Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

House Aims to Cut Funding to UN Israel Investigation. On June 29, the House Appropriations Committee approved several amendments to the State and Foreign Operations funding bill. One of the amendments aims to cut off US funding to the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Israel, which was established in May 2021. There is no way to reduce funding for specific UN issues, so the amendment would instead reduce US funding to the UN as a whole. Representative Barbara Lee (D-California) opposed the measure, arguing that it would weaken the United States’ position in the UN. Additionally, the committee approved an amendment proposed by Representative Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Florida) that would block the Biden Administration from removing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the list of terrorist organizations, and that would force the administration to submit any nuclear deal with Iran to Congress. The committee also voted against a proposed amendment that would block President Biden’s plans to create a separate Office of Palestinian Affairs in the US Embassy in Jerusalem.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers Urge Renewal of Humanitarian Access at Syrian Border. On June 29, Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and James Risch (R-Idaho), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in support of Syrian cross-border humanitarian access. In the letter, they argued that UN humanitarian aid coming through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing vastly outweighs any assistance provided by the Syrian regime, and it is therefore imperative that the border be kept open. The letter comes as UN Security Council Resolution 2585, which authorized use of the crossing for humanitarian aid transfers, is set to expire. An upcoming vote on its extension faces the possibility of a Russian veto.

Lawmakers Issue Statement on Sudan. On June 29, Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and James Risch (R-Idaho), and Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), released a statement on the political situation in Sudan. In advance of protests that occurred on June 30, they called on the Sudanese military to cede power to civilian leaders and respect freedom of assembly and expression. The lawmakers also urged the US and the international community to sanction officials in Sudan who are responsible for human rights violations.

Progressives Voice Objections to E1 Plan Near Jerusalem. On July 1, Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) led a group of progressive Democrats in writing a letter to Secretary Blinken criticizing Israeli plans to build settlements in the E1 area near Jerusalem and urging President Biden to voice his opposition to said plans during his upcoming visit to the region. The group said that settlement construction in the E1 area would bisect the West Bank and make the much-vaunted two-state solution impossible to achieve. Interestingly, signatories to the letter did not include legislators such as Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), who are usually outspoken critics of Israeli settlement policies.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden Meets with Erdoğan at NATO Summit. On June 29, President Biden met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the NATO summit in Madrid and thanked him for his cooperation in Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership process. Turkey had previously blocked their entry into the military alliance, accusing the countries of harboring Kurdish terrorist organizations. However, the three nations recently agreed to protect each other’s security interests in exchange for membership. Sweden and Finland had sought membership in NATO to ensure their security amid fears of Russian aggression following its invasion of Ukraine, and to bolster European unity against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Additionally, Biden and Erdoğan discussed efforts to support Ukraine in the war against Russia and the importance of maintaining stability in Syria and the Aegean Sea.

Biden Supports F-16 Sales to Turkey. President Biden announced on June 30 that he supports the proposed US sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey and is confident that the sale will gain congressional approval. The announcement comes immediately after Turkey approved Sweden and Finland’s membership to NATO, with the three countries signing an agreement to take steps against the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Syrian People’s Protection Units. Last September, Turkey submitted a request to the Pentagon to buy 40 Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70 jets and modernization kits, a sign of warming relations after the country was previously expelled from the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program in 2019 over Russian defense ties. Congress has the option to block the $60 billion sale within 30 days.

2) Department of State

DoS Refrains from Accusing Israel of Shireen Abu Akleh’s Killing. On July 4, the State Department issued a statement that avoided directly accusing the Israeli Army of killing Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. While the statement included a conclusion by the US Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Authority that an Israeli military position was the likely source of the bullet that killed her, it stated that the bullet was too damaged to provide conclusive evidence as to its origin. In addition, the USSC concluded that Abu Akleh’s death was not intentional, but was merely “the result of tragic circumstances.” No evidence was cited as the basis for this claim.

US Concludes Nuclear Talks with Iran, Failing to Reach Deal. The US concluded indirect nuclear talks with Iran in Qatar on June 29, failing to reach a deal to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). According to Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, Iranian officials were concerned that the US would not provide adequate sanctions relief in return for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, President Biden has refused to remove the IRGC from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations, a key demand made by Iran during the talks. The talks were the first effort to reach an agreement since negotiations in Vienna stalled in March. Robert Malley, lead negotiator for the US and US special envoy for Iran, told the Senate in May that the US is “fully prepared to live with and confront” a situation of no nuclear agreement. Recent JCPOA negotiations received bipartisan criticism from lawmakers, many of whom expressed concern that a revived nuclear deal would work against US strategic interests.

Blinken Recognizes Lapid’s Assumption of Israeli Premiership. On June 30, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement in which he welcomed Yair Lapid’s swearing in as prime minister of Israel following the collapse of the country’s coalition government and former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s resignation from the position. Lapid will take over in a caretaker capacity until Israel can form a new government following parliamentary elections that are now scheduled for November 1.

Blinken Talks to PA President Abbas. On June 30, Secretary of State Blinken spoke by telephone with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of President Biden’s upcoming July visit to Israel and Palestine. Blinken discussed the visit with Abbas, as well as US commitment to the two-state solution and to improving Palestinians’ quality of life.

DoS Condemns Attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan. On June 26, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price released a statement condemning recent rocket attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly attacks on oil and gas infrastructure in Sulaymaniya. He said the attacks aim to “challenge Iraqi sovereignty, sow division, and intimidate,” and called for the perpetrators to be investigated and prosecuted.

DoS Expresses Condolences for Victims of the Jordan Gas Leak. On June 28, the State Department issued a statement expressing condolences for the victims of the recent chlorine gas leak in Jordan. The leak occurred at the Port of Aqaba on the Red Sea, killing 13 people and injuring another 250.

Negev Forum Steering Committee Releases Joint Statement. The Negev Forum Steering Committee, which was created at the Negev Summit in March 2022, met in Manama, Bahrain on June 27. The committee consists of representatives from the US, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, and the UAE, and aims to collaborate and advance a shared vision for the region regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations and Israel’s relations with other countries in the Middle East. A joint statement released after the meeting outlines six working groups to accomplish these goals, assigns chairs for each group, and delineates expectations for reporting and meeting frequency.

3) Department of Defense

US Conducts Strike in Syria. On June 27, United States Central Command (CENTCOM) forces conducted a strike in the Idlib province of Syria targeting Abu Hamzah al-Yemeni, a senior leader of terrorist organization Hurras al-Din. Al-Yemeni was traveling alone when the strike hit, and there are no reported civilian casualties. Hurras al-Din is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and CENTCOM reported that extremists aligned with al-Qaeda use Syria as a “safe haven” to communicate and plan international attacks.

Large CENTCOM Delegation Visits Israel. A 35-member delegation from CENTCOM, including Commander General Erik Kurilla, visited Israel to discuss regional security and to prepare “for scenarios of regional escalation.” US and Israeli forces also conducted a joint military exercise in northern Israel to ascertain levels of preparedness for regional security challenges.