Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Senators Introduce Resolution to End US Involvement in Yemen War. On July 14, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) introduced a resolution to remove US forces from the Saudi-led war coalition in Yemen. Under the War Powers Act, the president must withdraw the US military from foreign wars if they do not receive congressional approval within 60 days, and Congress has never authorized US involvement in the war in Yemen. This resolution aims to end US intelligence sharing and logistical support for Saudi strikes in Yemen and prohibits US military personnel from coordinating with or accompanying Saudi coalition forces engaged in hostilities. A version of this bill in the House of Representatives has received bipartisan support from over 100 lawmakers. This bill is considered privileged legislation in the Senate, and therefore may receive a vote within ten calendar days of its introduction. In a press release, Senator Sanders called the war in Yemen “catastrophic” and highlighted the dire humanitarian crisis facing the country, while Senator Leahy questioned why the US supports a “corrupt theocracy that brutalizes its own people.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Write Letters Criticizing Shireen Abu Akleh Investigation. Senate Democrats sent letters to the Biden Administration and the State Department on July 12 criticizing the US investigation into the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. The first letter, led by Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), pointed out the lack of transparency in the investigation and demanded a classified briefing that shows evidence of a “thorough” and “credible” investigation. They also requested that Biden discuss the investigation as he meets with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week. Finally, they condemned attacks by the Israeli police on participants in Abu Akleh’s funeral and said the State Department must provide more support to the Abu Akleh family.

The second letter, sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was led by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), and focused specifically on forensic analysis of the bullet that killed Abu Akleh. They said that the US Security Coordinator’s (USSC) investigation, which relied only on forensic bullet analysis and evidence collected by the Israeli Army and the Palestinian Authority, did not meet the standards of an “independent and credible” investigation, for which Blinken had publicly called. They requested access to the full analysis of the USSC investigation, not just the final product, and listed twelve specific questions for the USSC to answer regarding FBI involvement, evidence collected, and visits to the site of the shooting.

Lawmakers Push Biden to Address Iraq’s Anti-Israel Law. On July 12, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives sent a letter to President Biden urging him to take a strong stance on the “Criminalizing Normalization and Establishment of Relations with the Zionist Entity Law,” which was recently passed by the Iraqi Parliament. The legislation bans any normalization with Israel and punishes offenders with life imprisonment or the death penalty, and was condemned by both the White House and the State Department shortly after its passage. The representatives’ letter argues that the law limits freedom of expression and fosters an “environment of antisemitism” in Iraq and requests that Biden include the law as a discussion topic as he meets with heads of state on his Middle East trip. Additionally, they asked Biden to use this trip to expand the Abraham Accords and encourage further normalization with Israel in the Arab world.

Representatives Urge Biden to Promote Israel-Saudi Normalization. In an interview with news site Jewish Insider, a group of seven representatives advocated for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The lawmakers, led by Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey), recently went on a trip to Israel organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, an AIPAC affiliate. In the interview, Representative Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said that there are “great expectations” from every political group in Israel that Biden will use his Middle East trip to promote relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. He also said that Israelis think the Abraham Accords need more attention from the US government. Representative Jake Auchincloss (D-Massachusetts) was more subdued in his support, highlighting Saudi Arabia’s “grim human rights record,” but said that Saudi Arabia cannot ignore Israel as a crucial economic partner. Additionally, he praised the Abraham Accords for uniting Israel and Arab states together against Islamism and Iranian influence.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senate Holds Hearing on Instability in the Sahel Region. On July 12, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing titled “Instability and the State of Democracy in the Sahel and the US Policy Response” in light of the recent passage of the “Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act of 2021.” Committee Chairman Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) delivered opening remarks, and witnesses included Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee and Assistant to the Administrator for the USAID Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization Robert Jenkins. In his opening remarks, Senator Menendez highlighted barriers to US efforts in the region, such as embassy staffing shortages and the lack of a strong USAID presence.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden and Blinken Visit Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia. From June 13 to 16, President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken traveled to Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia. They met with regional leaders to discuss several policy priorities, including fostering US ties across the region, the relationship between Israel and Palestine and potential for a two-state solution, human rights, and global energy security. At the end of the trip, the two officials attended a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. One product of the visit was the Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration, signed by President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Lapid on June 14. This statement affirms the importance of the US-Israel relationship, pledges commitment to stopping all Iranian nuclear activities, and includes a commitment to working together to stop terrorist activity by organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. In the agreement, Biden also said he is interested in implementing a $38 billion memorandum of understanding to help Israel respond to security threats. The same day this agreement was announced, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi promised a “harsh and regrettable response” to any “mistake” made by the US and its allies, and accused the US of causing instability in the region.

