Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Representatives Mast and Gottheimer Introduce Bill Targeting Foreign Supporters of Hamas. On January 12, Representatives Brian Mast (R-Florida) and Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) introduced H.R. 340, the Hamas International Financing Prevention Act. If passed and signed into law, the bill would introduce sanctions to target the financial supporters of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as members of both groups. The bill was passed by the House during the 117th Congress as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, but was removed from the final draft by the Senate.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Leaders Welcome UNSC Syrian Border Aid Renewal. On January 9, Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, respectively, welcomed a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) vote renewing the provision of cross border aid to Syria for six months. Senator Risch called on the UNSC to maintain the cross-border mechanism until a political solution is reached in Syria, and Senator Menendez called for a solution “free of Russian and Assad regime blackmail.”

Representative Tlaib Calls for Palestinian Human Rights on the House Floor. On January 11, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) spoke on the House floor in support of Palestinian human rights. During her speech, Representative Tlaib cited 2022 as the deadliest year for Palestinians in recent memory and warned Congress about Israel’s new far-right government, stating, “We are dealing with a far-right government…now promising to make things worse.” She concluded by calling for an end to unconditional US military aid to Israel.

Representative McCaul Announces HFAC Oversight of Biden’s Afghanistan Withdrawal. On January 12, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Michael McCaul (R-Texas) announced that his committee would begin its formal investigation into the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Representative McCaul requested specific details about the role of Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates in the withdrawal, as well as the effects of the Taliban’s takeover on the capabilities of al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.

Abraham Accords Caucus Members Call for Increased Interfaith Dialogue. On January 11, Senators Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) led the Congressional Abraham Accords Caucus in sending a letter to US Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Rashad Hussein, urging the State Department to create new interfaith dialogue programs between the countries that are party to the 2020 Abraham Accords. In the letter, the lawmakers specifically requested increased State Department funding for interfaith dialogue opportunities and asked that the department brief Congress on dialogue initiatives by March 1, 2023.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Leaders Call for Release of US Hostages in Iran. On January 10, the chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Gregory Meeks (D-New York), commemorated the five-year anniversary of US citizen Morad Tahbaz’s imprisonment in Iran and called for the release of Siamak Namazi and Emad Shargi, both of whom are also imprisoned in Iran. Tahbaz’s daughter Tara has called on the Biden administration to push for her father’s release, and White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the release of all three political prisoners is a “top priority” of the Biden administration.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

President Biden Calls for F-16 Sale to Turkey for NATO Expansion Deal. On January 12, President Biden stated that the United States should sell a fleet of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed not to veto Sweden and Finland’s membership into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). President Biden reportedly communicated his support for the sale to President Erdoğan on January 11, indicating that he will inform Congress of the proposed sale this week, while also acknowledging the need for congressional approval. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will travel to Washington this week to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and a Turkish delegation will reportedly seek support from US lawmakers. In December, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), a longtime critic of Turkey who holds congressional veto power over weapons sales, gave a nine-minute-long speech on the Senate floor condemning Turkish foreign policy and vowing to block any US sale of F-16 fighter jets. On January 14, Senator Menendez responded to this most recent proposed sale, stating, “Until Erdoğan ceases his threats, improves his human rights record at home—including by releasing journalists and political opposition—and begins to act like a trusted ally should, I will not approve this sale.”

White House Condemns Iran’s Executions of Protesters. On January 9, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan condemned Iran’s execution of two protesters, Mohammad Mehdi Karami and Mohammad Hosseini, and also decried the Iranian government’s announcement that three more protesters would be executed that day. US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley has also spoken out against Iran’s execution of the two men.

American Citizen Imprisoned in Iran Begins Hunger Strike and Calls on President Biden for Help. On January 16, Iranian American Siamak Namazi announced that he would begin a seven-day hunger strike and sent a letter to President Biden pleading for help from the administration. Namazi has been imprisoned in Iran since 2015 on spying charges he insists are groundless and was, as he mentioned in his letter to President Biden, left out of the Obama administration’s 2016 prisoner swap with the Iranian government that coincided with the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

2) Department of State

State Department Responds to Israeli Sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. On January 9, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price criticized the new Israeli government’s targeted sanctions on the Palestinian Authority (PA), saying that the sanctions are “only serving to increase tensions.” On January 6, the Security Cabinet of Israel imposed sanctions on the PA in response to the latter’s having submitted a request to the International Court of Justice asking the court to draft a legal opinion about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The sanctions will prevent PA officials from moving through Israeli checkpoints faster than other Palestinians, seize tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the PA, and freeze Palestinian construction projects in Area C of the occupied West Bank. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has warned that Israel’s sanctions will lead to the PA’s collapse.

