Congressional Update – Week Ending August 3, 2018

I. Congress

Members of the House have the month of August off, so many will be preparing for reelection fights that are less than 100 days away. While there may still be noteworthy correspondence or individual actions relevant to congressional Middle East policy, large policy updates will mostly be absent from that chamber. The Senate, on the other hand, will take the coming two weeks off before returning to Washington, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) seeks to move forward a backlog of presidential appointments as well as make progress on crafting a federal budget before the September 30 deadline.

1) Legislation

Fiscal Year 2019 NDAA. The time has finally come for President Donald Trump to sign into law the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019. As discussed in last week’s update, this version is a compromise bill and it authorizes the Pentagon to spend funds that will be appropriated later this year. It includes a number of notable provisions for US allies in the Middle East; the NDAA also prohibits the use of funds for particular issues of concern.

US-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act. On August 1, the Senate voted to adopt an amended version of S. 2497 by voice vote. The bill generally amends past laws to allow US security assistance to flow for the duration of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in 2016—which outlines security aid for the years 2019-2028. This bill also enables the Departments of State and Defense, in conjunction with the Israeli government, to establish the types and quantities of precision-guided missiles Israel would need to combat Hezbollah and Hamas. Finally, the bill helps ensure greater cooperation between the United States and Israel in space exploration, international development initiatives, and countering unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”). The bill was referred to the House and will be considered when that chamber returns for legislative business next month.

Resolution Urging the Release of Documents Related to the September 11 Attacks. Connecticut’s Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy teamed up with other leading Democrats to introduce S. Res. 597, which expresses the senators’ sense that the US government should declassify as many as possible of the remaining classified documents that pertain to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The resolution explicitly notes that the senators and the families of the victims of the attack are interested in documents that might illuminate any potential “involvement of certain foreign governments.” This stipulation almost certainly refers to a possible role by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the largest terrorist attack in the United States. Riyadh’s alleged involvement has been questioned in Congress before, as well as in the US courts system. However, the likelihood of the Trump Administration declassifying anything related to Saudi Arabia—a country that has gone to great lengths to woo the president and his administration—is small.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

70 House Democrats Appeal to Trump Administration to Provide Aid to Gaza. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin), joined by 69 colleagues, sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton urging the administration to restore humanitarian aid to Gaza. As a result of the administration’s decision to suspend funding for projects run by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Gaza’s humanitarian crisis has worsened. Though the lawmakers sympathize with the administration’s concerns about Hamas, they call on the administration to release the necessary funds to continue critical projects like educating Palestinian children in Gaza and providing crucial medical services. Across the Capitol, 10 Democratic Senators signed on to a separate letter touching on the same issue. California Senator Diane Feinstein spearheaded the effort and the group sent copies to Pompeo and USAID Administrator Mark Green.

Lawmakers Call on Treasury Department to Sanction PLO Member. This week, conservative Republican lawmakers Lee Zeldin (New York) and Doug Lamborn (Colorado)—who co-chair the GOP Israel Caucus—wrote a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin urging him to sanction an official of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The congressmen argue that Issa Karake, who heads the commission for prisoners’ affairs, should be blacklisted under previous Executive Order authorities, which would include blocking Karake from having any property or finances in US jurisdictions. The two argue that this move would stay in line with the law as outlined by the Taylor Force Act, which was adopted as part of the fiscal year 2018 appropriations law.

Senator Merkley Writes to Emirates Prime Minister about Yemen. On August 2, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) wrote on Twitter that he had sent a letter to the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, asking the UAE to continue putting off its planned siege of Yemen’s Hodeida port. Additionally, Merkley called on the UAE and its anti-Houthi coalition partners to help alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Yemen that has resulted from the war that began in 2015.

Qatari Deputy Prime Minister Visits Leading Senators. This week, Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defense Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Attiya held meetings with some of the leading senators on Capitol Hill to discuss defense issues. He met with the Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing foreign aid, and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), who also sits on the committee. Al-Attiya also met with Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), who is the Democrats’ highest sitting member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Al-Attiya’s meetings with the senators—as well as with leading State Department and military officials—focused on US-Qatar defense cooperation, including the efforts Doha is undertaking to expand the US air base at Al Udeid.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump reportedly told Putin US Troops Will Stay in Syria. Reports have slowly been surfacing about the agreements US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin might have reached in their nearly two-hour, one-on-one meeting in Helinksi in July. Early on, Trump briefed aides that he told his Russian counterpart that US troops would remain in Syria until Iran’s presence in the country was addressed. Since the Helsinki meeting, this plan has seemingly been backed up by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who said he had no orders to change the Syria policy of the US military, which maintains a troop presence of roughly 2,000 soldiers in the country.

White House Authorized Release of Funds to Support Palestinian Security Service. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported this week that the Trump Administration had previously released millions of dollars to help support Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. The funding for the Palestinian Security Service, along with other financial assistance to the Palestinians, had previously been frozen as part of a review of US aid to the Palestinians; this was triggered when the Palestinian Authority (PA) began boycotting the US administration because of its bias toward Israel. Despite the tension between Washington and Ramallah, there is a possibility that the PA would receive more of the previously frozen funds before the end of the fiscal year in September. If the administration does not release the previously allocated funds, they will disappear for good.

2) State Department

State, Defense Department Officials Welcome Omani FM. This week, Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi was in Washington to meet with senior US officials, including Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Mattis. At a time of great tension in the Gulf—such as US-Iran tensions or intra-Gulf Cooperation Council fighting—Muscat has remained a steady partner. Indeed, there was even some speculation that the Omanis are angling to serve as a backchannel between the United States and Iran.

Deputy Secretary Sullivan, Administrator Green Meet with NGOs to Talk Yemen. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and USAID Administrator Mark Green met with representatives of leading nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other aid groups to discuss the current situation in Yemen. The humanitarian crisis in the country stands to get worse if the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition continues its fight against the Houthi rebels. Sullivan and Green reaffirmed the US appeal for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

III. Judicial Branch

Jordanian Citizen Faces Charges of Smuggling Yemenis into US. The Department of Justice released a statement this week that a Jordanian man, Moayad Heider Mohammad Aldairi, stands accused of conspiring to smuggle six Yemeni citizens into the United States in exchange for a fee. Aldairi allegedly planned to sneak the six in through the United States’ southern border with Mexico. Instances like this one may be highlighted by the current administration to push for greater scrutiny of Arab travelers to the United States.