Washington Policy Weekly

AIPAC Takes Center Stage in Democratic Primaries

On July 19, corporate attorney and former Maryland State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey defeated former Congresswoman Donna Edwards in the Democratic primary in Maryland’s 4th congressional district. After trailing Edwards by 21 points in May polls, Ivey pulled off a victory that many have attributed to the nearly $6 million donated to his campaign by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the AIPAC-affiliated super PAC, United Democracy Project (UDP). Meanwhile, Edwards, who represented the district from 2008 to 2016, was endorsed by former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, and liberal Zionist organization J-Street, the president of which described Edwards as “someone who really typifies what it means to be pro-Israel, and at the same time to have a very, very clear set of critiques about what the government and the policies of the government are.” However, during Edwards’ previous tenure in Congress, she nonetheless voted “present” on several pro-Israel resolutions that easily passed regardless, including a 2012 bill bolstering security cooperation between the US and Israel. And Edwards also supported former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which was heavily opposed by both AIPAC and the Israeli government.

Edwards’ loss represents a sharp and recent change in public opinion, as well as a dramatic increase in pro-Israel lobbies’ efforts to directly affect the outcome of US elections. This trend has been evident in several Democratic primaries across the country, including in Michigan’s 11th congressional district, where polls show Representative Haley Stevens (D-Michigan) 27 points ahead of Representative Andy Levin (D-Michigan) leading up to the August 2 primary. Stevens, who has been a reliable ally of Israel since assuming office in 2019, and who even took an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel during her first term, has received nearly $1 million in support from UDP. And although Stevens and Levin share more similarities than differences when it comes to US policy on Israel (both are supportive of a two-state solution and US aid to Israel), Levin has authored legislation that would place conditions on US defense aid to the country—specifically, banning it from being used to fund illegal settlements in the West Bank—and has also spoken out against Israel’s forced expulsions of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. These efforts led former AIPAC President David Victor to label Levin “arguably the most corrosive member of Congress” for US-Israel relations, and Levin’s primary race against Edwards was subsequently made an AIPAC funding priority. AIPAC has boasted about its success in helping topple 9 progressive Democrats in the 2022 primary cycle, all of whom lost to more pro-Israel opponents, such as candidates Valerie Foushee and Don Davis in North Carolina, both of whom nearly doubled their total campaign contributions due to funding provided by AIPAC and UDP.

AIPAC identifies itself as a “bipartisan American organization that advocates for a strong US-Israel relationship.” But the lobby’s supposedly bipartisan nature has come under fire from J-Street and other groups due to AIPAC’s having endorsed 37 Republicans who refused to certify the 2020 presidential election results. In addition, AIPAC’s stances on legislation and foreign policy, such as its opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, often align with the Republican Party, making AIPAC’s claim to bipartisanship while also assuming a prominent role in Democratic primaries all the more questionable.

Although AIPAC’s efforts to influence US campaigns through statements and paid advertisements speak in terms of a black-and-white dichotomy between pro-Israel and anti-Israel candidates, most of the candidates AIPAC has rallied against still support both Israel’s right to exist and the continued delivery of US aid to Israel. Andy Levin, for example, identifies as a “lifelong Zionist,” while Donna Edwards has repeated Israel’s oft touted claim to be the “only existing democracy in the region.” The intensity of AIPAC-funded attack ads against Edwards prompted Representative Pelosi, staunchly aligned with AIPAC, to release a video rebuking the lobby’s claims; but her efforts proved futile for Edwards’ campaign. Other candidates targeted by AIPAC, many of whom lack the support of top Democratic Party leaders, may soon share her fate. Indeed, it is beginning to become impossible for progressive Democrats to criticize the Israeli government and to support Palestinian rights without inciting an aggressive campaign by pro-Israel lobbies that may very well lead to their political demise.

