Washington Policy Weekly

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Middle East Advanced Technology Protection Act. In response to the Trump Administration’s informal notification of its intent to sell 50, F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates, a group of House Democrats announced they have crafted legislation (H.R. 8707) to condition such sales. Members of Congress who support normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states are skeptical of a sale like this for fear that it would fuel an arms race and undermine Israel’s qualitative military edge over its regional neighbors. This legislation dictates that the United States only provides advanced technology, like the F-35, to countries that sign peace or normalization agreements with Israel and it requires that all technology be modified in such a way that Israel can track the weapons.

The deal is far from a sure thing. Congress has a right to examine the potential sale once it is formally proposed. For its part, the Trump Administration has conceded that it will not circumvent Congress—like it has in the past—to usher through the sale. Once the formal notification is delivered, Congress can draft and pass a joint resolution expressing its opposition to the sale; however, without the necessary votes, it would be subject to the president’s veto. The fulfillment of this proposed sale is years in the making, so it would be subject to change should a new administration take power in January 2021.

Visa Security Expansion Act. Though the bill has yet to be formally introduced, Senators Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire) and Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) announced this week their intention to introduce legislation that seeks to improve the Department of Homeland Security’s visa screening process to prevent terrorists from entering the United States. As the reasoning behind the legislation, the senators explicitly point to threats from individuals with “western passports” who traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight for the so-called Islamic State. Essentially, the bill forces the State Department to staff counterterrorism experts at US consulates to better screen those applying for US visas.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Bipartisan Group of House Members Write to Trump on the Shield Act. A group of Republican and Democratic House members signed a letter to President Trump this week urging him to fully implement the Sanctioning the Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act, or the Shield Act. The 2018 law targets Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza for allegedly using civilians as a defense against Israeli military attacks. The lawmakers cite Hezbollah weapons caches stashed under residential buildings in Beirut and urge the president to further sanction the group for the practice.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

State Ushers in New Developments on Sudan, Israel Policy. This week, the Trump Administration announced a pair of new policies regarding Sudan and Israel. Officials from Sudan and the United States signed an agreement formalizing what was already negotiated vis-à-vis Khartoum’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The agreement says that Sudan will pay $335 million in compensation to the victims of the 1998 and 2000 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in East Africa and Yemen, once the United States de-lists Khartoum as a state sponsor of terrorism and after Congress passes legislation reinstituting Sudan’s diplomatic sovereign immunity that prevents Americans from suing the Sudanese government. This last step is still facing hurdles, with some lawmakers resisting such a move until Sudan also agrees to compensate victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, in which some accuse Sudan of complicity.

On Israel, the Trump Administration continued to formalize its policy that Jerusalem is an undivided and uncontested part of Israel. It did this by changing State Department policy to allow US citizens born in Jerusalem to proclaim “Israel” as their country of birth, whereas previously these citizens simply listed “Jerusalem” as their place of birth. It is yet another example of how the Trump Administration looks to skew US policy even  deeper toward Israel in a way that may be politically unpalatable for a potential Joe Biden administration to reverse.

Trump Administration Levies More Sanctions on Iran’s Petroleum Industry. The State Department announced yet more sanctions on Iran this week, this time targeting entities in Iran, China, and Singapore for allegedly circumventing the oil embargo on Iran.

2) Department of Defense

Secretary Esper Meets Israeli PM Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gantz, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made stops in Israel and Jordan during recent travel in the region to meet with key officials in those states. Esper convened meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Bennie Gantz and discussed bilateral security cooperation and Israel’s qualitative military edge. Esper also met King Abdullah II in Aqaba, Jordan, to discuss bilateral security cooperation.