Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Representative Gaetz Introduces War Powers Resolution to Remove US Troops from Syria. On February 21, Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) introduced H.Con.Res.20, a War Powers Resolution that would require the president to remove the US armed forces from Syria within 15 days of the resolution’s adoption. In a statement discussing his rationale behind introducing the legislation, Representative Gaetz cited a February 17 US military raid that targeted a senior leader of the so-called Islamic State and that resulted in four US soldiers being wounded. The resolution must be voted on within 18 days of its introduction.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Representative Tlaib Condemns Israeli Raid on Nablus. On February 22, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) condemned an Israeli raid in Nablus that occurred that day, tweeting, “Today the extremist right wing government of Israel violently attacked the city of Nablus, leaving 82 Palestinians shot and bringing the 2023 [Palestinian death toll to 61, including 13 children.” Representative Tlaib placed blame on the US government as well, warning that until it stops funding the Israeli “apartheid government,” the “death and destruction” will continue.

Senator Sanders Suggests New Legislation Conditioning US Aid to Israel. On February 19, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) suggested during an interview that he may introduce new legislation conditioning US aid to Israel. Senator Sanders criticized the new far-right Israeli government, suggesting that it is “racist,” and also stated that the United States must say to the Israeli government, “You cannot turn your back on a two-state solution. You cannot demean the Palestinian people there. You just can’t do it and then come to America and ask for money.” Senator Sanders went on to criticize the role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in US elections, particularly its United Democracy Project Super PAC’s targeting of progressive Democrats last fall.

Lawmakers Travel to Israel. This week, lawmakers from both parties have traveled to Israel for various events. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID), and Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) attended and spoke at a forum in Tel Aviv. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is set to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials. From the House, a bipartisan group of four representatives will travel with the US Israel Education Association, and Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) will lead 14 House Democrats in a J Street Delegation.

Representative Cicilline Announces That He Will Leave Congress. On February 21, Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) announced that he will leave Congress in June. Representative Cicilline currently serves on, and has previously chaired, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

Biden Administration Announces New Arms Transfer Policy with Human Rights Criteria. On February 23, the White House released an updated US Conventional Arms Transfer Policy. The administration said that this new policy will alter US weapons sales to reduce the risk that US weapons sold abroad will be used to carry out human rights abuses. The new policy states that a weapons transfer or arms sale cannot receive government approval if the government finds that recipients would “more likely than not” use the arms for serious human rights violations. Human rights experts responded by saying that the new policy goes further than the Obama and Trump administrations’ human rights and arms transfer efforts, but also warned that implementation of the policies will be key to determining their actual effectiveness. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-TX) criticized the Biden administration’s decision, accusing it of politicizing US weapons transfers and jeopardizing US national security.

White House Welcomes Opening of Omani Airspace to Israeli Flights. On February 23, White House National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson welcomed Oman’s decision to open its airspace to Israeli civilian planes. In a statement, Watson said that Oman’s announcement coincides with President Biden’s vision for an integrated Middle East. Oman’s decision follows one made by Saudi Arabia, which opened its airspace to Israeli civilian planes during President Biden’s visit to the region in July 2022.

Biden Administration Says Iran is Preparing to Purchase Billions in Russian Weapons. On February 24, White House National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby said that Iran is attempting to buy billions of dollars’ worth of Russian radars, attack helicopters, and YAK-130 combat training planes. Kirby also suggested that Russia could potentially supply Iran with fighter jets and “unprecedented defense cooperation, including on missiles, electronics and air defense.” The Biden administration has become increasingly concerned with the Russia-Iran military relationship following Russia’s use of Iranian drones in Ukraine.

President Biden’s Top MENA Official Travels to Egypt, Jordan, Oman, and the UAE. On February 23, the White House announced that President Biden’s top advisor for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, has traveled to the region for meetings in Egypt, Jordan, Oman, and the UAE. The announcement comes just days after an Israeli military raid in Nablus that killed 11 Palestinians and injured more than 100 others, and that resulted in the exchange of rocket fire between Israel and Hamas, based in Gaza.

2) Department of State

Biden Administration Mediates UNSC Vote on Israeli Settlements. On February 20, the United States voted to support a unanimous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) statement opposing the Israeli government’s February 12 announcement of its intent to legalize nine West Bank settlement outposts. The approved statement, which is not legally binding, came after State Department mediation over a Palestinian-backed draft of a legally binding resolution condemning the settlements, which the United States would reportedly have vetoed. US diplomats reportedly avoided the vote on the binding resolution by negotiating a six-month freeze on both Israeli settlement expansion and Palestinian actions against Israel at international bodies such as the International Criminal Court. The weekend before the vote, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Before the revised statement was released, congressional Republicans called on the Biden administration to veto the draft resolution. Only days after the attempted mediation to stop unilateral actions from both parties, Israeli forces killed 11 Palestinians and injured 100 more in a violent raid on Nablus in the West Bank. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price responded that day, stating that the United States is “deeply concerned by the large number of injuries and the loss of civilian lives.”

