Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Representative Carson Reintroduces Justice for Shireen Act. On May 18, Representative André Carson (D-IN) reintroduced H.R. 3477, the Justice for Shireen Act. The bill, which was originally introduced in November 2022, requires the US government to investigate the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian American journalist whom Israeli forces shot dead on May 11, 2022, and to report to Congress on her killing. Representative Carson introduced the bill the same day that he and other progressive House Democrats joined the Abu Akleh family on Capitol Hill to call for accountability for her death.

HFAC Advances Assad Anti-Normalization Act and Bill to Establish Abraham Accords Envoy. On May 16, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) met to mark up H.R. 3099, Representative Michael Lawler’s (R-NY) bill that would create a special envoy in the State Department focused exclusively on strengthening and furthering the work of the Abraham Accords. The committee voted to advance the legislation to the House floor. The advancement of the legislation comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken is reportedly considering former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro for a similar position. The committee also voted to pass H.R. 3202, the Assad Anti-Normalization Act, which Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) introduced last week. The bill, which is the most significant US legislation on Syria since the Caesar Act, is moving quickly through Congress.

Senator Rubio Reintroduces Anti-BDS Bill. On May 17, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) reintroduced S.1637, the Combating BDS Act of 2023. The bill aims to combat the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement by increasing legal protections for state and local governments that prohibit investment in and transactions with firms that engage in BDS actions. In February, the Supreme Court upheld an Arkansas state law penalizing boycotts of Israel.

Senator Rubio Reintroduces Hamas and PIJ International Terrorism Support Prevention Act. On May 17, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) reintroduced S.1647, the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) International Terrorism Support Prevention Act. The bill, which was originally introduced in May 2021, aims to impose sanctions on foreign individuals, entities, and governments that provide support for Hamas and PIJ.

Representative Gimenez Introduces Resolution Condemning Terrorism Against Israel. On May 17, Representative Carlos Gimenez (R-FL) introduced H.Res.409, a resolution “condemning the acts of terrorism committed by Iranian military proxies, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, against the people of the State of Israel.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Warren, Sanders, and Lee Press Secretaries Blinken and Austin on US Weapons in Yemen. On May 14, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Mike Lee (R-UT) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding US-caused civilian harm in Yemen. The senators, who have written to Secretary Austin before, expressed concerns about how the Defense and State Departments have tracked and monitored US weapons that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have used in Yemen. The letter lists several areas of concern, including the State Department’s failure to limit or cancel arms sales to foreign countries where US-origin materiel are used for unauthorized purposes, and the poor implementation of the Golden Sentry End-Use Monitoring program, a US government verification process for weapons sales to other countries.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senators Receive Classified Briefing on Iran. On May 16, the Biden administration briefed the Senate on Iran’s nuclear program and the recent China-brokered normalization deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia. After the briefing, Senate Democrats like Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) respectively described it as “a very solid briefing” and “a thorough status update.” Republicans, however, left the briefing criticizing the Biden administration, and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) expressed his opinion that the Biden administration “[is] still no closer to a more comprehensive Iran policy,” despite President Biden having labeled the JCPOA “dead” more than six months ago. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), meanwhile, commented on the lack of a strategy to stop Iranian weapons going into Ukraine, accusing the Biden administration of wanting to ease tensions with Iran more than it wants a Ukrainian victory.

4) Nominations

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Questions US Ambassador Nominees to Oman and Lebanon. On May 16, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to consider President Biden’s nominations of Ana A. Escrogima and Lisa A. Johnson to be the next US Ambassadors to Oman and Lebanon, respectively. During the hearing, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) pressed Escrogima on how the United States can convince Oman to join the Abraham Accords, and the nominee responded that she would work to do this. Senator Todd Young (R-IN) pressed Escrogima on pushing Oman and its business community to comply with US sanctions on Iran. Senators from both parties pressed Johnson on Lebanon’s failure to elect a president and form a government, urging the diplomat to work urgently to address the issue. Senator Pete Ricketts (R-NE), meanwhile, asked Johnson about how the United States can stop Hezbollah and other groups from firing rockets from southern Lebanon into Israel.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

White House Wants Saudi-Israeli Normalization Before 2024. On May 17, two White House officials reportedly said that the Biden administration wants Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel by the end of 2023 so that President Biden can focus on the 2024 presidential election. The news follows Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry Ronen Levi’s trip to Washington last week to meet with administration officials and with members of Congress to advance efforts on the issue.