US Welcomes Unanimous UNSC Vote to Continue Syrian Cross-Border Aid. On January 9, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield welcomed the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) recent vote to extend humanitarian aid to Syrians in rebel-controlled territories via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border. The vote will provide a six-month extension of humanitarian aid operations. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield welcomed the decision, but warned that the resolution was the “bare minimum,” and called on the UNSC to strengthen the critical aid delivery mechanism.

State Department Announces “Without Just Cause Initiative” for Political Prisoners. On January 11, the State Department launched the Without Just Cause Initiative, which will advocate for the release of political detainees worldwide who are imprisoned on arbitrary or unjust grounds. The campaign aims to use diplomatic engagement in Washington and in US embassies abroad to raise awareness of the abuse and inhumane conditions that political prisoners face. The initiative includes Egyptian political prisoner Mohamed El-Baqer, who has been imprisoned in Egypt since 2019, and Syrian political prisoner Rania al-Abassi, who has been imprisoned since 2013.

Secretary Blinken Welcomes Inaugural Negev Forum Working Groups Meeting. On January 10, Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the inaugural meeting of the Negev Forum Working Groups in Abu Dhabi. The forum, which was attended by officials from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, aims to strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve quality of life for the Palestinian people by promoting Israel’s regional integration. The same day, State Department Counselor Derek Chollet, who led the forum’s security working group, said that the United States will host the working group’s members “in the coming months” to discuss information sharing for security purposes. Addressing Jordan’s notable absence from the meetings, Counselor Chollet said that the United States supports the future participation of both the Jordanians and the Palestinians.

State Department Offers $10 Million for Information on Hezbollah Financiers. On January 9, the State Department offered $10 million for information about Ali Saade and Ibrahim Taher, two Lebanese businessmen who are accused of using their businesses to fund Hezbollah. Both Saade and Taher, who are based in Guinea, were targeted with US sanctions in March for providing material support for Hezbollah.

US Ambassador to Yemen Fagin Meets with PLC Vice President in Riyadh. On January 10, US Ambassador to Yemen Steven Fagin met with Vice President of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) Aidarous al-Zubaidi in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. During the meeting, al-Zubaidi, who is also in charge of the Southern Transitional Council (STC)—the UAE-backed authorities in control of the south of Yemen—reiterated the STC’s “legitimate political ambitions.”

Deputy Secretary Sherman Meets with UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen. On January 10, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen David Gressly in Washington. The two leaders discussed progress on the Safer oil tanker clean-up operation, donors to the 2023 UN appeal for Yemen, and the need to continue providing humanitarian assistance during the ongoing crisis.

Assistant Secretary Pyatt Travels to the UAE and Qatar to Discuss Energy Security. On January 12, Assistant Secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources Geoffrey Pyatt traveled to Qatar and the UAE to discuss efforts to transition to clean energy and to support Ukraine in light of its energy crisis. During his four-day visit, Pyatt met with Emirati and Qatari officials to advance the United States’ bilateral and commercial energy relationships with both states. Pyatt will also head the US delegation to the International Renewable Energy Agency Assembly.

State Department Commends Spain’s Repatriation of Nationals from Syria. On January 11, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price welcomed Spain’s repatriation of two women and 13 children from displaced persons camps in northeastern Syria. Price commended the Spanish government’s efforts to resolve the humanitarian crisis in the al-Hol and Roj displaced-person camps, citing the vulnerability of displaced persons in Syria to recruitment by the so-called Islamic State (IS). The State Department urged foreign governments to follow Spain’s example and repatriate their nationals from Syria, particularly women and children.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Austin Speaks to AIPAC About the US-Israel Relationship. On January 10, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III delivered a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) Political Leadership Forum. Secretary Austin discussed the historical relationship between the United States and Israel, the shared threat of Iran, and the importance of Israel’s increased integration in the region. On Israel’s new far-right government, he said that the United States will “continue to work to prevent any parties from taking actions that could push the two-state solution further out of reach.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York) were also present at the two-day conference. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-California) reportedly attended a reception with AIPAC leadership following conference events. And during the conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by video call, pushing for strengthened US-Israel alignment against Iran.