Also Happening in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Senators Introduce Legislation Addressing Iran’s Nuclear Program. On July 19, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) introduced a bill that would assemble a task force dedicated to Iran’s nuclear program and require said task force to submit reports to Congress every 120 days on the status of Iran’s nuclear capabilities. In the case of an urgent development in Iran’s nuclear program, the task force would be required to submit an update to Congress within 72 hours. It would also draft an annual report outlining a comprehensive plan on how to address Iran’s nuclear program with partners and allies, with declassified portions made available on the State Department’s website. This initiative came shortly after Senator Menendez expressed frustration with the status of nuclear talks during his remarks at an AIPAC conference in June, saying that the Biden Administration has provided no backup plan for a nuclear deal, and that Menendez intended to create one through legislation.

Senate Passes Resolution Condemning Starvation as a Weapon of War. On July 21, a bipartisan Senate resolution sponsored by Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), Todd Young (R-Indiana), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), John Thune (R-South Dakota), and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) passed the Senate with a unanimous vote. The resolution condemns starvation as a weapon of war and calls on the US government to identify and condemn international situations where starvation is being used in wartime so that they can be addressed through diplomatic efforts. The resolution also supports initiatives at USAID and other agencies to address worldwide food insecurity through humanitarian responses.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Cotton Announces Plans for Federal Anti-BDS Legislation. At a July 18 Christians United for Israel summit, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) announced plans to propose legislation that would prevent the military from contracting with companies that engage in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, and also denounced the movement as “antisemitic.” Congressional opposition to BDS has come from the other side of the aisle as well. Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) recently proposed an amendment to the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that would require the Department of Defense to report any of its contractors that support boycotts against Israel.

Lawmakers Urge Biden to Reject Israel’s Blacklisting of Palestinian NGOs. On July 18, a group of 21 lawmakers led by Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) sent a letter to President Biden and National Intelligence Director Avril Haines denouncing Israel’s having labeled six leading Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations. In October 2021, Israel blacklisted six Palestinian human rights and civil society organizations over alleged ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The designation was denounced by the UN Human Rights Council, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the American Bar Association. The representatives’ letter urged President Biden to condemn the designation, to push the Israeli government to reverse course, and to request an interagency briefing to review the evidence Israeli officials used in making this designation.

Senator Sanders Criticizes Biden’s Saudi Arabia Visit. In an interview with ABC News, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) criticized President Biden’s controversial visit to Saudi Arabia. Citing the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Senator Sanders said that the US should not maintain “a warm relationship with a dictatorship like that.” In response to questions about oil prices—one of the topics Biden discussed with Saudi leaders during his visit—Sanders blamed high prices at the pump on oil companies “ripping off the American people,” rather than the lack of supply that Biden has claimed is behind the price increase. Senator Sanders has criticized Biden’s Saudi Arabia policy in the past, and on July 14 cosponsored a joint resolution to end US involvement in the Saudi-led coalition’s war efforts in Yemen.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden Attends GCC Summit in Jeddah. On July 16, President Biden met with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council and of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as part of the final stop on his July 13 to 16 Middle East trip. Attendees affirmed their commitment to global economic collaboration regarding the war in Ukraine and COVID-19 recovery efforts, discussed the Arab Coordination Group’s decision to provide $10 million to support food security challenges across the region, and recognized efforts by OPEC to stabilize the global energy market. They also affirmed their support for regional security and for efforts to ensure that the Gulf is free from weapons of mass destruction and Iranian nuclear threats. Finally, they confirmed plans to hold an annual GCC summit going forward.

Biden Meets with Egyptian President. On July 16, President Biden met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in Jeddah. The two leaders discussed and reaffirmed their commitment to the US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue and to the two countries’ defense partnership, and spoke about economic issues that have arisen because of the war in Ukraine, as well as about Egypt’s ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. They also emphasized the importance of recent UN Security Council resolutions surrounding Libya, reaffirming the need to withdraw foreign fighters from the country and to hold presidential and parliamentary elections as soon as possible.

