Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Representative Gallego Introduces Bill to Curb Use of American Water Resources by Saudi Arabia, Foreign Governments. On August 29, Representative Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) announced the introduction of a new bill, the “Domestic Water Protection Act of 2023,” which would impose an excise tax on the sale and export of water-intensive crops grown by foreign companies or governments in areas experiencing water insecurity. Arizona currently leases farmland to Fondomonte, a Saudi company that uses groundwater to grow alfalfa that is then exported to feed livestock in the Middle East. Outlining his intentions with the bill, Representative Gallego asserted that “Arizona’s water and crops belong in Arizona—not Saudi Arabia.” Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), a cosponsor of the bill, added, “As our communities in Arizona feel the intense effects of the climate crisis and prolonged drought, we are simultaneously being stripped by Saudi-owned companies of our most precious resource—our water.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Representative McCaul Responds to Iranian Media Leaks on Robert Malley’s Security Clearance. On August 28, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) responded to leaks by the Tehran Times purportedly showing a State Department memo suspending Special Envoy to Iran Robert Malley’s security clearance. Representative McCaul expressed concern that the Iranian media apparently had “sensitive US government information while Congress is kept in the dark,” and suggested that the State Department might have a leak.

Democratic Leadership to Support Incumbents Critical of Israel. Last week, Politico reported that Democratic leadership is planning on supporting all of its party’s incumbents in next year’s elections, including members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who have been critical of Israel. Concern about primary challenges supported by AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups had previously called into question whether House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), a staunch supporter of Israel, would endorse progressive incumbents who have maintained a more critical stance. But per Politico’s report, progressive members facing primary challenges, such as Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), can expect to receive support from the party.

Democrats Seek Solution to UNRWA Food Crisis. On August 29, members of Congress, led by Representative André Carson (D-IN) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), sent a letter to Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee James Risch (R-ID) urging him to release $75 million in previously appropriated congressional funding, which is designated for the provision of food assistance to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Senator Risch and Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), the top Republicans on the Senate and House foreign affairs committees respectively, have placed holds on the State Department funding, a decision that has exacerbated food insecurity in Palestine. Carson and Sanders’ letter warns that any further delay in the allocation of the funds could break UNRWA’s food pipeline and spark a humanitarian crisis.

Representative Meeks Calls for Release of Detained Egyptian Civil Society Leader. On August 31, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY), called on Egypt to release Hisham Kassem, a civil society leader and journalist who was detained last week. Representative Meeks criticized Kassem’s detention, calling the charges against him “unjust” and “politicized.” Kassem is currently head of the organizing opposition movement “Free Current,” which seeks to challenge President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ahead of his attempt to win a third term in February 2024.

Representative Raskin Seeks Subpoena of Jared Kushner Over Financial Ties to Gulf Monarchies. On August 31, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability Jamie Raskin (D-MD) sent a letter to Committee Chairman James Comer (R-KY) as part of Committee Democrats’ investigation into the billions of dollars Jared Kushner’s investment firm, A Fin Management LLC (Affinity), received from Gulf monarchies shortly after he left a senior White House foreign policy position.

House Republicans Ask Biden to Reconsider Nomination of US Ambassador to Israel. On August 31, a group of eight House Republicans drafted a letter to President Biden to express their concern about the expected nomination of former Treasury Secretary Jacob “Jack” Lew as the next US Ambassador to Israel. The representatives maintain that Lew’s nomination “has the potential to strain relations with our strongest ally and the only democracy in the Middle East,” citing his previous criticism of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an issue.

Members of Congress Decry Killing of African Migrants at Saudi Border. Last week, members of Congress expressed concern over reports of the killing of hundreds of African migrants by Saudi border guards. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) called on the US government and the international community to investigate the allegations. Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY), who is the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, shared that he has requested details from the State Department about the extent of the United States’ knowledge of and response to the border violence. Representative Meeks added that he is committed to “ensuring US policy goals and funding do not support egregious human rights violations and the killing of migrants and asylum seekers.”

Congressional Black Caucus Meets with Israeli PM Netanyahu. On September 3, ten members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Representative Nikema Williams (D-GA), the visit was part of a longer trip to study how countries can “build common ground while developing and growing socially, culturally, and economically out of tragedy.”

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Israeli Opposition Leader to Visit Washington. This week, Israeli Opposition Leader Yair Lapid will travel to Washington, DC. Lapid is expected to meet with officials at the White House and the State Department, and with members of Congress. Lapid’s visit takes place as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu awaits his own meeting with President Joe Biden, though recent reports suggest that the two are now expected to meet at the end of September at the United Nations General Assembly.

Senior Advisor Hochstein Visits Lebanon. On August 30, President Biden’s senior advisor for energy and infrastructure, Amos Hochstein, traveled to Lebanon to meet with Lebanese officials as part of efforts to de-escalate tensions at the Lebanese-Israeli border. Hochstein’s visit was timed with the recent start of Lebanon’s drilling for oil and gas in its territorial waters, a venture Hochstein enabled by negotiating the maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel last year.

2) State Department

Ambassador Greenfield, Assistant Secretary Leaf, and NSC Coordinator McGurk Meet with Israeli Defense Minister Gallant. On August 29, Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, and National Security Council Coordinator Brett McGurk met Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant while he was in New York City. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield spoke with Gallant about tensions in the West Bank, while Leaf and McGurk discussed tensions on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Assistant Secretary Satterfield and Ambassador Al-Hadhrami Sign US-Yemen Cultural Property Agreement. On August 30, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Lee Satterfield and Yemeni Ambassador to the United States Mohamed Al-Hadhrami signed a cultural property agreement to extend US import restrictions on Yemeni cultural artifacts.

