Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Senate Democrats Raise Concerns to President Biden About Israel Visa Waiver. On September 8, a group of Senate Democrats penned a letter to President Biden regarding Israel’s prospective admittance into the US Visa Waiver Program, arguing that Israel is not yet compliant ahead of the September 30 deadline. The senators noted that US citizens living in the occupied West Bank face a “two-tiered system of entry,” a violation of the Biden administration’s “Blue is Blue” standard that calls for equal treatment and freedom of travel for all US citizens regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity. The senators indicated that it would be a “violation of law to rush to admit [Israel]” into the program and that Israel should “spend the following twelve months coming into full compliance” should it not meet the requirements of the program prior to the current deadline.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Announces Nominee for Ambassador to Israel. On September 5, President Biden nominated Jacob J. Lew as US Ambassador to Israel. Lew has previously served as Secretary of the Treasury, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, and White House Chief of Staff for President Obama. Lew’s nomination has received pushback from Republican lawmakers, who have raised concerns about his prior criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

US and Saudi Arabia Sign Memorandum of Understanding to Establish Green Transit Corridor. On September 9, the United States and Saudi Arabia announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that provides a framework for developing a protocol for establishing intercontinental green transit corridors to improve economic development and to stimulate integration between Asia, the Gulf, and Europe. The MOU includes the European Union, the UAE, and India in its plan to construct a railway route, cables for electricity and digital connectivity, and pipes for clean hydrogen export between the continents.

President Biden Commemorates September 11. Today, President Joe Biden released a statement in remembrance of the attacks of September 11, 2001. President Biden wrote, “We remember the 2,977 precious lives stolen from us on 9/11 and reflect on all that was lost in the fire and ash that September morning.” The president’s words accompany statements from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, and members of congress.

2) State Department

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Israeli PM Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Abbas. On September 5, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about mutual interests between the United States and Israel, including Israel’s security, expanding Israel’s integration in the region, and countering threats posed by Iran. Secretary Blinken also held a call with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in which the two discussed ongoing violence in the West Bank, opportunities to advance freedom and security for Palestinians, and the two-state solution. Commenting on the meeting, Vedant Patel, deputy spokesperson at the State Department, reiterated that “there has been absolutely no change in [US] policy” toward Israel-Palestine.

US Officials visit UAE to Discuss Sanctions on Russia. Last week, US officials visited the UAE alongside UK and EU partners to discuss the implementation of sanctions on Russia. The UAE is one of several Gulf States that are reportedly buying thousands of microchips, sparking US concerns about potential technology transfers to sanctioned countries such as Russia, which has sought to acquire an increased number of chips, electronic components, and other “dual-use” products that hold both civilian and military utility.

State Department Condemns Violence in Iraq. On September 5, the State condemned recent violence in Kirkuk, Iraq, calling on parties involved to resolve tensions through dialogue. The city has been the site of clashes between different ethnic groups over the past week that have left three dead and 14 injured.

State Department Announces Sanctions Against RSF Senior Commanders. On September 6, the State Department announced new actions against two leaders of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The State Department is imposing visa restrictions on RSF General and West Darfur Sector Commander Abdul Rahman Juma for his involvement in RSF’s ongoing violation of human rights. The State Department also announced concurrent sanctions from the Department of the Treasury against RSF senior commander Abdelrahim Hamdan Dagalo. The RSF has been accused of committing atrocities and other abuses, including ethnically motivated violence, targeted abuse against activists, sexual violence, and looting.

US Officials Visit Saudi Arabia to Discuss Conflict in Yemen and Saudi-Israeli Normalization. Last week, a group of US officials, including Deputy Assistant to the President and NSC Coordinator for MENA Brett McGurk, Assistant Secretary of State of Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, and US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking, met with Saudi officials to discuss the ongoing war in Yemen. Speaking about the meeting, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that the visit is part of a broader US effort to secure a permanent peace in Yemen. While in Riyadh, McGurk also met with senior Palestinian officials to discuss the Palestinian role in a possible Saudi-Israel normalization agreement.

Special Antisemitism Envoy Lipstadt, Others Condemn Palestinian President Abbas’ Comments on the Holocaust. On September 7, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt condemned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s comment that Adolf Hitler chose to “fight” Jews because of “their social role,” rather than because of their Jewish identity. Lipstadt stated, “The speech maligned the Jewish people, distorted the Holocaust, and misrepresented the tragic exodus of Jews from Arab countries.” US Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Ellen Germain also rebuked President Abbas’s comments, urging, “We must call out such lies and distortions whenever we see or hear them.”

US Chargé d’Affaires in Israel Expresses Support for Saudi-Israeli Normalization and Economic Cooperation. On September 7, Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Jerusalem Stephanie Hallett expressed support for Saudi-Israeli normalization and economic cooperation, calling Saudi Arabia the “preeminent target” for expanding the Abraham Accords and adding that “Israel is a natural place” for the economic cooperation Saudi Arabia is seeking under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud.