US Officials in Aqaba Attempt to Mediate End to Israeli-Palestinian Violence. On February 26, US officials joined senior officials from Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority in Aqaba, Jordan to address recent violence in Israel/Palestine. Following the meetings, the State Department published the Aqaba Joint Communique, which includes shared commitments from all parties to address the violence. The parties agreed to commitments to previous peace agreements between Israel and Palestine, the importance the status quo in Jerusalem and of Jordan’s role as custodian of the city’s holy sites, and both an Israeli and Palestinian commitment to end unilateral measures for three-to-six months. This includes an Israeli commitment to halt discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop the authorization of settlement outposts for six months. Following the meetings in Aqaba, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich both denied the implementation of a settlement freeze, vowing instead to continue settlement initiatives apace.

Secretary Blinken Meets with Turkish President Erdoğan, Announces More Aid. On February 20, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara. The two discussed US assistance for earthquake relief efforts, support for Ukraine, and the need to work closely on bilateral issues, including defense, energy, trade, and collective security. During his visit, Secretary Blinken announced that the State Department and USAID will provide an additional $100 million in earthquake-related assistance to Turkey and Syria. Secretary Blinken also joined US Ambassador to Turkey Jeffrey Flake to dedicate the new US Embassy in Ankara on February 21.

State Department Pushes for Elections in Libya. On February 23, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led a US delegation with senior officials from Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Qatar, Turkey, the UAE, and the UK in a meeting with UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Libya Abdoulaye Bathily. The officials discussed presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya, including both the achievements made by the Libyan House of Representatives and High Council of State in Egypt-facilitated negotiations on a constitutional basis for elections. Deputy Secretary Sherman agreed with Bathily that 2023 must see free and fair Libyan elections.

State Department Welcomes Kyrgyzstan’s Repatriation of Nationals from Syria. On February 20, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price welcomed the Government of Kyrgyzstan’s repatriation of 18 women and 41 children from displaced persons camps in northeast Syria. Price also thanked the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for their help in resolving the ongoing humanitarian and security crises at the al-Hol and Roj displaced persons camps, which the US government believes could be hotbeds for recruitment efforts by the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Under Secretary Fernandez Travels to the UAE and Oman. From February 21–22, the State Department’s Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Jose W. Fernandez traveled to Abu Dhabi to discuss clean energy transitions with government and business leaders. While in Abu Dhabi, he also represented the United States at the I2U2 Business Forum. From February 23 to 24, Under Secretary Fernandez traveled to Muscat where he led a US delegation to the first US-Oman Strategic Dialogue, a forum focusing on increasing bilateral trade and investment, developing clean energy solutions, and strengthening cultural and educational ties between the United States and Oman.

US Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice Travels to Jordan. On February 23, US Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice Desirée Cormier Smith traveled to Jordan to participate in the US Embassy in Amman’s Black and White Gala for Black History Month. While in Jordan, Cormier Smith was expected to also meet with Jordanian civil society members who work with marginalized racial and ethnic communities.

State Department Returns Looted Antiquities to Yemen. On February 21, the State Department, along with the Department of Homeland Security and the Smithsonian Institution, announced that it had returned 77 looted antiquities to Yemen, including carved stone heads, Quran manuscript pages, a bronze inscribed bowl, and a funerary stele.

Secretary Blinken Meets with E3 Counterparts on Iran at Munich Security Conference. On February 18, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the French, British, and German Foreign Ministers in Munich to discuss Iran’s nuclear escalation, its lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and its deepening military cooperation with Russia.

Secretary Blinken Commemorates Kuwait National Day. On February 25, Secretary of State Antony Blinken commemorated Kuwait’s National Day and its February 26 Liberation Day. Secretary Blinken recognized the strong Kuwait-US relationship and Kuwait’s key role in US policy as a major non-NATO ally of the United States.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Supports Humanitarian Efforts in Turkey and Syria. On February 22, US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that it has moved US military tents from Bahrain to the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to support people displaced by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey on February 6. According to the announcement, the tents can house more than 4,000 displaced people. CENTCOM has supplied more than 300,000 pounds of aid since the earthquake.

US Military Begins Exercise Intrepid Maven 23.2 in Israel. On February 21, US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that 200 marines and sailors were set to partner with infantry and artillery elements of the Israeli Defense Forces for Exercise Intrepid Maven 23.2.

Secretary Austin Speaks with Israeli Defense Minister. On February 24, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant. During the call, Secretary Austin urged the de-escalation of tensions in the West Bank following an Israeli raid that resulted in civilian casualties the day before, but also reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself.

4) US Agency for International Development

USAID Administrator Power Speaks with Syria-Based Humanitarian Groups. On February 23, USAID Administrator Samantha Power spoke with a group of Syria-based humanitarian organizations that are working with USAID to provide earthquake-related relief. Administrator Power heard from the organizations about how the United States could facilitate cross-border access to aid.

III. Judicial Branch

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case Challenging Arkansas Anti-BDS Law. On February 21, the Supreme Court declined to review the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas’ case against the state over its anti-Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) legislation. The ACLU originally sued the state on behalf of the Arkansas Times, which was penalized under a 2017 state law forcing state contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel. The law was once overturned by the Eighth Circuit Court as a first amendment violation, but the court reversed its decision in June. The Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case effectively upholds the law.