Congressional Update – Week Ending October 5, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Affirming the Relationship Between the US and Morocco. On September 28, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) introduced H. Res. 1101, reaffirming the longstanding relationship between the United States and Morocco. The resolution condemns Morocco’s rival, the Polisario Front, in a dispute over the sovereignty of Western Sahara. It also denounces outside groups—naming Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, specifically—for supporting the front in an effort to gain influence in North Africa. Interestingly, a recent report illustrates how some of the cosponsors of the bill were exposed to an energetic Moroccan lobbying effort in Washington. The resolution was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee for consideration.

Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act of 2018. On October 3, President Donald Trump signed into law S. 2946. This law will expose many Arab states, as well as the governing Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, to possible civil court cases in the United States. It does this by amending US law to include a provision saying that any entity that accepts certain types of aid from the United States (namely funds appropriated according to chapters 4 and 9 of part II and sec. 481 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961) is consenting to exposing itself to the jurisdiction of US civil law in cases of terrorism. The three provisions include economic support funds (ESF); nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, de-mining, and related programs (NADR); and international narcotics control and law enforcement (INCLE) programs, respectively. It is noteworthy that billions of dollars from those accounts are obligated to the occupied Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and others for fiscal year 2019. This means these states and actors will have to decide if they want to accept that money or protect themselves from potential exposure to anti-terrorist civil cases in US courts.

FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. On October 3, the Senate and House agreed to reconcile their differences over H.R. 302, which reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to perform its duties. The bill is of interest because buried deep in the legislative text is a provision mandating that a “Syria Study Group” be established to determine Washington’s overall strategy toward the war-torn state. The study group would consist of 12 appointed individuals tasked with reviewing current US policy toward Syria and recommending to lawmakers any improvements to that strategy.

Establishing a Palestinian Partnership Fund. On October 4, Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) and three colleagues proposed S. 3549, which would help support economic development among Palestinians in the occupied territories by financing joint ventures between Palestinian entrepreneurs and businesses in the United States, Israel, and the Arab world. This seems like positive legislation—and Sen. Coons is more sympathetic than most toward Palestinians—but time will tell whether enough senators are willing to promote the economic well-being of those living under occupation. The bill was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

2) Hearings

Dangers of Israeli Annexation of the West Bank. On October 3, the office of Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California) hosted members of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) to discuss the ramifications, both security-related and otherwise, if Israel were to annex the West Bank—this was based on a new study CIS completed recently. The congresswoman was not able to participate as originally planned, but her legislative aide opened the conversation, saying that the topic of annexation was an important one for Rep. Speier because the death of the two-state solution would be ineffective in granting Palestinians the rights they desire nor in maintaining Israel’s security. As her aide noted, there is a minority in the Knesset that takes the most aggressive line against a Palestinian state, but because it has seats in the governing coalition, those “annexationists” grow more vocal in their demands to annex the West Bank.

The conversation was interesting, for Capitol Hill standards, because it raised the concerns of Israelis about the failure to promote a viable and lasting two-state solution, giving the appearance that the speakers might have a more dovish stance toward the Palestinians. However, the substance of the remarks offered by the CIS members—all former high-ranking officials of the Israel Defense Forces and/or security services—was only nominally concerned with the rights of the Palestinians. In reality, the three speakers were more concerned about the burden of annexing land with millions of Palestinians as well as about the ramifications for Israel’s economy, military preparedness, and demographics. They stated repeatedly that “separating” from the Palestinians—ostensibly in the form of a two-state solution—is the only way to maintain Israel’s identity as a “democratic, Jewish, and secure” state. Though few suggestions or recommendations were given for US policy toward the conflict, the speakers did say that while they support the Taylor Force Act, they did not support funding cuts to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) or to the network of hospitals in East Jerusalem.

3) Correspondence and Personnel

House Members Pen Letter to State in Support of UNRWA Funding. On September 28, 112 House Democrats signed on to a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decrying the move to strip funding from UNRWA. Like the former security officials from Israel (see above), House Democrats vehemently oppose funding cuts to UNRWA, the East Jerusalem Hospital network, and a program that promotes conflict mitigation between Palestinians and Israelis. The lawmakers’ case to the administration—beside making an appeal on a humanitarian basis—is that Congress obligated those funds for a reason; therefore, the administration has the responsibility to use it as prescribed by the elected representatives of the American people. ACW’s Executive Director Khalil Jahshan penned an article outlining how the White House’s approach to UNRWA may also wreak havoc on Jordan, which relies on the agency to help support its 2.2 million Palestinian refugees.

