Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

House Progressive Democrats Introduce Bill to Redefine US Policy on Palestine. On May 16, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) introduced H.Res.1123, to express the sense of the House of Representatives that the United States should recognize and commemorate the 1948 Nakba and support Palestinian aid and social services through organizations like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. It also calls on the US to support refugee rights for Palestinians as set forth by UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right of return. The bill also recognizes Palestinians as the indigenous inhabitants of the modern-day state of Israel. The bill was sent to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and cosponsored by six other progressive Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), Cori Bush (D-Missouri), Jamal Bowman (D-New York), and Marie Newman (D-Illinois). However, it has already faced opposition from the moderate wing of the Democratic party, with Reps. Brad Sherman (D-California) and Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) issuing interview statements in which Sherman called the bill an “outrageous falsehood” that attempts to “rewrite history”.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Dozens of House Members Write Secretary Blinken Calling for Investigation of Shireen Abu Aqleh’s Death. Representatives André Carson (D-Indiana) and Lou Correa (D-California) led dozens of fellow House members in a letter calling to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and FBI Director Christopher Wray asking for a State Department and FBI investigation into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh. The letter was first published through Americans for Peace Now, and primarily cites conflicting accounts from the Israeli government that has claimed Abu Aqleh was shot by Palestinians and eyewitnesses who have reported that there were no shootings in the area. The letter also highlights Abu Aqleh’s status as an American citizen, and the importance of protecting Americans living abroad.

Israel Plays Key Role in North Carolina Primary. In North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District, Valerie Foushee beat Nida Allam and Clay Aiken in the Democratic primary after Rep. David Price announced he would not seek re-election. Rep. Price has been a strong Israel supporter active in Homeland Security appropriations, and his successor has potential to be an impactful voice on the issue. Foushee received over $2.1 million in funding from the United Democracy Project, the super PAC of AIPAC, which caused the NC Democratic Progressive Caucus to pull their endorsement. Nida Allam is a progressive who has garnered support from Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and advocated for Palestinian humanitarian aid in past statements.

On the other hand, progressive Democrat Summer Lee won her primary battle for a congressional seat in Pennsylvania against AIPAC-backed Steve Irwin. The pro-Israel organization had fought Lee and heavily funded Irwin’s bid but came up short.

Reps. Write Letter to Biden Questioning Visit of Saudi Prince, Cite ‘Khashoggi List’. As Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman arrived in Washington to meet with US officials, Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania) wrote a letter to President Biden questioning why he was granted a visa. After the Biden Administration released a report concluding that the Saudi government was responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Secretary of State Antony Blinken created the ‘Khashoggi list,’ banning 76 Saudi nationals (not publicly identified due to visa confidentiality) allegedly connected to his death from entry into the United States. A separate 2021 US Intelligence Community report did not list Prince Khalid as connected to Khashoggi’s death, but widespread media reports allege that he told Khashoggi it was safe to visit the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was murdered.

Rep. Meijer Speaks on Iran Nuclear Talks. In an interview with AIPAC, Representative Peter Meijer (R-Michigan) said the Biden Administration has not offered a clear rationale for continuing nuclear talks with Iran and compared the Islamic Republic’s geopolitical ambitions to those of Vladimir Putin. Rep. Meijer, an AIPAC-endorsed freshman Republican and former US serviceman, has compared his past experiences under threat of Iranian rockets in Iraq to the everyday experiences of Israeli residents.

3) Hearings and Briefings

House Foreign Affairs Committee Holds Hearing of Ukraine’s War on the Middle East. The hearing was led by Representative Ted Deutch (D-Florida), Chair of the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism Subcommittee. Attendees included fellows and researchers from the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Topics discussed in the hearing included oil and gas prices and food security.

4) Nominations

Senate Confirms Nomination of Barbara Leaf. On May 18, the Senate confirmed Barbara A. Leaf for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in a 54–44 vote. Leaf has held a variety of Middle East-related positions at the State Department and the Washington Institute, and most recently served as the National Security Council Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had halted Leaf’s nomination since October due to dissatisfaction with her responses on certain regional issues and was accused of political grandstanding by opponents.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

US Preparing for Military Sale to Egypt. The Biden Administration announced in a May 19 State Department release that the United States is preparing for a $691 million military sale to Egypt. The sale will include over 5,000 TOW missiles, support equipment, and testing tools. While US military sales to Egypt have been jeopardized in the past due to human rights concerns, the release said that this sale will improve US national security and foreign policy through helping an important non-NATO ally.

VP Harris Leads Presidential Delegation to the UAE. On May 16, a US delegation traveled to the UAE to pay respects after the death of President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Vice President Kamala Harris led the delegation that included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, CIA Director William Burns, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin, and several UAE embassy officials, among others. Although President Biden was not part of the delegation, he released a separate statement in which he offered his condolences and expressed support for the new UAE president, Mohammed bin Zayed.

Israeli Minister of Defense Visits US. Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz visited the White House on May 19 to meet with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Topics at their meeting included Iran nuclear capabilities and the recent killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh. Gantz also met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III.

National Security Advisor Meets with Saudi Vice Minister of Defense. On May 17, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Saudi Vice Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman. They discussed the American-Saudi efforts to foster global economic resilience, and Sullivan thanked the guest for Saudi Arabia’s support of the UN truce in Yemen.

Biden Nominates Joey Hood for Ambassador to Tunisia. On May 20, the White House nominated Joey R. Hood to be ambassador to Tunisia. Hood is a foreign service officer who served in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department.