State Department Opposes Recent Advancement of Settlements in the West Bank. On September 7, the State Department condemned Israel for legalizing three new settlement outposts in the West Bank. A State Department spokesperson told the Times of Israel, “Our views have been clear and consistent: The expansion of settlements or outposts undermines the geographic viability of a two-state solution, exacerbates tensions, and further harms trust between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Secretary Blinken Speaks With Moroccan Foreign Minister Following Earthquake. On September 10, Secretary Antony Blinken spoke with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita to discuss how the United States can assist in Morocco’s humanitarian response to the September 7 earthquake that struck the southern part of the country. President Joe Biden also released a statement the day prior, stating that the United States is ready to provide assistance in the aftermath of the earthquake, which has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people.

3) Department of Defense

NAVCENT Hosts Israeli Foreign Minister Cohen. On September 4, Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) hosted Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Israeli Ambassador to Bahrain Eitan Na’eh, US Ambassador to Bahrain Steven Bondy, and other senior officials for “discussions on regional maritime security cooperation.” Foreign Minister Cohen described the discussions and Israeli participation in regional security as “an important outcome of the Abraham Accords.” US and Israeli forces have completed multiple joint patrols in the Gulf of Aqaba, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden since Israel was placed under CENTCOM’s area of responsibility on September 1, 2021.

US and Turkish Generals Discuss NATO, Syria, and Regional Security. On September 6, General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his Turkish counterpart about NATO, Syria, and regional security issues. The call followed a September 5 briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Pat Ryder, who downplayed recent operations by Turkish-backed Syrian forces on areas held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been supported by the US in its fight against the so-called Islamic State.

US Reportedly Storing Offensive Weapons in Iraq Despite 2021 Agreement. Last week, reports surfaced that the United States is storing offensive military weapons at a base in western Iraq. If verified, this action would represent a breach of a 2021 agreement stipulating that the US presence in the country would be limited to a training and advisory role.

US Military Participates in War Games in Egypt Amid Congressional Pressure to Withhold Military Aid. Last week, the United States and Egypt began the latest round of the Bright Star exercises, a biennial event that serves as a forum for the US military to train Egyptian forces in counterterrorism, counter-insurgency, and other forms of warfare. Notably, the Pentagon has committed 1,500 military personnel to participate in this year’s exercise, more than any other year since 2011. Addressing the increased level of participation, CENTCOM spokesperson, Colonel Troy Garlock, stated that the event is “a demonstration of the important strategic security partnership between the US and Egypt.” However, President Joe Biden is currently facing mounting pressure to withhold the full $320 in military aid that the United States is set to deliver to Egypt. A July 28 letter drafted by Senator Chis Murphy (D-CT) and ten other senators called on President Biden to withhold the funds because of concern over Egypt’s recent human rights record.

Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Singh Denies Plans for Stationing Marines Aboard Commercial Vessels in the Gulf. On September 7, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh denied the existence of any plans to place US Marines aboard commercial vessels in the Arabian/Persian Gulf. Deputy Press Secretary Singh’s comments followed reports in August that the Pentagon was merely awaiting approval for the controversial effort.

5) United States Agency for International Development

USAID Delivers $20.5 Million to Support Jordan’s Water Infrastructure. USAID recently announced an agreement with Jordan’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation to provide a $20.5 million grant that will help reduce water loss in Jordan.

USAID and State Department Announce Combined $163 Million in Additional Humanitarian Assistance to Sudan. On September 6, USAID announced the provision of nearly $163 million to help people affected by the crisis in Sudan, bringing the total amount of US humanitarian assistance to Sudan and surrounding refugee-hosting countries to almost $710 million for the fiscal year. Ongoing violence in Sudan has killed thousands of people, displaced millions from their homes, and left nearly 25 million Sudanese people in need of humanitarian assistance. With the delivery of additional funds, USAID and the State Department are seeking to bolster existing support for humanitarian purposes by partners providing food assistance, health care, nutrition support, shelter, water, sanitation, and hygiene services.

6) Central Intelligence Agency

CIA Director Discusses Regional Security with Algerian Army Chief of Staff. On September 6, CIA Director Bill Burns spoke with Said Chengriha, the Algerian Army’s chief of staff, to discuss ways to strengthen cooperation and security coordination between the two countries, particularly in the field of counterterrorism.

III. Judicial Branch

President Biden Rejects Plea Deal Conditions for Five Detainees at Guantanamo Bay Tied to 9/11. Last week, President Biden rejected plea deal conditions for five detainees at Guantanamo Bay who are accused of carrying out the September 11 attacks. The proposed deal would see the defendants spared the death penalty, instead receiving a maximum sentence of life in prison in exchange for pleading guilty to conspiring to carry out the attacks. The defendants have not yet received a public trial, though pretrial hearings have been held at Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade.

Federal Court Rules Case Against US Company Involved in Beirut Explosion Can Continue. A US district judge has denied a motion by TGS, an energy company based in Houston, to dismiss a lawsuit filed against them on behalf of nine victims of the 2020 Beirut explosion. The suit alleges that a predecessor of TGS (which later merged with the company) played an important role in unloading the ammonium nitrate that caused the blast, and that it would have been aware of Lebanese laws that regulate storage of the chemical compound. Leading the suit against TGS, umbrella civil society organization Accountability Now is seeking $250 million in damages with the aim of creating a social relief project in Lebanon and a shared recovery fund for victims of the explosion.