Oxfam Releases Report on US-Supplied Weapons and Civilian Deaths in Yemen. On January 11, Oxfam released a report stating that US and UK weapons that were supplied to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen led to 87 civilian deaths in the 14-month period that the report details. According to the report, one-fourth of the 1,700 attacks on Yemeni civilians carried out between January 2021 and the end of February 2022—including 19 attacks on healthcare facilities—used weapons from the United States and the United Kingdom.

CENTCOM Forces Intercept Iranian Weapons Heading for Yemen. On January 10, US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that it had intercepted a boat in the Gulf of Oman smuggling more than 2,000 AK-47 assault rifles from Iran to Yemen. According to CENTCOM’s statement, the boat was using a route that Iran has previously used to traffic weapons to the Houthis in Yemen.

US Military Strengthens Its Presence in Northeastern Syria. Last week, 100 US military vehicles delivered supplies to a US military base in the Hasaka Province in northeastern Syria. The vehicles reportedly crossed through the al-Waleed border crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The US military maintains a presence in northeastern Syria to work with coalition partners such as the Syrian Democratic Forces to defeat the so-called Islamic State.

US Navy Announces Expansion of Fifth Fleet Task Force in Bahrain. On January 10, US Navy Fifth Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Brad Cooper announced that France, the Netherlands, and Germany have sent military attachés to join Task Force 59, an experimental operation based in Bahrain that uses commercially available drones for naval surveillance. According to US Navy officials, the task force aims to use these devices to deter Iran’s naval presence in the Middle East.

CENTCOM Welcomes Incoming IDF Leadership. On January 16, US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla welcomed Israeli Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi as the new Chief of General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). In his statement, General Kurilla congratulated outgoing Lieutenant General Aviv Kohavi, who led the IDF when Israel realigned from US European Command to CENTCOM in 2021.

4) Central Intelligence Agency

CIA Director Burns Travels to Libya. On January 12, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns traveled to Libya to meet with Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah in Tripoli and with Libyan National Army Leader Khalifa Haftar. Burns is reportedly in Libya to discuss Russian private security firm the Wagner Group, which operates in Syria and Libya and has been accused by US intelligence officials of recruiting prisoners in Russia to fight in the war in Ukraine. Burns also reportedly demanded that Haftar cooperate with the Tripoli-based government, particularly in stabilizing Libya’s oil sector so as to protect the country’s exports. In addition, Burns’ visit follows the contentious US capture of the Lockerbie Bombing suspect in December, which raised questions in Libya about whether or not the United States had illegally captured the man, who is a Libyan citizen.

III. Judicial Branch

Supreme Court Allows WhatsApp Lawsuit Against Israeli Spyware Firm. On January 9, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision allowing WhatsApp to pursue a 2019 lawsuit against Israeli spyware firm NSO Group. NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware has been used by governments across the Middle East to target journalists, dissidents, and prominent human rights defenders. WhatsApp sued the Israeli firm in 2019 after its malware was used to exploit a bug in WhatsApp’s software, giving it unfettered access to 1,400 people’s phones. In response, NSO Group has attempted to claim immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, but the US 9th circuit court, and now the Supreme Court, have ruled that the firm is not immune from suit.

Jewish National Fund Appeals Case Against Palestinian Advocacy Group. On January 12, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) brought its 2019 lawsuit against the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR) to the US Court of Appeals in Washington. In 2019, JNF sued USCPR, a US-based advocacy group for Palestinian rights, alleging that the group’s support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and Gaza’s Great March of Return made it liable for militant attacks on Israeli and American citizens. The case was dismissed by a federal judge in 2021, leading the JNF to appeal the case under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), but a judge this week again called their allegations “insufficient.”