Biden Administration Responds to the First Round of Elections in Turkey. On May 15, State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel responded to the results of the May 14 Turkish election, stating that the United States is watching the ongoing elections and vowing that the United States will “continue to work together with whatever government is chosen by the Turkish people.” The day before, the White House congratulated the Turkish people on the election, and President Biden, who once called Turkish President and electoral-frontrunner Recep Tayyip Erdoğan an “autocrat,” stated, “I just hope…whoever wins, wins.” President Erdoğan and leading opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu both failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote, so the elections will go to a May 28 runoff.

White House Announces Coming Sanctions in Response to Russia-Iran Weapons and Drone Exchanges. On May 15, National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby announced upcoming sanctions targeting Iranian drone transfers to Russia. Russian President Vladmir Putin has turned to Iran for drones and missile components for use in its invasion of Ukraine, which Kirby called an “unprecedented defense partnership.” In exchange for supporting the Russian invasion, Iran is looking to expand its own military capabilities, including by acquiring new radar systems and by sealing a recent deal to buy Russian Su-35 fighter jets, a move that Kirby said “is directly enabling” Iran’s ability to threaten its neighbors and destabilize the Middle East. The White House announcement follows congressional pressure on the Biden administration to disrupt Iran’s access to drone components after Iranian-made drones in Ukraine were found to contain American and European parts.

National Security Advisor Sullivan and Secretary of State Blinken Meet with UN Special Envoy for Yemen. On May 15, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken both met separately with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg. Sullivan emphasized the importance of continued donor support to allay Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and signaled the Biden administration’s support to end the war in Yemen with an agreement to stay in close contact with the UN Envoy. Blinken echoed this sentiment in his meeting and focused on the role of US diplomatic engagement in having established an April 2022 truce and supporting Yemeni-led efforts to rebuild from the war.

2) Department of State

State Department Expresses Concern About Israeli Settlement Expansion, Ben-Gvir Jerusalem Visit. On May 21, State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller said that the United States is “deeply troubled” by the Israeli government’s new order allowing Jewish settlers to settle in the Homesh outpost, in violation of Israeli law, international law, and US-Israel agreements dating back to the Bush administration in 2004. Miller also expressed concern about Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem early that day, where the far-right minister declared, “we’re in charge here,” by which he meant Israelis. Significantly, settlement expansion and Israeli provocations related to the Jerusalem holy sites were explicitly mentioned in both the US-brokered Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh Joint Communiques from earlier this year, which were meant to reduce Israeli provocations and rising violence in Israel and the West Bank.

State Department Mediates Sudan Cease-fire with Saudi Arabia. On May 20, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the State Department announced a short-term cease-fire in Sudan. According to the announcement, the State Department and Saudi Arabia mediated a seven-day cease-fire to facilitate humanitarian arrangements during meetings in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The cease-fire went into effect on May 22.

State Department Condemns Israeli Racism During Flag Day Marches. On May 18, State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller condemned Israeli chants of “Death to Arabs” during this year’s ultranationalist Israeli Flag Day march through Jerusalem, stating that, “The United States unequivocally opposes racist language of any form.” During the annual march, thousands of Israeli nationalists parade through Jerusalem’s Old City yelling racist slogans, attacking journalists covering the event, and telling Palestinians that they will burn their villages.