The Biden Administration Will Not Conduct an Abu Akleh Investigation. The Times of Israel published a report on a Biden Administration official’s statement that the United States is holding firm on its decision not to conduct its own investigation into the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. This comes after members of both houses of Congress demanded that the administration open its own independent probe into the killing. The administration issued a statement on July 4 saying that an investigation by United States Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority General Mike Fenzel concluded that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh came from an Israeli military position, but that the killing was unintentional.

2) Department of State

State Department Approves Military Equipment Sale to UAE. On July 19, the State Department notified Congress that it had approved a potential sale of military equipment to the UAE. The sale, totaling $980 million, would consist of a C-17 aircraft fleet, as well as software, maintenance, and parts. A Defense Security Cooperation Agency press release stated that this sale will support US foreign policy and national security by helping a “vital US partner for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”

US Condemns Attack in Iraq. On July 20, the State Department released a statement condemning an attack in Iraq’s Dahuk Province that killed eight civilians and injured 23 others. In the statement, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price reiterated US support for Iraqi sovereignty and stability. Iraqi state media blamed Turkey for the attack, but Ankara has denied responsibility, claiming it was carried out by terrorists.

DoS Issues Statement of Remembrance for Hezbollah Attack Victims. On July 18, the State Department issued a statement in remembrance of the victims of Hezbollah terrorist attacks carried out in 1994 on a Jewish community center in Argentina and in 2012 on an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria. The statement said that these attacks show Hezbollah’s “global ambitions,” and reiterated US commitment to countering both Hezbollah and Iranian influence.

DoS Seeks More Information from UAE on Arrest of US Citizen. The State Department has requested more information from the United Arab Emirates regarding the arrest and sentencing of US citizen Asim Ghafoor. Ghafoor was in transit through Dubai International Airport when he was arrested over a previous in-absentia conviction on charges of money laundering and tax evasion, and was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison. He had previously worked as an attorney for Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi who was killed at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018, and was apparently unaware of his conviction in UAE courts.

3) Department of Defense

Yemeni Detainee at Guantanamo Bay Cleared for Release. On July 19, Khalid Ahmed Qasim, a Yemeni national held without charge at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, was unanimously cleared for release by a group of six US federal agencies. He will remain in prison until he is transferred to a country with a “strong rehabilitation and reintegration program and appropriate security assurances.” Qasim was arrested in Afghanistan in December 2001 by the Afghan military confederation Northern Alliance. After being tortured into making false confessions, he was handed to the US in return for a bounty and sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Austin and Milley Warn Iran. During a news conference on July 20, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley warned Iran against supplying military equipment to Russia. The warning came after US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan revealed that the Islamic Republic was in the process of providing drones to Russia for use in the Ukraine war.

CENTCOM’s Kurilla Touts Air and Missile Defense in the Middle East. Amid talk about military and strategic coordination between Israel and Arab states, CENTCOM Commander Michael Kurilla said that integrated air and missile defense in the Middle East must be pursued to protect Israeli, Arab, and US interests. During a recent visit to Israel Kurilla met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz who stated that air defense cooperation between Israel and Gulf countries requires “strategic attention.”

4) Justice Department

Saudi National Arrested for Lying to FBI. US Federal Prosecutors have arrested Ibrahim Alhussayen for lying to FBI investigators during a series of interviews from June 2021 to January 2022. Alhussayen was a graduate student living in Mississippi who used anonymous social media accounts to harass and threaten Saudi dissidents, particularly women, living in the United States.

White House Seeks to Delay Decision on MBS Immunity in Jamal Khashoggi Murder. The Biden Administration has asked a judge to allow a 60-day extension before deciding whether or not to grant Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) sovereign immunity for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The decision currently has a deadline of August 1. An intelligence report released by the White House concluded that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s 2018 murder in Istanbul. Biden’s request was made shortly after his trip to Saudi Arabia, where, Biden claims, he raised the issue of Khashoggi’s murder with MBS. However, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir says the topic was never discussed.