Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Senators Aim to Block Israeli Security Funding Over Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. On July 28, a group of Senate Democrats led by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) proposed legislative text for the Foreign Assistance Act that would block aid to foreign security forces if they are suspected of committing a “gross violation of human rights or war crime.” Additionally, the text would require a determination on whether the bill applies to the case of Shireen Abu Akleh, and an investigative report submitted to Congress outlining findings. This proposal comes after Abu Akleh’s family visited Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 26 and hosted a press conference with lawmakers on July 28. Despite advocacy for an independent and thorough US investigation into Abu Akleh’s death, her family members told news sources that they secured no promises or commitments from Secretary Blinken.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Progressive Democrats Rally Against AIPAC Primary Spending. In light of recent AIPAC and United Democracy Project (UDP) spending in Democratic primaries, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) have rallied in support of Representative Andy Levin (D-Michigan) as he faces Representative Haley Stevens (D-Michigan) in an August 2 primary. Senator Sanders and Representative Tlaib traveled to Michigan to attend one of Levin’s rallies, while Senator Warren started a phone banking initiative in support of his campaign. Despite identifying as a “lifelong Zionist,” Levin was labeled “the most corrosive member of Congress to the US-Israel relationship” by a former AIPAC president. UDP has spent over $3 million in recent weeks attempting to defeat Levin, who is currently polling 27 points behind Representative Stevens and is most popular among young and progressive voters.

Senators Accuse DoJ of Ignoring Iranian Activity in Argentina. On July 26, 12 Republican senators led by Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) sent a letter to US Attorney General Merrick Garland accusing the Department of Justice of purposely ignoring information requests from the Argentinian government regarding a potential case of Iranian espionage. In June, a Venezuelan-owned plane was detained in Buenos Aires along with its crew of five Iranians and 14 Venezuelans. The plane’s pilot was a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and a senior official at Qeshm Fars Air, an Iranian airline sanctioned by the US due its ties to the IRGC. The plane’s cargo included intelligence technology and military hardware. In the letter, the senators argue that the DoJ’s lack of response to the Argentinian government raises national security concerns and necessitates assurances that the DoJ will provide the requested information and “fulfill its proper investigatory and enforcement role” in the matter.

Lawmakers Issue Statement on Tunisian Constitutional Referendum. On July 26, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement outlining the lawmakers’ concerns about Tunisia’s recent constitutional referendum, including low turnout, a lack of debate, and reports of observers and journalists being barred from election sites. They urged Tunisian President Kais Saied to work constructively to restore Tunisia’s democratic institutions and reaffirmed US support for democratic governance in the country.

Sen. Risch and Rep. McCaul Write Blinken on Syrian Drug Trade. On July 22, Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) wrote a letter to Secretary Blinken expressing their disappointment over what they see as insufficient information from the DoS on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s family fortune. The lawmakers raised the question of whether the president is making gains from trafficking in the amphetamine Captagon, the use of which is prevalent in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

3) Hearings and Briefings

House Holds Hearing on Israeli Pegasus Spyware. On July 28, a House Intelligence Committee hearing explored concerns about the Pegasus spyware tools developed by Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group. Pegasus has been used by governments to spy on activists and political leaders, and to stifle dissent. Witness testimony included John Scott-Railton, a cyber researcher at the University of Toronto; Shane Huntley, security unit leader at Google; and Carine Kanimba, an activist targeted with Pegasus as she lobbied for her father, activist Paul Rusesabagina, to be released from prison in Rwanda. Representatives from both parties agreed that Pegasus threatens free speech and democracy worldwide, and several lawmakers indicated a willingness to withhold aid from countries that use Pegasus. In his testimony, Scott-Railton encouraged the US to exert diplomatic pressure on Israel, which authorized Pegasus sales and allowed it to be sold overseas.

4) Nominations

Senate Examines Nominations for Ambassadors to Morocco and Tunisia. On July 27, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded a hearing examining the nominations of Puneet Talwar for US Ambassador to Morocco and Joey Hood for US Ambassador to Tunisia. Talwar was nominated by President Biden in March and previously served as Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs under the Obama Administration. Hood, meanwhile, is a career diplomat who served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and Deputy Chief of Mission in Iraq and Kuwait.

