of State, Intelligence, and other national security programs.

Representative Omar Introduces Joint Resolutions Disapproving of Military Sales to UAE and Saudi Arabia. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced two joint resolutions (H.J.Res.105 and H.J.Res.106) providing for congressional disapproval of proposed foreign military sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, respectively. Omar called the proposed sales “unconscionable,” citing both countries’ human rights record.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Sanders Calls on Congress to Reject Unconditional Military Aid to Israel. In a statement, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) called on his colleagues “to reject $10.1 billion in unconditional military aid being considered for Netanyahu’s right-wing government to continue its brutal war against the Palestinian people.” Sanders described Israel’s military campaign as “grossly disproportionate, immoral, and in violation of international law” and called on Congress to reject proposed additional funding that is being considered under a supplemental funding bill.

Republicans Call on Biden to Re-Designate Houthis as Terrorist Organization. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) issued a statement in which he called on the Biden administration to re-list the Houthis on the Foreign Terrorist Designation list. Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), and other Republican senators added to the pressure by penning a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken with the same request.

Senators Frustrated with Lack of Aid into Gaza. Following a three-day visit to Egypt, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who sit on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed frustration with massive holdups in humanitarian aid being brought into Gaza. Merkley called the current process for inspecting and approving cargo “completely incompatible” with such a humanitarian crisis and emphasized the necessity of simplifying it while addressing Israel’s security concerns.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House Issues Joint Statement on Houthi Attacks. The United States joined 13 countries in issuing a statement condemning Houthi attacks against commercial vessels in the Red Sea. The joint statement asserts that the attacks are “illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing.” The statement followed a recent clash between US navy helicopters and Houthi fighters, marking the first time that American and allied forces patrolling the Red Sea engaged in a deadly firefight with the rebels since they began targeting commercial vessels in October.

White House Official Calls Genocide Inquiry “Meritless.” Responding to a question about a South African-led lawsuit at the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, NSC’s John Kirby called the lawsuit “meritless, counterproductive, and completely without any basis in fact whatsoever.” The State Department similarly dismissed the lawsuit, stating that “we are not seeing any acts that constitute genocide.”

President Biden Speaks with Netanyahu. President Joe Biden remained in contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu through the New Year, discussing Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, the need to protect the civilian population, and efforts to free remaining hostages.

President Biden Holds Call with Qatar Emir. President Joe Biden spoke with Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar to discuss efforts to release remaining hostages held by Hamas and ongoing efforts to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

White House Welcomes Appointment of UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Gaza. The White House released a statement welcoming the appointment of Sigrid Kaag as United Nations Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator for Gaza. The White House reaffirmed the importance of working with the United Nations to deliver humanitarian assistance into Gaza and reiterated the need to increase the flow of aid to those in need.

Biden Envoy for Energy Deploys to Israel, Lebanon. Special Envoy Amos Hochstein deployed to Israel and Lebanon to soothe tensions at the border. Hochstein met with senior Israeli and Lebanese officials to discuss clashes between Hezbollah and Israel and the terms of a potential diplomatic agreement to push Hezbollah away from the border.

2) State Department

State Department Approves Another Possible Arms Sale to Israel, Sidesteps Congressional Approval. Secretary of State Antony Blinken approved a possible $147.5 million foreign military sale to Israel of projectiles and related equipment. Blinken announced that he was waiving the congressional review requirements under the Arms Export Control Act, stating that “an emergency exists that requires the immediate sale to the Government of Israel of the above defense articles and services in the national security interests of the United States.” The move has frustrated some members of Congress, such as Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who asserted that “The Administration’s decision to repeatedly short-circuit what is already a quick time frame for congressional review undermines transparency and weakens accountability.” The weapons sale follows a similar sale worth $106.5 million just a few weeks ago that was also pushed through outside the traditional congressional approval process.

State Department Pushes Back Against Israeli Officials Advocating for Palestinian Resettlement. The State Department publicly rejected recent statements from Israeli Ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir advocating for the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza. The State Department called the ministers’ rhetoric “inflammatory and irresponsible,” adding that US officials have been told repeatedly that such rhetoric does “not reflect the policy of the Israeli government.” US officials have maintained that they do not want to see the resettlement of Gazans outside of Palestinian land. But when pushed on the rising numbers of internal displacement within Gaza, as well as the prospect of Gazans returning home to destroyed homes, State Department officials explained that “it is appropriate, we believe, to ask people to leave their homes for a temporary period while the IDF carries out military operations.”

US Releases Joint Statement on IAEA Report. The United States joined France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in a statement following an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that found that Iran has increased its rate of production of uranium enriched up to 60 percent at select sites. The joint statement condemned the action, declaring that Iran’s production of high-enriched uranium “has no credible civilian justification.” The statement called on Iran to immediately reverse these steps and de-escalate its nuclear program in full cooperation with the IEAE.

Senior US Officials Travel to Region for Additional Meetings. Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on a week-long trip to the Middle East in which he held and will hold meetings with regional leaders about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, efforts to release hostages, and reducing regional tensions, including deterring Houthi attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea and de-escalating tensions Between Israel and Lebanon. Blinken’s trip was followed by trips to Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia by other senior State Department officials, who addressed similar topics as well as the issues of reconstruction efforts in Gaza and concerns about violence in the West Bank.

Secretary Blinken Meets with Turkish Officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan. The officials discussed Sweden’s NATO accession, the Israel-Hamas conflict, and the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Algerian Foreign Minister. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf to discuss a range of global issues, including Algeria’s position on the UN Security Council, Red Sea maritime security, and the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

3) Department of Defense

US Forces Ramp Up Strikes Against Groups in Iraq. On December 25, US forces conducted strikes on three facilities used by Kataib Hezbollah and affiliated groups in Iraq. The strikes were a response to a series of attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-sponsored militias. On January 4, US forces launched a strike in Baghdad on a high-ranking commander of Harakat al-Nujaba, which has aligned itself with Hamas in recent weeks. Iraqi officials criticized the attack, calling it a “flagrant violation of the sovereignty and security of Iraq.” However, US officials have maintained that they will continue to defend the presence of US forces in Iraq, which are there at Iraq’s invitation as part of the coalition to fight the so-called Islamic State.

Secretary Austin Holds Call with Israeli Defense Minister. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III held a routine call with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant in which the officials discussed Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, tensions with Hezbollah, Iran-aligned militia attacks on US forces, and Houthi activity in the Red Sea.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Sanctions Network Financing Houthis. The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned one individual and three entities responsible for facilitating the flow of Iranian financial assistance to Houthi forces.

5) Department of Education

Official Resigns in Protest over Administration’s Gaza Posture. A Department of Education political appointee, Tariq Habash, resigned from his position in protest over the Biden administration’s support of Israel in its war on Gaza.