US Ambassador to Yemen Visits Seiyun, Discusses Bilateral Relationship. On August 30, US Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen Steven Fagin traveled to Seiyun, Yemen, marking the first visit to the city by a US ambassador in over a decade. During the visit, Ambassador Fagin met with local government and military officials and reaffirmed the importance of the relationship between the US and Yemeni governments.

State Department Applauds Kyrgyz Republic for Repatriating Nationals from Northeast Syria. On August 31, the State Department applauded the Kyrgyz Republic’s decision to repatriate 95 people from the al-Hol and Roj displaced persons camps in northeast Syria, marking the second such repatriation of displaced persons by Kyrgyzstan. The State Department celebrated the country’s support to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Syria and upheld that repatriation remains the “only durable solution” for residents of the camps going forward.

State Department Welcomes Iraq’s Conviction of Individuals Involved in Killing of US Citizen. On August 31, the State Department welcomed an Iraqi court’s conviction and sentencing of four Iraqis and one Iranian on terrorism charges in connection to the killing of US citizen Stephen Troell.

Assistant Secretary Stewart to Travel to Israel and Turkey. This week, Assistant Secretary of State of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Mallory Stewart will travel to Israel and Turkey. In Israel, Assistant Secretary Stewart will meet with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and discuss “strategic stability, multilateral arms control, responsible uses of artificial intelligence and space security.” In Turkey, Stewart will meet with MFA and Ministry of National Defense officials to discuss strategic stability, as well as risk reduction and current arms control and security matters.

Assistant Secretary Phee Speaks with Algerian Foreign Minister Attaf About Niger. On August 31, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Molly Phee spoke with Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf about the developing crisis in Niger, underlining US support for “the principled stand taken by ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] in defense of democracy and constitutional order in Niger,” related to the recent military coup in the West African nation. Assistant Secretary Phee also discussed the “important role that democracy and development play in contributing to stability and security in the Sahel.”

US Votes to Renew UN Force Authorization in Lebanon. On August 31, the United States supported a United Nations Security Council vote to renew the annual authorization of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). According to US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, “The ability of the UNIFIL personnel to carry out their responsibilities, independent of any restrictions, is essential.” France, which drafted the resolution, compromised with the United States and the UAE by re-adding language to enable all parties to allow “announced and unannounced patrols” by UN troops along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Harris to Travel to Morocco and Algeria. On August 31, the State Department Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs announced that Deputy Assistant Secretary Josh Harris will travel to Morocco and Algeria to discuss regional security and reaffirm US support for the United Nations-led political process in Western Sahara.

US Officials Travel to Eastern Syria Following Escalation in Violence. On September 3, senior US officials visited Deir al-Zor Province in eastern Syria in an effort to defuse ongoing unrest in the region. The officials met with local tribal leaders and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commanders with the goal of de-escalating violence, which has sharply increased since August 27 when fighting broke out after the SDF detained a prominent local official. Wider tribal mobilization against the SDF has since led to an intensification in fighting, which has reportedly left at least 54 civilians and 62 fighters killed.

3) Department of Defense

US and Saudi Arabia to Conduct ‘Red Sands’ Joint Military Exercise. Next month, the US and Saudi Arabia will begin the Red Sands 23.2 joint training exercise focused on countering unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). According to the US Army Central Public Affairs Officer Colonel Armando Hernandez, Red Sands 23.2 is “a forum to test and field counter-UAS systems, implement best practices, and increase interoperability between systems.” The first Red Sands joint training exercise took place in March and was the first of its kind between the US and Saudi militaries.

Secretary Austin Speaks with Qatari Minister of State for Defense Affairs Al Attiyah. On August 29, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Qatari Minister of State for Defense Affairs Khalid bin Mohamed Al Attiyah to discuss the US-Qatar relationship and US commitment to “a strong bilateral relationship built on common interests and mutual respect.” Secretary Austin also thanked Al Attiyah for Qatar’s commitment to regional security and for the continued hosting of US forces at Al-Udeid Air Base.

Pentagon Confirms Additional US Forces to Remain in the Middle East. On August 29, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh confirmed that US forces deployed to the Middle East in response to Iranian actions would stay put “as long as there remains a need for these forces to be in the region.” Press Secretary Singh also commented that the Pentagon has not seen a decrease in the threat from Iranian backed militias or Iranian action in the Strait of Hormuz.

US Ambassador to Turkey and US Navy Host Turkish Officials. Last week, US Ambassador to Turkey Jeff Flake hosted Selcuk Bayraktar, CEO of Turkish drone manufacturer Baykar and son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford as part of a combined demonstration with the Turkish Navy. The Ford also hosted local officials and military leaders in the Turkish city of Antalya “to celebrate the strong, extensive alliance between the US and Turkey.” This latest push of naval diplomacy follows nearly a month of US-Turkish joint training exercises, including air defense and anti-submarine warfare drills.

Operation Inherent Resolve Reaffirms Commitment to Syrian Democratic Forces. On August 31, the Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) released a statement reaffirming its commitment to working with the Syrian Democratic Forces to ensure the “enduring defeat” of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder added that there are no planned changes US force posture in Syria, underscoring the US focus on defeating IS as opposed to other actors in the Syrian conflict.

4) Department of Commerce

US Reportedly Restricts AI Chip Exports to Unspecified Middle Eastern Countries. On August 30, Reuters reported that regulatory filings by American multinational technology company Nvidia and comments from officials at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) suggest that the US Commerce Department is expanding restrictions on AI chip exports beyond China to include unspecified countries in the Middle East. The Commerce Department has denied that the United States blocked chip sales to the Middle East and declined to comment on whether it had imposed new requirements on specific US companies.