Bassam Barabandi Rewards for Justice Act. On July 20, the House overwhelmingly approved H.R. 1036, the Bassam Barabandi Rewards for Justice Act. It is named after a Syrian government defector who provided evidence to the international community that illustrated how Bashar al-Assad and his regime tried to circumvent international sanctions. The bill aims to urge and entice others to come forward with similar information.
Desert Locust Control Act. Also on July 20, the House voted to pass H.R. 1079, as amended, to set up an interagency group to help assist East African countries, like Arab League states Somalia and Sudan, deal with yearly swarms of desert locusts that devastate crops and threaten these countries with famine.
Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act. On July 21, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Oregon’s Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced a bill, S. 2403, the Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act of 2021. They actually announced they would reintroduce this bill back in April 2021, but it appears that they waited until now to formally unveil the legislation alongside the bipartisan duo of Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming). This legislation seeks to direct the State Department to be more involved in supporting Turkish civil society to protect human rights. The House version was introduced as H.R. 4546.
Expressing Support for Recognizing July as Muslim-American Heritage Month. A group of House members, including Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), introduced H. Res. 541 expressing support for naming the month of July as “Muslim-American Heritage Month” and celebrating the heritage, culture, and contributions of the Muslim American community.
Recognizing the Assyrian Genocide. To the chagrin of Turkey, lawmakers have introduced another resolution recognizing an Ottoman-era genocide. H. Res. 550 commemorates the more than 300,000 Assyrians killed by Ottoman, Kurdish, and Arab fighters in the Middle East.
National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate Armed Services Committee marked up its fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act and approved a topline-spending budget of $740.3 billion. This figure is significantly higher than the funds appropriated by the House and more than the Biden Administration’s Pentagon even requested. As predicted, the closely divided Senate will likely drive a hard bargain with House Democrats that will boost spending levels for defense.
National Security Powers Act. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) teamed up to draft one of the most sweeping national security reform bills in recent memory. The National Security Powers Act seeks to reclaim for the legislative branch the important powers related to national security and war powers. Most importantly for the Middle East and North Africa, the bill seeks to rein in the president’s ability to engage in unapproved hostilities and would sunset the authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs) that allow for the easy deployment of military actions in countries like Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. In addition, the bill would give lawmakers more power to scuttle proposed arms sales by changing the protocol. As it stands, lawmakers must vote to disapprove of a proposed sale, whereas this bill would block the sales unless the executive had the consent of the Senate. It is noteworthy that Israel is exempt from this provision of the bill.
The sheer size and scope of the changes this legislation would entail will likely doom its prospects in the near future. Many in Washington simply prefer the status quo on war powers and national security issues. But this could serve to change the terms of discourse and prompt a serious debate about reshaping the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches.
Bonnie Jenkins Confirmed to State, Tamara Wittes Nominated for USAID. President Biden was able to secure to his State Department team one more nominee. Bonnie Jenkins was confirmed 52-48 on July 21 to serve as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. In addition, the president announced his intention to nominate Tamara Cofman Wittes to serve as the US Agency for International Development’s Assistant Administrator for the Middle East. Wittes was formally nominated on July 22, as was Biden’s pick to serve as ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides.
3) Hearings and Briefings
Partnering for Peace in Sudan. On July 19, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) participated in a briefing with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to explore the US role in supporting Sudan’s political transition, economic revival, and domestic peace process. Van Hollen discussed what he considers robust US financial support for Khartoum in the wake of its revolution. He also outlined other areas where the United States could aid Sudan, including supporting refugees being hosted in the country and providing military training to Sudanese forces to help professionalize them.
People to People: Examining Grassroots Peacebuilding Efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. On July 21, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism hosted a virtual hearing to explore ways to promote cooperation and coexistence among Israelis and Palestinians at the grassroots level. The subcommittee hosted Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen of the US Institute for Peace, Nada Majdalani of EcoPeace Middle East, Meredith Mishkin Rothbart of Amal-Tikva, and Daniel Runde of CSIS as witnesses.
Above all else, lawmakers and witnesses alike spoke of the potential for grassroots projects, now that the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, which became law in 2020, is set to provide $250 million over five years for this goal. Kurtzer-Ellenbogen offered a slate of recommendations for how that $250 million could be used in Israel and the occupied territories to most effectively accomplish the United States’ goals. Overall, she recommended that US funding go toward securing shared physical spaces, resources, and expertise that would allow Israelis and Palestinians to meet, innovate, and create together. Multiple witnesses also stressed that the funding should be used to build up and grow existing programs and partnerships, not create new initiatives. It was noteworthy, however, that a few lawmakers appeared to view grassroots, people-to-people interactions as more important than reaching a political solution to the long-standing conflict.
US Policy on Turkey. On July 21, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a hearing to assess US policy toward Turkey. Many members of the committee slammed Turkish policies within its borders and condemned Ankara’s destabilizing actions in areas outside the Middle East. They were especially concerned about Turkey’s continued reluctance to abandon its Russian S-400 missile system, which the United States says is a threat to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Chairman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), for one, voiced support for current sanctions on Turkey and its exclusion from the F-35 program until it rids itself of the S-400. Within the region, Ankara drew fire for its human rights violations in Syria against the US-backed Kurds and its deployment of Syrian mercenaries in Libya, although Senator James Risch (R-Idaho) did credit Turkey for its recent agreement to withdraw its mercenaries from Libya and for hosting millions of Syrian refugees.
The witness, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, used her time to highlight key areas of both cooperation and contention between the United States and Turkey. She said the United States will continue to work with Ankara on maintaining economic ties, NATO missions, counterterrorism, and deterrence of Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East. However, Nuland shared many of the senators’ concerns and said that the administration will not only uphold current sanctions for the S-400 but will levy more should there be additional military purchases from Russia.
