Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

House Appropriations Committee Releases FY24 Foreign Appropriations Budget. On June 22, the House Appropriations Committee released the Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) bill for the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee. The $52 billion bill maintains $3.3 billion in foreign military financing for Israel, and also maintains security assistance to Egypt and Jordan, removing human rights conditionality on Egypt’s $1.3 billion in military aid and providing a $75 million increase. Significantly, House Republicans are targeting the Biden administration’s advisory-role diplomats, including the State Department’s newly appointed Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, aiming to defund these roles in next year’s budget. House Democrats immediately criticized the legislation.

House and Senate Armed Service Committees Begin 2024 NDAA Consideration. On June 21, both the Senate and House Armed Service Committees held markups for H.R. 2670, the Fiscal Year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Senate markups of the massive defense authorization bill were closed, but the House Subcommittees passed multiple amendments to the legislative package pertaining to the Middle East, including legislation to require biannual US-Israel military exercises, to conduct collaborative US-Israel post-traumatic stress disorder research, to provide Defense reports to Congress on China’s relationships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The House Armed Services Committee also voted to include Representative Don Bacon’s (R-NE) amendment to require the US administration to send air defense systems to both the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces to deter against Iranian missiles, rockets, and drones.

Senators Durbin, Murphy, Welch, and Coons Introduce Senate Resolution Recognizing Tunisian Leadership in the Arab Spring. On June 21, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Peter Welch (D-VT), and Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced S.Res.260, a resolution “recognizing Tunisia’s leadership in the Arab Spring and expressing support for upholding its democratic principles and norms.” The resolution, if adopted, would also commend “the Tunisian people for their courage and democratic achievements made in the immediate years following the Arab Spring,” express concern about the ongoing democratic backsliding within the country, and urge the Tunisian government to release all political prisoners, respect the rights of freedom of speech and assembly, and support a “transparent and open 2024 presidential election process.”

Bipartisan Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Protect Sanctions Evasion Whistleblowers. On June 21, Senators Jim Risch (R-ID) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Representatives Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Dean Phillips (D-MN) introduced S.2066 and H.R.4234, the Senate and House versions of the Sanctions Evasion Whistleblower Rewards Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would expand the 1956 State Department Basic Authorities Act’s Rewards for Justice Program to authorize the State Department to reward individuals who offer information on the identity or location of those who are evading US or UN sanctions. According to the lawmakers, the legislation is inspired by former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi, who defected from the Assad regime and provided the United States with critical information on its illegal activities and human rights abuses.

HFAC Votes to Advance Iran-Related Legislation During Markup. On June 21, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a markup of pending committee legislation. During the meeting, the committee voted to advance H.R. 3033, the Solidify Iran Sanctions Act of 2023, which would eliminate the 2026 sunset provision of the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act, and also to advance H.Res.492, a resolution that condemns the Iranian government’s state-sponsored persecution of its Baha’i minority. Both the bill and the resolution will now advance to the House floor.

Senators Risch and Hagerty Reintroduce Bill Requiring Congressional Vote on Iran Sanctions Relief. On June 22, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) and Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) introduced S.2210, the Iran Sanctions Relief Review Act. The bill would require the president to notify the “appropriate congressional committees and leadership” every time they seek to terminate sanctions against Iranian individuals or companies. The president may subsequently take that action only if a joint resolution of approval is enacted. According to the senators, the legislation is supposed to be a “backstop” for attempts by the Executive Branch to evade the “legal requirements for congressional review of any agreement related to Iran’s nuclear program,” as laid out in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Gillibrand and Lankford Lead 24 Bipartisan Senators in a Letter to President Biden on Iran. On June 16, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and James Lankford (R-OK) led a bipartisan group of 26 senators in a letter to President Biden urging him to “strengthen [US] efforts to deter Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.” The letter warns that “Iran today is capable of enriching uranium to the 90% weapons-grade level at a time of its choosing,” and that “Iran is drawing itself closer to both Russia and China, reinforcing the connection between the Iranian nuclear issue and America’s global challenges.” The lawmakers call on President Biden to restore a “posture of deterrence” and call on US allies to begin the snapback sanction mechanism of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Senate Investigations Committee Leadership Schedules Hearing on LIV-PGA Merger. On June 21, the chair and the ranking member of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ron Johnson (R-WI), announced a Senate hearing investigating the recent merger between the Professional Golf Association (PGA) and LIV Golf, which is owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. The merger has led to criticism from Senators over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and Senators Blumenthal and Johnson have called for a hearing to investigate the matter on July 11, 2023. The senators have invited PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, Saudi Public Investment Fund Governor Yasir al-Rummayan, and LIV Golf CEO Gregory Norman to testify in front of the committee.