State Department Announces Streamlined Foreign Military Sales Process. On May 18, the State Department released a new Foreign Military Sales (FMS) plan, stating that “shifting global security conditions,” including the Russian war in Ukraine and strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific, require US security cooperation to “adapt” to meet new challenges. The new plan has three components: a new approach to FMS strategic planning, improving FMS adjudication, and forward-looking support to FMS implementation and future cases, and also seeks to streamline and speed up the FMS process to US partners around the world. One of the key components of the new plan involves “developing a regional approach to arms transfers,” which is significant for the Middle East as the Biden administration pushes for Israel’s regional integration through the Abraham Accords.

State Department Publishes 2022 International Religious Freedom Report. On May 15, the State Department published the 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on the occasion, broadly charting positive and negative developments in religious freedom around the world. Regarding the Middle East, Secretary Blinken cited Iran’s killing of Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini at the hands of the country’s “morality police.” The report also includes information on Tunisia, where Tunisian President Kais Saied recently rewrote the constitution to require the Tunisian president to be Muslim, and Turkey, where the government reconverted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque in 2020 and has limited the rights of religious minorities, including Greek Orthodox Christians. Most significantly, the report acknowledges Israel’s efforts to disrupt the May 13, 2022, funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh, an Al Jazeera journalist and US citizen who was killed by Israeli forces while reporting in the West Bank. Because the Biden administration has failed to hold Israel accountable for Abu Akleh’s death, the description of this event and others in the Israel section of the report is significant.

Deputy Secretary of State Sherman Meets with Director of Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On May 17, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General Ronen Levi to reaffirm US support for Israel’s security. The two officials also covered a range of global issues, including developments in Sudan and in the Ukraine War. Looking to build upon a recent cease-fire in Israel and Gaza, Deputy Secretary Sherman emphasized the steps that Israel and the Palestinian Authority are taking to stabilize the situation in the West Bank.

State Department and Egypt Mark Inaugural Meeting of Joint Economic Commission. On May 17, the Joint Economic Commission (JEC) between the United States and Egypt met in Cairo to discuss deepening American-Egyptian economic ties. At the commission’s inaugural meeting, the United States and Egypt mutually emphasized the importance of the economic empowerment of women, food security, and sustainable infrastructure and supply chains. The next JEC meeting will be held in the United States in 2024.

3) Department of Defense

Defense Department Says Iran-backed Militia Behind March Drone Strike in Syria. On May 14, a senior US military official confirmed that an Iran-backed militia based in northern Iraq was responsible for a March 23 drone attack that killed a US military contractor in northeast Syria. The March attack was one of four attempted cross-border drone strikes against US forces launched by Iran-backed militias in Iraq since August.

4) Department of Justice

Justice Department Arrests Chinese Agents Accused of Sending Weapons Components to Iran. On May 16, a Justice Department team announced arrests and criminal charges in five technology espionage cases linked to Russia, China, and Iran. The strike force team, which the Biden administration set up in February, is a collaboration between the Department of Justice, the Department of Commerce, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and relevant local attorneys’ offices. In two of the cases, China-based agents were accused of attempting to send components of weapons of mass destruction to Iran and advanced technology to Russia, which could be repurposed for use in its war effort.

5) US Agency for International Development

USAID Announces $103 Million for Countries Affected by Violence in Sudan. On May 19, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it is providing more than $103 million to Sudan, the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, and South Sudan to meet increased humanitarian needs stemming from ongoing violence in Sudan. USAID Administrator Samantha Power announced the new US funding while in Chad, which has had 76,000 people cross its border since the violence began in Sudan on April 15.

III. Judicial Branch

Twitter and Saudi Officials Face Lawsuit Connected to Transnational Repression Scheme. On May 16, US activist Areej al-Sadhan filed a racketeering lawsuit against Twitter and senior Saudi officials. Al-Sadhan filed the suit on behalf of her brother, who was allegedly kidnapped by Saudi “secret police” in 2018 and later sentenced to 20 years in prison for using Twitter to mock the Saudi government. Al-Sadhan alleges that Twitter allowed Saudi authorities to collect data—a fact that prosecutors have reportedly independently confirmed—about Twitter users while a Saudi royal increased his stake in the company.