Cardin, Rubio Write to Pompeo Regarding Syria Funding Cuts. On October 3, Senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) wrote a letter to Secretary Pompeo regarding the Trump Administration’s decision to reprogram $230 million away from projects in Syria. The senators told Pompeo they are looking forward to receiving a report, mandated by a provision of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2019, on the efforts to hold accountable those suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. However, as Cardin and Rubio noted, the bill also authorizes programs to undertake transitional justice efforts. With that in mind, the two are asking Pompeo to explain how the decision to reprogram $230 million earmarked for these efforts in Syria will allow for the administration to carry out Congress’s law.

Rep. McCollum Champions Palestinian Rights, Calls Israeli Policy “Apartheid.” On Saturday September 29, Democratic Congresswoman Betty McCollum spoke at the 2018 national conference of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. During her speech at the event in her home state of Minnesota, Rep. McCollum spoke out strongly against Israel’s abuse of Palestinian children, including arbitrarily detaining them, and described Israeli policy, in light of the passage of its nation-state law, as “apartheid.” McCollum is among the most pro-Palestinian rights advocates in Congress and she has spearheaded the first-of-its kind legislation that would prohibit Israel from using the billions of dollars of security assistance it receives yearly from Washington to be used to detain and/or abuse Palestinian children. Outspoken advocates of Palestinian rights like her are gradually shifting the status quo on Capitol Hill toward more sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, though as McCollum herself noted, there is a long way to go since pro-Israel lobbying is still highly effective in the halls of Congress.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Team Exits Treaties Due to UN Rulings, Diplomatic Disputes. This week, Secretary Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the administration would be terminating and/or withdrawing from multiple treaties. Pompeo told the press this is because Iran won a challenge in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is the United Nations’ top court charged with hearing legal disputes between UN member states. Iran, citing a 1950s era treaty signed by the United States and then-ruling Shah Reza Pahlavi, took Washington to the ICJ, arguing that renewed sanctions are prohibited. Surprisingly, the ICJ offered Tehran a partial victory, ordering the United States to lift sanctions on humanitarian goods. In response, the White House opted to cancel the treaty—though the language of that agreement says that one side has to give the other a one-year notice of termination. Similarly, Bolton announced later that day that the administration would be suspending its support for a provision ratified in the Vienna Convention which allows states to resolve diplomatic disputes related to embassies and consular affairs. This, too, was prompted by a legal challenge at the ICJ after the Palestinian Authority filed a complaint in response to Trump’s decision to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

White House Releases New Counterterrorism Strategy. On October 4, the White House released what it says is the first updated and robust National Strategy for Counterterrorism since 2011. Consistent with the president’s and his closest advisors’ preoccupation with what they call “radical Islamist terrorism,” this document focuses almost solely on threats from groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda and from state-sponsored terror by Iran. Only briefly does the document address non-Islamist domestic terrorism, which many scholars and security researchers have concluded is by far the biggest terrorist threat to Americans at this time. The report is standard for the post-9/11 era though, touching on traditional ideas like countering violent extremism, preventing radicalization and perfect de-radicalization, and depriving transnational terrorist groups of safe havens from which they can operate.

2) State Department

10-Year MOU Between US and Israel Begins This Week. Fiscal year 2018 ended at midnight on October 1, ushering in a new US-Israel aid agreement that spans a decade. At the end of the Barack Obama Administration in 2016, the United States and Israel agreed to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) laying out roughly $3.8 billion annually in foreign military financing and miscellaneous security aid for 10 years. In the past, and for the first few years of the MOU, Israel was able to use as much as 26 percent of US funds to purchase defense items from its own domestic defense industry—one that is regularly cited as a top-10 defense exporter in the world. This provision eventually phases out under this agreement, meaning that by the end of the decade, $10 billion more of Israel’s defense acquisitions will be provided by US firms—assuming Israeli firms don’t find loopholes to exploit. Going forward, if Israel’s annual defense budget mirrors that of 2017, the United States would be providing roughly 20 percent of Israel’s entire defense budget every year. For more on US-Israel military support, read this report.

