Congressional Update – Week Ending September 7, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Palestinian Assistance Reform Act. On September 6, Senator James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) finally released a bill that addresses funding for Palestinians and relevant agencies that support them. S. 3425 is supposed to “de-politicize” US foreign aid to the Palestinians, according to Lankford’s statement. However, like other pieces of legislation for Palestinians but unlike any bill addressing Israeli aid, this one continues to condition aid heavily on political considerations. Most notably, the bill would withhold funding from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) unless the secretary of state could certify that the agency has adopted a more widely regarded definition of the term refugee, according to the legislation. The underlying message is that Palestinians must drop their hereditary claim of refugee status. Hardliners in both Washington and Israel have long claimed—and erroneously—that Palestinians are the only refugees in the world who can lay claim to the status via lineage, so this bill is looking to remove a critical final status issue. Though the bill would “reprogram” funds usually dedicated to UNRWA, Lankford has a provision that would allow that money to still support Palestinians, but through the Palestinian Authority (PA), governments of the states that support refugees, or UN and/or nongovernmental aid agencies. The bill will head to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for consideration.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Jon Kyl Tapped to Fill McCain’s Seat. After the late John McCain was laid to rest last week, Arizona’s governor tapped former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl to fill McCain’s seat. Every state determines how vacant senate seats are filled in the event that the vacancy precedes an election year, and in Arizona, state law requires that the governor appoint someone from the same party as the member who vacated the spot. Whether a Republican would succeed McCain was never in question, but the choice facing incumbent Governor Doug Ducey (R) included consideration of the political leaning of the Republican he would appoint. Arizona is a state that has long voted Republican in statewide offices, but due to demographics and the rightward shift of the GOP, Arizona is becoming more of a toss-up, purple state. With that in mind, Ducey avoided appointing a controversial successor and opted instead for Jon Kyl who served alongside McCain in the Senate from 1995 to 2013.

Kyl is very conservative—often ranked among the topmost conservative senators during his tenure—but for Arizonans, he is hardly a controversial choice. As such, he will be an ardent supporter of legislation and appropriations that benefit Israel and he is steadfastly opposed to anything that can be seen as benefitting Iran or Palestinians in the occupied territories. In fact, the Arab American Institute last rated him consistently negatively based on their vote ranking system, meaning he is seen as generally anti-Muslim and/or anti-Arab as reflected by his votes and sponsored legislation. Like most conservative senators, he backs a tough line against terrorism (he supports detention and military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay for terrorists) and he is willing to exercise military force in the region (he voted in favor of authorizing the US invasion of Iraq in 2003).

House Democrats Plan to Force a Vote on US Involvement in Yemen. On September 6, the Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith (D-Washington), and 10 Democratic colleagues announced that they are working to introduce a privileged resolution invoking the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (for more on the War Powers debate, see here). Invoking a privileged resolution would force every member of the House to go on the record and indicate whether they support the administration’s current military support for the war that is devastating the Arab world’s poorest state, Yemen. Though more and more members of Congress are speaking out against US involvement in the Saudi-led campaign, it is unlikely that enough members would vote to force the Trump Administration to stop assisting Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and their partners in the fight in Yemen against the Houthis.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Meets with Emir of Kuwait. On September 5, President Trump welcomed the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah, and other Kuwaiti officials to the White House. Among the topics of concern for the bilateral meeting was trade, regional security developments like the wars in Yemen and Syria, and countering terrorism. The two sides likely spent considerable time discussing the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) row between Saudi Arabia and its allies on one side, and Qatar on the other. Kuwait has tried to serve as mediator to mend the fractured relationship and the emir wanted to capitalize on that effort with officials in Washington. President Trump was expected to host a GCC summit at the Camp David facility this month, but there are reports that the summit will be pushed back yet another time.