 II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Extends National Emergency Regarding Lebanon. On July 28, President Biden extended the national emergency regarding Lebanon for another year, pursuant to Executive Order #13441 of August 1, 2007. The president justified the extension on the grounds of Iran’s continuing arms transfers to Hezbollah, which “serve to undermine Lebanese sovereignty” and constitute a “threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

2) Department of State

Blinken Meets with Family of Shireen Abu Akleh. On July 26, family members of slain Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, DC. According to Abu Akleh’s niece, Lina Abu Akleh, parties to the meeting discussed the State Department’s controversial July 4 statement, which ruled that Abu Akleh’s killing was likely the accidental result of Israeli gunfire. Despite calls from the family for an independent and thorough investigation, Secretary Blinken failed to commit to any further investigative procedures, and Abu Akleh said that the family is still waiting to see if the Biden Administration will “meaningfully answer” its call for justice. The Abu Akleh family subsequently held a press conference on July 28, where lawmakers joined them in expressing outrage over the State Department’s inaction. Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) said that the US is “enabling” violence and death by ignoring the Israeli government’s actions, while Representative Marie Newman (D-Illinois) condemned the State Department for “dragging their feet” on investigative efforts.

DoS Responds to Tunisian Referendum. On July 28, the State Department issued a statement reaffirming US support for Tunisia’s democracy and prosperity while at the same time voicing concern regarding the process used to draft the country’s new constitution, which was voted on in a July 25 constitutional referendum. The statement highlighted low voter turnout, as well as concerns expressed by many Tunisians that the scope for genuine debate was narrow and that the new constitution may erode democratic freedoms and human rights. Additionally, the DoS called Tunisia’s erosion of democratic freedoms since July 25, 2021 “alarming” and said that the US intends to use all the tools at its disposal to help foster democracy and accountability in the Tunisian government. The new constitution would significantly increase Tunisian President Kais Saied’s authority, giving him the power to unilaterally dissolve parliament and failing to provide a mechanism by which to impeach him.

Special Envoy Malley Calls on Iran to Release Detainees. On July 28, Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley thanked the Omani government for their efforts in securing the temporary release of an American Iranian citizen unjustly held in Iran and called for the three other American detainees to be released. Environmental activist Morad Tahbaz was arrested in Iran in 2018 while tracking endangered animals, and was accused of espionage. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2019 for having “contacts with the US enemy government,” in what was part of a broad crackdown on environmental activists.

Special Envoy Lenderking Travels to Jordan and Saudi Arabia. On July 25, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to Jordan and Saudi Arabia to support diplomatic efforts regarding the UN-brokered truce in Yemen, which is set to expire August 2. Lenderking’s efforts will focus on expanding and renewing the truce to eventually reach a permanent ceasefire, and on developing a more comprehensive and inclusive peace process.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Leaders Visit Saudi Arabia. From July 20 to 21, US Army General Erik Kurilla, Vice Admiral Charles Cooper, and Lieutenant General Pat Frank traveled to Saudi Arabia to engage with senior Saudi military leaders as part of an ongoing tour of CENTCOM’s area of responsibility. The leaders discussed opportunities for strategic partnerships, new developments in military technology, and recent Saudi intercepts of Houthi rocket attacks. The delegation also visited the US-Saudi Combined Expeditionary-Robotics Operations Center to explore artificial intelligence, machine learning, and unmanned maritime vessel technology.

Pentagon Aims to Cease African Lion Military Exercises in Morocco. The Department of Defense is searching for alternative locations for its annual African Lion military exercises due to the controversial matter of Morocco’s control over the disputed Western Sahara. Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) has spearheaded efforts to move the exercises from the area, highlighting at an AFRICOM hearing last week the “broken promises and vicious attacks” the territory’s Sahrawi people have faced from the Moroccan government. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and top Pentagon officials reportedly agree with this justification and view moving the exercise as an opportunity to create additional partnerships in Africa. Former President Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara in 2020, reversing decades of US foreign policy. President Biden has not addressed the issue since taking office.