Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Prospectively Repeal the 2001 AUMF. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) introduced S. J. Res. 22 that would repeal the 2001 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) one year after its enactment. As noted in a previous Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) report, the 2001 AUMF has served as legal justification for multiple presidents to use military force in states across the region, including Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

Expressing Support for Israel Joining the African Union under Observer Status. After the African Union chairman offered Israel observer status in the pan-African organization, Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) introduced S. Res. 344 to support Israel’s acceptance to the body.

Raising the Issue of Politically Motivated Imprisonment of Women. A group of Senate Democrats introduced S. Res. 342 that expresses their opposition to countries’ practices of imprisoning women for politically motivated reasons. Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey were among the countries singled out in the resolution.

Senate Budget Resolution. In the long amendment process known as “vote-a-rama,” the Senate adopted an amendment to its recent budget resolution that aims to ensure no US funds support organizations that are designated as terrorist, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The measure is largely symbolic but it was intended as a “gotcha” vote introduced by Republicans to trip up Democrats, although the measure passed unanimously.

September 11 Transparency Act. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York) introduced H.R. 4958, which is the House version of a bill known as the September 11 Transparency Act. As detailed in the legislation section of ACW’s August 9 report, the bill seeks to force the government to undergo a review to determine what information can be declassified that sheds light on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Due in part to lawmakers’ agitating for more information, the Biden Administration’s Justice Department announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is undertaking a review and is looking to release more information to the public.

2) Hearings and Briefings

US Security Assistance in the Middle East. On August 10, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism held a hearing to explore US security assistance in the Middle East and North Africa. As Chairman Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) noted, the topic is critical because over the last 75 years, the United States has facilitated the flow of more than $379 billion of weapons into the region. The sales constitute a majority of all US arms sales around the globe in that period. To probe the topic, the subcommittee hosted two congressional staffers-turned Biden Administration officials. Mira Resnick represented the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs while Dana Stroul represented the Pentagon’s Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Democrats and Republicans agreed that arms sales have been a useful tool in ensuring US influence over the Middle East’s security questions, but they disagreed about whether additional or fewer arms transfers should go to the region at present. Democrats argued that Washington should limit arms sales and instead prioritize diplomacy as a means to foster political stabilization. Republicans, on the other hand, argued that since the Biden Administration was further withdrawing the United States from the Middle East, the United States should provide states with more weapons to defend themselves. The witnesses took no position on the question, but they outlined how the Biden Administration is prioritizing human rights when considering new weapons sales. Stroul also told the subcommittee that although the Pentagon clearly has a major role in arms sales and transfers, the State Department retains the lead on these issues and that diplomacy “comes first.” Nevertheless, both witnesses appeared to defend arms sales to countries that eschew diplomatic measures for military ones and to regimes with poor records on human rights.

Human Rights and Freedom of Expression in Morocco. On August 12, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a virtual briefing to examine the state of rights and freedoms in Morocco. The witnesses detailed the state of affairs in Morocco and described the current crackdown on free expression as a return to the repressive era known as the “Years of Lead.” As such, they said that no independent media exist in Morocco and the regime has notoriously jailed or exiled the country’s prominent journalists. Due to Morocco’s valuable counterterrorism cooperation with countries like the United States and its decision to normalize relations with Israel, they added, Rabat expects that it can do whatever it likes to snuff out dissent in the country.

Moving forward, the witnesses agreed that Washington should use its leverage with Rabat to help the regime democratize. They also called on the government to publicly condemn the arbitrary arrests and convictions of journalists and other dissidents. In the wake of the NSO Group scandal, witnesses also urged the US government to ensure that allies such as Israel do not sell surveillance programs like Pegasus to Rabat or other countries that will abuse the technology to spy on and harass their targets.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

House Members Take Issue with EU Attending Raisi’s Inauguration. Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-New York) spearheaded a letter to the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs criticizing the body’s decision to send an official to the inauguration of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. After criticizing the move, Tenney and her colleagues urged the EU representative to do more to support Iranian citizens seeking a more democratic Iran.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Vice President Harris Speaks with Israeli President. On August 9, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke on the phone with Israeli President Isaac Herzog. Harris congratulated Herzog on his recent inauguration and the pair discussed issues related to normalization between Israel and Arab states, Israeli security, and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

2) Department of State

Blinken Speaks to Algerian, Saudi, and Qatari Foreign Ministers. Over the last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken held phone calls with the foreign ministers of Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. With Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, Blinken discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and Algeria’s role in regional developments. Blinken then spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani about their countries’ roles in ensuring regional stability.

US Representatives to Africa Make Trips to Arab League States. Top State Department officials have made trips through the Middle East during the last week. US Ambassador and Special Envoy to Libya Richard Norland reportedly traveled to Egypt to meet with Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar as well as officials in the Egyptian government. In addition, the Biden Administration’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman traveled to Arab League member states Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Ethiopia, to discuss peace and prosperity in the Horn of Africa.

US Levies New Sanctions on Militias, Provides Aid for Yemen. The State Department announced a new round of both sanctions and humanitarian assistance. The United States levied sanctions back in July—and only made the move public last week—on Kataeb Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Lebanese Hezbollah, and two Syrian businesses for their roles in illicit arms trade. Interestingly, at the same time that the Biden Administration was piling more sanctions on Iran-backed non-state actors, it was also considering lifting a limited set of sanctions if Tehran opted to freeze the most provocative parts of its nuclear program.

As for humanitarian assistance, Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking announced that the Biden Administration will provide $165 million in aid to help stave off famine in that war-torn country.

US and Israel Differ on Jerusalem Consulate. According to a recent media report, the governments in the United States and Israel are having a serious difference in opinion regarding the Biden Administration’s desire to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem that used to serve as a kind of embassy to the Palestinians. The United States wants to reopen the consulate after the new Israeli government passes its annual budget, but a member of Israel’s Knesset has introduced a bill to block that move.

3) Intelligence Community

CIA Director Burns  Travels to Israel and Palestine. Over the last week, Central Intelligence Agency Director William “Bill” Burns traveled to Israel and the West Bank to meet with top officials in the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority (PA). In Israel, Burns reportedly had a long list of issues to discuss with Israeli officials, including Iran, the Arab Gulf states, the state of the PA, and Israel’s relationship with Jordan. In Ramallah, he met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the head of Palestinian security, Majed Faraj. A PA official said that Burns’s visit “shows that the Biden Administration is serious about restoring Washington’s relations with the Palestinians and strengthening the Palestinian leadership.”