Congressional Update – Week Ending November 17, 2017

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Res. 599. On November 13, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly adopted a resolution (by a vote of 366 yeas to 30 nays) “expressing the sense of [the representatives] with respect to United States policy towards Yemen….” The resolution was originally offered by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) who is a vocal critic of the United States’ support for the Saudi-led campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. However, the language of the resolution is markedly soft toward the Saudis but expresses members’ condemnation of Iranian activity in the conflict. While nonbinding, the resolution calls on the Saudi-led coalition to refrain from bombing civilian positions in Yemen and urges the free passage of humanitarian aid through Yemeni ports.

While some found this step satisfactory, not all on Capitol Hill were pleased with the less-than forceful condemnation of United States’ position on Yemen. On the other side of the Hill, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) offered the most resounding criticism yet of US policy in the Gulf, particularly toward the government of Saudi Arabia. Whereas the House members’ resolution was worded softly, Murphy took to the Senate floor to give an impassioned speech outlining his thoughts on why the United States is complicit in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Con. Res. 92. Rep. Tom Graves (R-Georgia) introduced a concurrent resolution, “Recognizing the deep and abiding friendship between the United States and Israel.” Unlike usual resolutions, should this one pass the House it would then be considered by the Senate, though it would still be nonbinding and would not need the president’s signature. The resolution expresses the sense of Congress that members are committed to maintaining and increasing ties between the two countries. Additionally, it specifies that members recognize the importance of Israel as an established home for the Jewish people. The resolution quickly garnered enough support to be slightly amended, quickly discharged from the HFAC, and adopted under suspended rules.

H.R. 4373. On Monday, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), Ed Royce (R-California), introduced a bill intended to bolster the United States’ ability to fight money laundering and terrorism financing. Royce has been a leading voice in this fight and he has appeared at multiple Washington events over the last several months to criticize Qatar for what he characterizes as a systemic regime of terror financing.

H.R. 1638. The House Financial Services Committee (HFSC) marked up a number of bills this week, including the Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act. The bill, as amended, mandates that the Secretary of State provide Congress with an annual report over the next two years outlining any and all holdings Iranian leaders may possess in US and foreign financial institutions, as well as any stakes those individuals may have in entities sanctioned by the US Treasury. After identifying this information, the report must offer recommendations for strengthening sanctions against the Iranian regime. The bill specifically designates 21 positions that should be investigated, including the Supreme Leader, the president, members of governmental and nongovernmental bodies like the Council of Guardians and Khatam al-Anbia Construction, and the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), its Quds Force, and other branches under the IRGC’s purview. This bill passed the committee by a vote of 43-16 and will move to the House floor for consideration.

H.R. 4324. Another bill the HFSC marked up is called the Strengthening Oversight of Iran’s Access to Finance Act. This bill aims to direct the Secretary of the Treasury to exercise more oversight on transactions between Iran and aviation production companies that operate in the United States. The bill would mandate reporting and certification requirements before issuing licenses for companies to sell commercial aircraft to Iran, increasing the likelihood that the secretary could cease issuing the licenses, thus effectively prohibiting Iran from replacing its antiquated civil aviation fleet. In the wake of large aviation deals with Boeing and European companies like Airbus, concerns have been raised about the Iranian regime secretly using civil flights to aid militants in Syria. While this legislation could ostensibly preclude Iran from obtaining new planes to carry out some of its more problematic policies, there are also concerns that a bill like this would fly in the face of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. One reason that the nuclear deal was attractive to Iran was because the United States agreed to allow companies to provide planes to Iran’s airline carriers for the first time in decades. Now, however, Congress could drastically reduce Iran’s ability to secure new planes, directly contradicting the commitments made under the Obama Administration. The bill passed the committee by a vote of 38-21 and will move to the House floor for consideration.