2) Department of State

DoS Removes Several Middle East Based Groups from Terror Watchlist. The State Department announced May 13 that it will remove three groups from its terrorism blacklist: extremist Jewish group Kahane Chai, Palestinian jihadist group Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, and Egyptian Islamist movement Gamaa al-Islamiyya. Kahane Chai was founded by a US-born rabbi and Israeli MP Meir Kahane and has been on the terrorism list since 1997 after a supporter murdered 29 Palestinians in a Hebron terrorist attack. Mujahidin Shura Council of Jerusalem was linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and was added to the terror watchlist in 2014 after claiming responsibility for several rocket attacks in Israel. Gamaa al-Islamiyya was dedicated to overthrowing the Egyptian government and replacing it with an Islamist state, and launched a robust terrorism movement in the 1990s. All three groups were removed due to lack of recent activity and remain on the Specially Designated Global Terrorist List to aid law enforcement efforts.

International Religious Freedom Discussed in Saudi Arabia. Between May 11 and 15, Rashad Hussain, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, visited Saudi Arabia where he attended meetings with representatives from the faiths of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The meetings signified a serious shift in Saudi policy toward other religions which will likely be translated into political shifts in Saudi foreign policy.

US To Hold Meeting with Organization of Islamic Cooperation in DC. On May 23 and 24, several State Department officials will meet in Washington with representatives from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to discuss areas of cooperation, including political issues, women’s rights, and climate change. The OIC, currently headed by Chadian diplomat Hissein Brahim Taha, is an intergovernmental organization comprised of 57 states representing the Islamic world.

Blinken Hosts Global Food Security Ministerial. On May 18, Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted a meeting on the topic of global food security at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. In his opening remarks, he highlighted the strain the war in Ukraine is putting on the global food supply chain and recommended four priority steps to address the crisis. Several Middle Eastern countries have been among the hardest hit by food supply shortages and inflation; Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon are all highly reliant on food imports and food aid.

DoS Condemns Israeli Police Response to Shireen Abu Aqleh’s Funeral. Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a brief statement saying the US was “deeply troubled” to see Israeli police “intruding” on the funeral of Shireen Abu Aqleh, who was killed by Israeli forces while reporting from a refugee camp in Jenin. He called for Israelis and Palestinians to remain calm and avoid stoking further tensions.

Blinken Reaffirms US-Qatari Partnership. State Department spokesperson Ned Price issued a readout on May 16 of a call between Secretary of State Blinken and Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. Blinken reiterated his condolences on the death of journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh and discussed US-Qatari relations, and specifically thanked Qatar for its assistance with Iran and Afghanistan diplomatic efforts and support for Ukrainian sovereignty.

Blinken Meets with Turkish Foreign Minister. On May 18, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in New York City to reaffirm US-Turkey cooperation as NATO allies. They issued a joint statement highlighting the topics of counterterrorism, food and energy security, trade, and the war in Ukraine.

Blinken Meets with Yemeni Foreign Minister. According to a readout released by State Department spokesperson Ned Price, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed bin Mubarak on May 17. Blinken reiterated US commitment to ending the conflict and thanked bin Mubarak for his help in facilitating the first commercial flights out of Sana’a since 2016, as well as discussed ways to build upon the recent UN truce and sustain the ceasefire.

US Congratulates Somali President and Commits Troops to Somalia. Secretary Blinken congratulated Somalia on the election of its president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and pledged US help in implementing needed “political, economic, and security reforms” in the country. Additionally, in a policy reversal from the former administration, President Biden has agreed to a Defense Department plan to redeploy US troops to Somalia to help operations against the al-Shabab terrorist organization. Former President Donald Trump had ordered the withdrawal of nearly 700 American soldiers from Somalia just before the end of his term in office. Al-Shabab has recently resumed painful attacks against Somali and African Union troops deployed in the country.

US Welcomes Lebanon’s Parliamentary Elections. On May 20, State Department spokesperson Ned Price issued a statement welcoming the results of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections but also expressing concern about some election irregularities. Importantly, the statement called on leaders to work toward serving the people’s interests by quickly forming a government that could restore domestic and international confidence.

USAID Administrator Power Speaks on Israel and Palestine. US Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power spoke to the House Foreign Affairs Committee regarding Palestinian aid and US relations with Israel in a May 17 budget hearing. Power said that Israel has shown “a lot of enthusiasm” about increasing Palestinian aid and improving the economic stability in the region. Additionally, Power expressed that addressing antisemitic information in UN distributed educational materials for Palestinians is a priority and said that the US is adhering to the Taylor Force Act, which bans any payment to the Palestinian Authority as long as it is paying families of perpetrators of so-called anti-Israel violence. And while USAID’s efforts to promote independent media and civil society organizations in Palestine were put on hold due to Trump Administration budget cuts, the Middle East Partnership for Peace program has begun and will receive new grants soon.

3) Department of Defense

DoD Finds No Wrongdoing in 2019 Syrian Airstrike. An internal investigation conducted by the Pentagon has concluded that a 2019 airstrike in Baghouz, Syria did not violate any policies or constitute negligence. While the airstrike’s intended target was an ISIL bastion, a New York Times investigation reported that 70 civilian non-combatants were killed. While the Times report said a US officer flagged the strike as a potential war crime, the Pentagon investigation said that the strike was requested by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the area was believed to have no civilians.

US Navy Busy with Drug Interdiction in the Gulf of Oman. On May 17, CENTCOM announced that the US seized a boat in the Gulf of Oman carrying illegal drugs worth $39 million. The traffickers were identified as Iranian nationals. On May 15, the Navy announced the seizure of a $17 million drug heist in the same area.

4) Treasury Department

Treasury Sanctions Hezbollah Financial Facilitator. On May 19, the Treasury Department sanctioned a Lebanese Hezbollah official, Ahmad Jalal Reda Abdallah, along with five of his associates and companies, pursuant to Executive Order 13224. He was sanctioned for business activities that resulted in funding for the party through “seemingly illegitimate businesses.”