Senators Rosen and Scott Lead 65 Senators in a Letter to Secretaries Blinken and Mayorkas Urging Israel’s Inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program. On June 21, Senators Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Rick Scott (R-FL) led a bipartisan group of 65 senators in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas urging their departments to “prioritize finalizing Israel’s accession this year” to the US Visa Waiver Program. Though the lawmakers recognize that “there are still outstanding issues that must be addressed” before Israeli participation in the program can be finalized, they nevertheless “urge both sides to continue working toward addressing these issues…before the deadline of September 30, 2023.” The new letter follows a separate May 24 letter from 16 Senate Democrats urging against Israel’s entry into the program, citing Israel’s treatment of Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian Americans who are prevented from crossing Israeli-controlled borders.

3) Hearings and Briefings

HFAC Members Receive Classified Briefing on Sudan. On June 22, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee received a classified briefing on the ongoing violence in Sudan.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Recognizes World Refugee Day. On June 20, President Biden recognized World Refugee Day, a day to honor “the bravery and resilience of millions of refugees forced to flee violence and oppression.” President Biden mentioned Syria and South Sudan, as well as other countries in his remarks, highlighting his administration’s effort to rebuild the US Refugee Admissions Program, strengthen the US resettlement program, and welcome 125,000 refugees next year, despite the “little hope for a solution to their displacement” in these contexts.

2) State Department

State Department Condemns West Bank Shooting, Israeli Settler Rampage. On June 20, State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller condemned a shooting near Eli, an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, where a Palestinian gunman killed four Israelis. The shooting came one day after a violent Israeli raid that killed six Palestinians in Jenin; but the State Department condemnation did not address said raid. On June 21, in response to the shooting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the construction of the 1,000 new homes in the Eli settlement, in violation of both international law and US policy. Following the June 20 shooting, Israeli settlers began rampaging through the West Bank, setting fires to villages, cars, and homes, killing one Palestinian and wounding dozens. On June 21, State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel condemned the settler attacks, saying that the United States will push for Israeli accountability despite Israeli soldiers reportedly allowing the settler violence. The Israeli settler violence has also targeted Palestinian towns that are home to US citizens and Palestinian Americans, invoking criticism from Representatives André Carson (D-IL), Chuy Garcia (D-IL), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). Significantly, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf has been in Palestine during the violence. On June 23, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi about the shooting and the settler violence.

Secretary Blinken Announces “Fallon Smart Policy” in Response to Saudi Killing. On June 21, Secretary Antony Blinken announced the “Fallon Smart Policy” to restrict the visas of foreign government officials and agents who have assisted “fugitives accused or convicted of serious crimes to evade the US justice system.” Secretary Blinken also noted that the Fallon Smart policy could also apply to the immediate family members of such officials or agents. The policy gets its name from Fallon Smart, a 15-year-old who was killed in a hit-and-run incident by a Saudi national who fled the United States to avoid being tried for manslaughter. Notably, the Department of Homeland Security suspects that the Saudi government helped him escape the United States. Fallon Smart was an Oregon resident, and the policy follows a deal between the Biden administration and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who previously placed a hold on Michael Ratney’s pending nomination to become the next US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia over Smart’s murder.

Secretary Blinken Announces $172 Million Aid for Sudan. On June 20, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced nearly $172 million in additional humanitarian aid for the people of Sudan and neighboring countries. As of June 21, fighting has resumed in Khartoum and the number of displaced people has passed 2.5 million. According to Secretary Blinken, this latest announcement marks more than $550 million in total humanitarian assistance this fiscal year for Sudan and neighboring countries, including Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Secretary Blinken criticized the “onerous bureaucratic and security restrictions that are hindering shipments of lifesaving aid,” and stated that “life-saving supplies are being held at [Sudanese] customs,” and that “aid workers are unable to get the visas required to enter the country and to deliver assistance.”