Pompeo Meets with Bahraini Foreign Minister, Holds Calls with MbS, Iraqi President-Elect. On October 3, Secretary Pompeo held a meeting and had phone calls with three Arab leaders. He met with Bahrain’s foreign minister in Washington to discuss issues of bilateral importance, including Manama’s progress in combatting human trafficking and countering terrorism. The two also built on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)+2 discussion held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week and discussed ways to further combat the threats posed by Iran. Pompeo spoke on the phone with another GCC official, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). The State Department’s readout mentions they spoke about mutual cooperation in the areas of countering Iran and finding a solution to Riyadh’s war in Yemen, but it failed to mention if, when meeting with the powerful prince, Pompeo raised the issue of the mysterious disappearance of a Saudi dissident in Istanbul on October 2. It is also interesting that Pompeo did not raise, as a topic for discussion, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which Saudi Arabia is a founding member, considering the group has drawn the ire of President Trump recently due to the body’s unwillingness to produce more oil, thus allowing prices to rise. Additionally, a Senate subcommittee held a hearing the same day regarding anti-monopoly and anti-competitive business practices policies; members of that subcommittee have supported a bill known as “NOPEC,” which looks to criminalize the organization.

Pompeo also held a call with the incoming president of Iraq, Barham Salih. The secretary of state congratulated Salih for his new, largely ceremonial position and lent his support for a strong and unified Iraq. Salih and the new prime minister-designate, Adel Abdul Mahdi, take the reins in Baghdad at a time when the country is in desperate need of reconstruction, reconciliation, and stable, dependable governing. The failure to attain the latter has spurred widespread protests in the port city of Basra, prompting Pompeo to order the US consulate there closed. Special Envoy Brett McGurk has lent his support for the newly elected leaders.

Ambassador Friedman Says Trump Administration OK with Settlement Construction. In an interview with Israeli publication Arutz Sheva (which identifies with religious Zionism), US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that President Trump has not sought an end to expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank. Most administrations have concluded that settlement expansion is a serious threat to the viability of a sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state, but this administration seems content with allowing the most radical elements of the ruling coalition in Israel to pursue their goals of settling large swaths of the occupied West Bank.

State, USAID Officials Talk the Path Forward for Yemen. On October 4, the Middle East Institute held a half-day conference to discuss the future of war-torn Yemen. Timothy Lenderking, the deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Near East Affairs, participated  in a panel to discuss Yemen’s political and security challenges, while Bruce Abrams, the deputy assistant administrator for the Middle East Bureau at USAID, spoke on the second panel, which focused on post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction.

Lenderking discussed the need for a negotiated political settlement between the Saudi Arabia-UAE-led coalition and the Houthi rebels. He said that the administration does support the coalition’s operations, though he mentioned the United States has been advising the Saudis and their allies on how to carry out operations with the least number of civilian casualties. Ultimately, Lenderking said that while Washington and Riyadh both want to see the conflict end, the sides have differing timelines. The Trump Administration, he noted, prefers a quicker resolution so Washington and its Arab allies can turn their attention toward challenging Iranian influence and defeating terrorist organizations that enjoy freedom in the ungoverned areas of Yemen.

Abrams’s remarks during the reconstruction segment of the conference left those hoping for a clear strategy from Washington wanting more. He said that since USAID left Yemen in 2015, its personnel do not have a good sense of the conditions on the ground in order to assess their capabilities. He did add, however, that the organization is planning for long-term projects to help alleviate some of the problems that have bedeviled Yemen and its citizens, like a flailing economy with a currency shortage; limited access to transportation; and poor infrastructure. While Abrams spoke at length about the problems facing Yemen, there was little to assure those concerned that this administration has formulated a post-conflict policy for the country.

3) Defense Department

Gen. Votel, Colonel Ryan Give Updates on US Operations in the Levant. This week, Colonel Sean Ryan, the spokesperson for the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, and General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command, gave separate reports on US military operations in Iraq and Syria, and Votel gave an update about US military involvement in the broader Middle East. They said that the military’s support for local forces in Iraq and Syria continues to be effective in the fight to regain all IS-controlled land, but the fight to uproot the group from the last two percent of land it holds will be a long and violent struggle. The most noteworthy information came from Gen. Votel, who alluded that the United States, under a collective defense doctrine, would be legally allowed to use force to protect assets in places in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. This is sure to raise concerns from lawmakers who are already uneasy with the Pentagon’s extremely broad interpretations of its ability to use force in the region.

4) Treasury Department

Treasury Levies More Sanctions Targeting Hezbollah. On October 4, the Treasury Department announced that it had taken further actions to disrupt Lebanese Hezbollah’s financial support networks. One individual and a number of Lebanese companies were named by the Treasury Department for their alleged roles in supporting Hezbollah financially. These actions freeze the designees’ assets that fall in US jurisdiction, revoke or deny their visas to enter the United States, and impose other punitive measures.