Congressional Update – Week Ending June 15, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

S. Res. 541. A bipartisan trio of senators proposed a resolution this week that, should it pass, would express the sense of Congress that Saudi Arabia may not engage in any uranium enrichment processes if it is to work with the United States to establish a civilian nuclear power program. The resolution requires the Saudis to abide by the “gold standard” of civilian nuclear energy programs to which countries like the United Arab Emirates have previously agreed. The Saudis have sought unlimited enrichment rights as they eye competition with Iran, which is allowed enrichment rights and has previously been thought to have sought to develop nuclear weapons.

H.R. 6095. GOP Reps. Ron DeSantis (Florida) and Bob Goodlatte (Virginia) offered another bill that seemingly jeopardizes Americans’ right to free speech, including the right to engage in boycotts. According to DeSantis’s press release, the bill amends a previous statute that prohibits discriminatory boycotts to better protect Israel from “weaponized economic activity.” The congressmen specifically cited the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as the reason for this new legislation. Courts and civil liberties advocates, however, maintain that participating in BDS is a constitutionally protected right. Previous legislative attempts to curb “anti-Israel” boycotts have failed under pressure from civil liberties groups.

Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 State Department Appropriations. The House Appropriations Committee marked up the State Department/USAID spending bill for fiscal year 2019 this week. Like FY 2018, House members overwhelmingly rejected the president’s request for slimmer budgets. Though funding for international institutions like the United Nations are scaled back, in most cases, bilateral assistance to certain countries was maintained or even boosted. Here are some relevant figures for the Middle East:

  • Israel: $3.3 billion in foreign military financing (FMF)
  • Egypt: $1.3 billion in FMF and another $150 million is Economic Support Funds (ESFs)
  • Jordan: $1.0824 billion in ESFs and $425 million in FMF
  • Tunisia: Guaranteed at least $205.4 million in unspecified assistance

There is also another $1 billion in ESFs that Congress authorized to be distributed to countries like Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as the executive branch sees fit. However, severe conditions are applied to Palestinian aid, including those set under the Taylor Force Act, and the White House has significant discretion to decide what levels of funding the Palestinians receive.


2) Correspondence

Congress Writes to Secretary Mattis About Hodeida Siege. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) and Justin Amash (R-Michigan) penned a bipartisan letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis this week regarding the Saudi and Emirati-led effort to take over the port of Hodeida from Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Their colleagues across the Capitol also sent letters to Mattis and to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voicing similar concerns, and later in the week, more House members—including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel (D-New York)—released statements voicing their concerns about the Hodeida operation. The port of Hodeida receives some 70 percent of Yemen’s imports, including critical supplies like food aid and medicine, so any significant damage or extended fighting that blocks imports from arriving would be disastrous for the 7 million who are at risk of starvation and the 22 million Yemenis in need of critical aid. Perhaps spurred by lawmakers, Mattis and the Department of Defense declined to extend aid to the Saudi-Emirati coalition in their military efforts to seize the port.


3) Hearings

Middle East and North Africa: Ensuring Resources Match Objectives. On Wednesday June 13, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa hosted a hearing to examine the strategic objectives of the United States in the Middle East and their appropriate costs as well as to contrast those expenses against President Donald Trump’s FY 2019 budget proposal. Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) and Ranking Member Ted Deutch (D-Florida) both voiced disapproval of the president’s proposed foreign aid budget which, like his previous proposal, asks for a roughly 30-percent decrease from previous levels. Subcommittee members overwhelmingly questioned the effectiveness of the administration’s FY 2019 request for meeting the objectives the administration itself set forth. Those objectives include countering Iran’s growing threat in the region; addressing the humanitarian crises in Yemen, Syria, and the Gaza strip; alleviating the economic turmoil in Jordan; and loosening Hezbollah’s hold in Lebanon. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield and Deputy Assistant Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Hallam Ferguson testified before the committee.

Satterfield and Ferguson, parroting the Trump Administration’s views, gave responses that conflicted with concerns raised by lawmakers during the opening remarks—they largely testified that the FY 2019 budget request was sufficient for confronting the issues and meeting the objectives laid out by the administration. Satterfield emphasized the need to share the financial burden of supporting the United States’ Arab allies, saying that the requested budget would encourage other states to take more responsibility and allow the United States to reduce some of the burden of stabilizing fragile states in the region. The administration’s proposed budget would allow the United States to grow its relationship with current allies (e.g., Jordan, Israel, and Egypt) while pursuing new partnerships with stabilizing states like Iraq. Satterfield argued that positive and cooperative relationships with Arab allies would be the cornerstone of any stable, post-Islamic State (IS) Middle East.