Family of Shireen Abu Akleh Sends Letter to Biden. The family of Shireen Abu Akleh released a letter it sent to the Biden Administration, calling Abu Akleh’s death an “extrajudicial killing” and accusing the US of providing “impunity” to Israel. The letter highlighted Abu Akleh’s life and the circumstances surrounding her death and criticized the recent State Department statement that said a US investigation had reached “inconclusive” results, but that Abu Akleh’s killing was likely due to accidental Israeli gunfire. The family provided a list of demands for the Biden Administration, including that the president meet with them during his Middle East visit to listen to their concerns and grievances, that he retract the State Department statement, and that he provide the family with all of the evidence the US investigation reviewed to reach its conclusion.

US and Israel Establish Strategic Technology Dialogue. On July 13, the US and Israel jointly announced that they will establish a strategic, high-level dialogue on technology to address a variety of challenges through technological collaboration, including pandemic preparedness, climate change, and artificial intelligence. The first meeting will take place in Israel in the fall of 2022, and the program will also include a research exchange component focusing on quantum information science.

Biden Releases Statement on Eid al-Adha. On July 9, President Biden released a statement commemorating the Eid al-Adha holiday and extending best wishes to all Muslim Americans who celebrate. He highlighted the reopening of the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca for the first time in two years following its interruption due to COVID-19, and said that this reopening is a symbol of all the progress that has been made in the fight against the virus, and of all the work that still remains to be done.

National Cyber Director Travels to Israel. From June 26 to July 5, National Cyber Director Chris Inglis traveled to Israel, the UK, and the Netherlands to discuss cybersecurity and ways to strengthen the digital ecosystem. Additionally, he sought feedback on the Biden Administration’s forthcoming National Cybersecurity Strategy.

2) Department of State

US Participates in 50th Session of UN Human Rights Council. On July 12, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price released a statement highlighting the outcomes of the 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council. In the session, the US led a joint statement opposing the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Israel, calling it “unprecedented and open-ended” and echoing similar sentiments from US lawmakers, specifically those voiced in the “COI Elimination Act,” which was introduced by Representative Greg Steube (R-Florida) in March, and which has gained 85 cosponsors. Additionally, the US worked with Libya to extend the mandate for a fact-finding mission in the country, which will be published in March 2023. Finally, the US supported a resolution aimed at addressing human rights violations in Syria, particularly regarding women and girls and arbitrary detentions.

US Abstains from UN Vote on Syrian Cross-Border Aid. On July 12, the UN Security Council passed a resolution extending cross-border humanitarian aid at Syria’s Bab al-Hawa border crossing by another six months. Russia, China, and the ten non-permanent Security Council members voted for the measure, while the US, UK, and France abstained from voting due to concerns that the resolution’s six-month period is not long enough, since it will expire in January 2023 when annual aid needs are typically most dire. The six-month period was considered a compromise with Russia, which has claimed in the past that the border crossing violates Syrian sovereignty. The Bab al-Hawa crossing connects Turkey and Syria and is the only entry point in northwest Syria that does not lead to territory held by the Syrian government. The crossing allows agencies to provide aid for an estimated four million Syrians every year.

Governments of the US, Israel, India, and the UAE Convene in I2U2 Group Meeting. On July 14, heads of state from the US, Israel, India, and the UAE met for the first time as part of the I2U2 group, which aims to tackle global challenges with a focus on water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security. The specific goals of the group include increasing vaccine access, improving physical connectivity between Middle Eastern countries, developing new water treatment methods, and utilizing capital from the private sector to tackle these issues. They also reaffirmed support for the Abraham Accords and the economic opportunities that come with normalization with Israel.

Blinken Invites Family of Shireen Abu Akleh to Washington. On July 13, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the family of slain Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, inviting them to Washington, DC to meet directly with US officials. This comes as the Abu Akleh family published a letter to President Biden criticizing the recent US investigation into her death and requesting that they receive access to the evidence the US reviewed to reach its conclusion that Abu Akleh was likely killed by accidental Israeli gunfire.

DoS Renews Commitment to Facilitate Lebanon-Israel Maritime Talks. On July 15, the State Department issued a statement declaring US commitment to continuing the mission of facilitating indirect talks between Lebanon and Israel to demarcate their maritime borders. The statement also welcomed what it called “the consultative and open spirit” with which the two parties are approaching these negotiations.

Blinken Meets with Yemen’s Presidential Council’s al-Alimi. On July 16, and on the sidelines of a regional conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia that included the United States, Secretary Blinken met with Rashad al-Alimi, President of the Yemeni Presidential Council. The two discussed the current ceasefire in Yemen and its positive impact on the life of Yemenis. Blinken also reaffirmed US commitment to a peaceful solution to the crisis in Yemen.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Conducts Strike in Syria Targeting IS Officials. On July 12, US Central Command Forces conducted a drone strike in northwest Syria, killing senior member of the so-called Islamic State Maher al-Agal and seriously injuring another IS official working with him. Al-Agal was the leader of IS in Syria and one of the top five leaders in the organization as a whole, and reportedly worked to aggressively expand the IS network outside of Syria and Iraq. There were no civilian casualties reported in the strike. President Biden also released a statement thanking CENTCOM forces for the strike.