4) Personnel and Correspondence
Israeli MK Visits Washington to Lobby against Reopening Jerusalem Consulate. A Likud member of Israel’s Knesset, Nir Barkat, visited Capitol Hill on July 19 and 20 to meet with lawmakers and lobby against the Biden Administration’s decision to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, which has traditionally served as the United States’ de facto “embassy” handling US-Palestinian affairs. Barkat reportedly argued to a bipartisan group of lawmakers—none of whom signed on to a letter earlier this year calling for the reopening of the consulate—that the move is unpopular among Israelis and might prompt other countries to open their own offices in the disputed city. Although it is likely unrelated to Barkat’s lobbying efforts, the Biden Administration will reportedly satisfy his wish for at least a few more months. According to one recent report, the Biden team is pushing off reopening the consulate until at least November, when they hope Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett can pass a budget.
Rep. Tlaib Asks Sec. Yellen to Uphold Law for Organizations Donating to Settlements. Rep. Rashida Tlaib tweeted out a letter that she sent to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asking her to enforce the law against US-based charities that donate to or otherwise directly support Israeli organizations working to expand illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
NSA Sullivan Holds Calls, Meetings with Turkish and Qatari Officials. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was in contact with two regional partners recently. On July 16, Sullivan spoke with Ibrahim Kalin, a chief advisor to Turkey’s president, about “a range of regional issues.” Later, Sullivan met with Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to discuss bilateral relations and regional developments, such as the situation in Gaza.
President Biden Hosts King Abdullah II during Whirlwind Tour of Washington. Jordan’s King Abdullah II arrived in Washington on July 19 and he maintained a jam-packed schedule of meetings with nearly every notable official in Washington. Even before he landed in the United States, King Abdullah held a phone call with Commander of US Central Command General Kenneth McKenzie, Jr. Once in Washington, President Joe Biden hosted the monarch at the White House where the president lauded Abdullah as “a loyal and decent friend.” Biden Administration officials who also had an audience with the king included Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen.
In addition to executive branch officials, King Abdullah held meetings with members of the SFRC, Senate Armed Services and Appropriations Committees, and Senate leadership. He met with a similar group across the Capitol in the House, including members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California).
The White House is set to host another key regional partner beginning July 26 when Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi visits Washington. According to a White House press release, the two sides are slated to discuss a wide array of topics, so Kadhimi and his team may keep a similarly robust itinerary.
White House Frees One from GITMO, Notifies Congress on Lebanon. The Biden Administration announced two interesting developments over the last week. First, the United States, for the first time under the current administration, has repatriated a detainee held in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Abdul Latif Nasir was repatriated to his native Morocco, but it is unclear what his future holds as Morocco routinely opens its own investigation into those who were detained at Guantanamo. In a second announcement, the White House notified Congress that it has extended a national emergency declaration for Lebanon that was first issued in 2007. In his message, President Biden cited Iran’s support for Lebanese Hezbollah as undermining Lebanon’s political and economic stability and thus posing a threat to the United States.
2) Department of State
Deputy Secretary Sherman to Visit Oman, Blinken to Kuwait. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is set to visit Oman on July 27 for a meeting with her counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Khalifa Alharthy. Secretary Antony Blinken will travel to Kuwait on July 28 for meetings with senior Kuwaiti officials.
Secretary Blinken Holds Meeting with Qatari FM. In addition to his meeting with the US national security advisor, Qatar’s Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani also met with Secretary Blinken on July 22. The pair spoke about regional developments as well as Doha’s pledged support for Lebanon and the people of Yemen.
Malley Compromised in NSO Hacking Scandal? The NSO Group hacking scandal is continuing to unfold, but the implications for the Israeli company—and directly or indirectly for the Israeli government—are potentially huge. The Pegasus project details how the company sold Pegasus software to autocrats, allowing their regimes to spy on journalists, dissidents, and even foreign public officials. Reporting has illustrated that among the thousands of numbers listed as potential targets for this covert spying operation was one belonging to then-private citizen and current Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley. The NSO Group denies that the software is even deployable against US numbers, but trust in the company and its assertions is not high at this moment. If it is later revealed that foreign governments used the technology to spy on Americans, there could be much graver implications. The Trump Administration was notoriously dismissive of issues around cybersecurity, particularly involving the use of cell phones, so it would not be inconceivable that Middle East autocrats had access to the devices of key players in the administration, up to and including the former president himself.
3) Department of Justice
UAE Implicated in Another Trump-era Scandal. The United Arab Emirates will face public relations and legal scrutiny as a result of the arrest and indictment of Trump friend and donor Thomas Barrack. This saga further illustrates how Abu Dhabi ingratiated itself with former President Trump and helped drive what became his administration’s Middle East policy to the UAE’s benefit and the benefit of other autocratic states in the region.
III. Judicial Branch
Israeli Officials Seek US State Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s. As reported widely over the last week, ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s made a splash when it announced that it would no longer sell its product in the occupied West Bank or East Jerusalem. The move prompted outrage among Israeli officials and their supporters, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan urging individual US states to enforce the unconstitutional laws prohibiting participation in the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Predictably, a slew of state officials vowed to explore punishing the ice cream company for its decision.
This development is of import because many observers noted on social media that, should any state acquiesce to Israel’s request, lawsuits will surely follow and anti-BDS laws across the country could be struck down as unconstitutional. Individual state laws in Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, and Texas have already been blocked as unconstitutional by federal courts, so a lawsuit that targets multiple states’ laws at once could prove monumental in pushing back against this blatant infringement on the right to participate in boycotts.