Ambassador Taylor Leads 27 Countries in Opposition to the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on Israel-Palestine. On June 20, US Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Michèle Taylor led 27 countries in opposition to the open-ended commission of inquiry (COI) established following the escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine in May 2021. In a statement during the 53rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council, Ambassador Taylor said, “We believe that the nature of this COI is further demonstration of long-standing, disproportionate attention given to Israel in the Council, and must stop.” Ambassador Taylor also expressed concerns that the open-ended COI would “further contribute to the polarization of a situation about which so many of us are concerned.”

Deputy Secretary Sherman Holds Call with Algerian Foreign Minister Attaf, Urges Support of UN Efforts to Politically Resolve Western Sahara Issue. On June 20, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman spoke with Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf about “shared efforts to advance regional stability and further strengthen the US-Algeria relationship,” as well as “global repercussions of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine” and intensifying UN efforts to “achieve an enduring and dignified political solution for Western Sahara.”

Secretary Blinken Meets Turkish Foreign Minister Fidan to Discuss Sweden’s NATO Accession. On June 21, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan to discuss Sweden’s NATO accession, among other defense-related topics. Though Foreign Minister Fidan maintained that the US and Turkey “may not see eye-to-eye on every issue,” he nevertheless expressed his intent “to explore the opportunities for deepening our cooperation,” as laid out by the US-Turkey Strategic Mechanism.

3) Department of Defense

US Military Helps Nonprofit Deliver Aid to Blockaded-Syrian Camp. On June 20, US Central Command (CENTCOM) Spokesperson Captain Abigail Hammock said that the US military helped facilitate the shipment of humanitarian aid from a Washington-based nonprofit to Syria’s Rukban camp. The delivery of aid is significant, because Syria and Russia have blockaded the camp and claimed that its residents are anti-regime terrorists. The camp is located near the Jordan-Iraq border in Syria and the US al-Tanf base, and the US military has reportedly flown in nine pallets of aid from Iraq so far, including fertilizer, seeds, and irrigation equipment for the camp’s residents. The camp has not received a UN aid convoy since 2019. Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) applauded the action, calling it a “tremendous accomplishment.”

Secretary Austin Meets with Somali President. On June 21, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Washington. The two leaders discussed the Somali government’s efforts to counter al-Shabab and agreed to coordinate as the Somali government prepares for a security transition with a drawdown of forces from the African Union.

Lieutenant General Grynkewich Criticizes Russian Escalation in Syrian Airspace. On June 21, US Air Force Central Command (AFCENT) Commander Lieutenant General Alexus Grynkewich accused the Russian Air Force of “buffoonery in the air,” citing Russian aggression in the Middle East. Lieutenant General Grynkewich described various instances where Russian aircraft have come into US-controlled airspace, in many cases armed with a range of air-to-ground munitions and bombs. Grynkewich expressed concern that these repeat violations of deconfliction protocols put US forces at risk and raise the likelihood of accidents or even conflict in Syria.

4) US Agency for International Development

Deputy Administrator Coleman Meets with Syrian Civil Society Leaders. On June 21, Deputy USAID Administrator Isobel Coleman met with the Syria Civil Defense (the White Helmets) and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Deputy Administrator Coleman thanked both organizations for their work in northwest Syria following the February 2023 earthquakes that killed thousands. The leaders also discussed opportunities for partnerships with other Syrian organizations to support both victims of the earthquake and of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s state violence.

III. Judicial Branch

Hanan Elatr, Widow of Jamal Khashoggi, Sues NSO Group in US Federal Court. On June 15, Hanan Elatr, the widow of slain Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, filed a lawsuit in the US District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia against Israeli spyware company NSO Group for violating US federal and Virginia anti-hacking laws by infecting her cellphone with its Pegasus spyware. The lawsuit says that NSO spyware “caused [Elatr] immense harm, both through the tragic loss of her husband and through her own loss of safety, privacy, and autonomy.” Elatr’s lawsuit is the latest in a series of high-profile lawsuits against NSO Group, including from Meta and Apple.