Abbas Says Trump Peace Plan Center of Palestinian-Jordanian Confederation. This week, PA President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly told interlocutors that the peace plan being floated by the Trump Administration—at the behest of Advisors Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman—proposes to form a confederation between the Palestinians and Jordan. Further, details from the proposal include full Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, no right of return for exiled Palestinian refugees, and Israeli control over the entire region’s airspace. The administration has lost the confidence of Abbas and the PA, and details of the Kushner-Greenblatt plan are hard to accept, even for Trump’s steadfast Gulf allies. Naturally, Jordanian King Abdullah II rejected the confederation idea, saying it is a red line that could not be crossed.

Understanding that the PA plans to continue boycotting his administration, President Trump told leaders of Jewish organizations on a phone call this week that cuts to aid intended for humanitarian projects in the occupied territories, as well as a complete slashing of the UNRWA budget, were intended to force Abbas back to the negotiating table. There were even murmurs around Washington this week that the $25 million that was left intact for the East Jerusalem hospital network could soon go by the wayside, too. Aside from such fiscal pressure, Jason Greenblatt again took to the pages of an Israeli newspaper to blast the Palestinians for failure to secure a peace agreement. All of this is further proof of the administration’s bias in favor of the Israelis and against the Palestinians. Abbas reportedly made this very point and demanded that Greenblatt be fired as a precondition for returning to negotiations.

2) State Department

Newest Members of the Syria Policy Team Visit Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. Two newly appointed State Department officials responsible for US policy toward Syria made three stops in neighboring countries to meet with their counterparts. Special Representative for Syria Engagement Ambassador James Jeffrey and Deputy Assistant Secretary and Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn spent the week shuttling between Israel, Jordan, and Turkey in order to talk about security and discuss the looming siege of Idlib. Jeffrey offered a somewhat surprising bit of news during the visit: the United States would not be winding down its military presence in Syria after all. President Trump had previously said he hoped to withdraw all US troops “soon,” but administration officials have impressed on him the unlikelihood of Russia playing a constructive role in Syria without Washington there to mediate.

US, Qatar hold Second Counterterrorism Dialogue. At the same time that Trump and other officials were discussing the plight of Qatar with the Kuwaiti delegation, US State Department personnel were in Doha meeting with their counterparts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of the second US-Qatar Dialogue of Counterterrorism and Terrorism Financing. According to the State Department’s assessment, the five sessions involved were positive and productive, and US officials seemed pleased by the progress Qatar has shown in the first year since the Gulf state signed the memorandum of understanding with Washington.

Friedman Says Golan to Remain with Israel Forever. Contradicting the statement of Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, Ambassador David Friedman told an Israeli newspaper this week that he sees Israel remaining in control of the Golan Heights “forever.” Friedman intimated that the administration could recognize Israeli sovereignty over what is generally considered occupied Syrian territory, despite Bolton explicitly saying the White House was not considering such a move. No country officially recognizes the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.

3) Defense Department

Mattis, Votel Travel to Abu Dhabi. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command—which oversees US military operations in the Middle East and North Africa—visited the United Arab Emirates this week. Votel also made stops in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Mattis, who accompanied Secretary Pompeo to India, flew to Abu Dhabi to meet with senior Emirati officials, likely to follow up on topics covered at last week’s roundtable discussion on security issues of mutual concern. Earlier in the week, Votel met with Saudi and Emirati officials in their respective capitals to discuss mutual security concerns and military cooperation. Afterward, Votel traveled to Aden, Yemen—his first trip since the Houthi rebels started fighting the Saudi-backed government—in what many regard as a sign to Iran about US commitment to the sides fighting the Houthis.

4) Treasury Department

US Treasury Sanctions Four Individuals, Five Entities for Supporting Assad. The Treasury Department announced on September 6 that it was designating four men and five companies scattered throughout Syria, Lebanon, and the UAE for helping Syria’s Bashar al-Assad evade sanctions. According to the department’s press release, the individuals are suspected of helping the Assad regime procure oil and gas products, which runs afoul of international sanctions, as well as serving as intermediaries between the Assad government and the Islamic State (IS). Those suspected of helping IS were facilitating the transport of weapons, oil and gas products, and construction materials between areas governed by the regime and the terrorist group.