As for USAID’s perspective, Ferguson testified that the FY 2019 budget proposal would effectively help states in the region address critical public development challenges, promote good governance, and stabilize and grow their economies, all while further degrading IS and preventing it from making gains elsewhere. Prominent examples of effective US budget support, according to Ferguson, were on display with the US-Jordan Memorandum of Understanding that was signed in February of this year; the ongoing programs in Tunisia that are helping strengthen local governance and implement needed economic reform; and the rapid response to the shortages of food and fuel in Yemen. Ferguson concluded by recounting the plight of persecuted religious minorities throughout the Middle East; he highlighted the importance of providing those communities with the support and resources they need to return to their homes after being displaced by violence because of their religious beliefs.

The same day that Satterfield was testifying before the House, the nominee to be his successor as assistant secretary, David Schenker, was across the Capitol offering testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Schenker, a former Department of Defense official under former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is popular in conservative circles, but his pro-Israel, pro-Lebanese Armed Forces positions could endear him to Democrats as well. He is likely to face a full vote before the Senate in the coming weeks.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Kushner, Greenblatt to Visit Middle East to Shop Peace Plan. As officials start to talk more about Trump’s “ultimate peace plan,” his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and special envoy for peace negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, are set to visit the Middle East next week. The duo are looking to consult with multiple parties about their proposed peace plan, which is largely complete according to reports, and seek input on outstanding issues for which the administration has yet to propose solutions. Kushner and Greenblatt are confirmed to speak with officials in Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, but officials of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are not confirmed on the itinerary. The two could also make unexpected stops elsewhere, which suggests other stakeholders like Jordan, for example—which has historically been a channel for negotiations between Israel, the United States, and Hamas—could secure meetings with the White House officials to discuss the future of the administration’s peace plan.

Trump Reinstates Funding for White Helmets. The State Department announced this week that the White House was set to release $6.6 million in funds for the civil society group the Syrian Civil Defense, which is more commonly known as the “White Helmets.” The group’s US funding was frozen earlier this year as part of a broader review of roughly $200 million in aid to Syria. However, because of the critical work the group has done aiding Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire of the long running civil war, many came out in defense of the White Helmets, calling on Trump to fully fund the group’s efforts.

2) Department of Homeland Security

Secretary Nielsen Visits Israeli-Egyptian Border for Wall Ideas. Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen took an interesting trip this week to consider the possibilities for a potential border wall between the United States and Mexico. President Trump has looked favorably on Israel’s use of walls and barriers as inspiration for the wall he has touted between the United States and Mexico. Accordingly, Nielsen visited the Israel-Egypt border to get a sense of Israel’s “success” with the barrier, and she also met with homeland security officials from Israel and elsewhere to discuss the threat of “Islamic militants.”

3) United Nations

US Comes Up Short Again at the United Nations. Two weeks ago, the United States and its ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley looked isolated in the world community. The United States and Kuwait blocked each other’s resolutions in the UN Security Council (UNSC) as the pair tried to assign blame for the Palestinian demonstrations in the Gaza Strip, and Israel’s lethal response, over the last couple of months. After deadlock in the UNSC, the Palestinians backed an effort to take a vote to the entire UN General Assembly, where the United States does not wield veto power. In the process, Haley offered an amendment to the proposed resolution—the resolution blamed Israel for the recent violence, and the amendment would have also condemned Hamas’s recent actions. Haley garnered more support for this amendment than for the earlier UNSC vote, but due to a large number of abstentions, the US-sponsored amendment fell short of the supermajority threshold required to be successful. Afterward, the Palestinian-backed resolution received enough votes to pass. This demonstrates that the United States is facing a seemingly unprecedented lack of support at the international body it helped establish and build. Further, failure by the United States to achieve concessions at the UN Human Rights Council is reportedly a consideration for US officials to withdraw from the body. It would not be the first time the United States has refused to be party to the council, but in the current context it is obvious that this is just another example of the Trump Administration’s disdain for the rules-based international order Washington has historically helped to champion.