H.R. 2810. After hashing out differences between House and Senate bills in a conference meeting last week, the House voted to pass the reconciled National Defense Authorization Act for 2018. In total, the bill authorizes the Department of Defense to spend up to $692.1 billion, a roughly $26 billion increase from the White House’s request. Within the language there are several provisions relating to the Middle East in the final version, but most notably, the Department of Defense will be authorized to spend $705 million in support of Israel’s military and defense capabilities—a sum much greater than that requested by the Trump Administration and the second largest amount given in any one year. The bill was passed by the Senate on Wednesday and will head to the president’s desk for his signature.

H.R. 3542. On November 15, the HFAC held a markup of nine pieces of legislation, three of which focused solely on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The first one is titled the Hamas Human Shields Prevention Act. The purpose of the bill is to identify individuals responsible for violations of internationally recognized human rights laws that prohibit the use of human shields—civilians who are strategically placed to deter attacks on combatant and military positions—and to sanction individuals deemed guilty of such crimes. The sanctions outlined in the language consist of blocking assets in US jurisdictions and rejecting and/or revoking visas for entry into the United States. The president is allowed to waive any sanctions that he decides contravene US security interests.

H.R. 2712. Alongside H.R. 3542, the committee considered the Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act of 2017. This legislation was proposed shortly after academics and policymakers met in Washington to lambast Qatar and Iran for their support for Muslim Brotherhood entities—including Hamas—and only days before the official start of the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council crisis. This bill moves to sanction senior members of the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad and any country that provides material, financial, or logistical support to them. For a deeper look at the legislation, see ACW’s breakdown of the bill.

H.R. 1164. The final bill relating to the Occupied Palestinian Territories was the Taylor Force Act, which was amended with substitute language offered by Chairman Royce. The amendment was reportedly offered to alleviate concerns raised by the White House’s primary negotiator between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Jason Greenblatt. As ACW previously outlined, there were serious concerns among many lawmakers that stripping the Palestinian Authority (PA) of US support could actually harm US interests. In this respect, the legislation underwent some changes, watering down the effects of the bill. Now, even more exemptions have been carved out and the House version of the bill applies less strenuous requirements to the PA than its Senate counterpart. This bill and the others were agreed to en bloc via voice vote and Chairman Royce ordered the bills reported favorably out of committee. Royce also announced he will be seeking to consider the bills on the House floor under suspended rules—a kind of expedited process that limits debate but requires two-thirds of members’ support to pass.

H.R. 4391. Despite the aforementioned bills, one proposed piece of legislation is groundbreaking in its sympathy toward the Palestinian people. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) offered H.R. 4391, known as the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act, a bill that requires the Secretary of State to routinely certify that none of the billions of dollars of US assistance provided to Israel and its military is used to detain, interrogate, torture, or otherwise mistreat Palestinian children. The bill garnered the support of nine cosponsors as well as a number of churches and human rights advocates. Though the bill has significant support, it is uncertain how the legislation will fare given the general opposition to bills that could be perceived as hostile toward Israel. The bill was referred to the HFAC for consideration.

2) Correspondence

Representatives Pen Letter to Tillerson on Palestine. On November 14, it was reported that Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-California) and 10 other House Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him to pressure the Israeli government to refrain from demolishing homes in the West Bank villages of Susiya and Khan al-Ahmar. While the threat of demolition has existed since an Israeli Supreme Court decision on the case in 2015, the Trump Administration has taken a drastically more “hands-off” approach than its predecessor, refusing to comment on a decision it deems as a domestic Israeli question.

Bipartisan Letter Sent to Tillerson on Israel’s Security. The aforementioned was not the only letter Secretary Tillerson received this week. Forty-three members of Congress, from both parties, wrote to the secretary to express their concerns about Iran’s prolonged presence in Syria after the United States and Russia agreed to de-escalation zones near the Israel-Jordan border. Israel has taken issue with the arrangement, arguing that it allows Iran a permanent military presence in Syria.

US Congress, Israeli Knesset Team Up on Victory Declaration. A group of Israel’s Knesset members visited the United States this week and joined US representatives for a meeting of the 32-member Congressional Israel Victory Caucus and 16-member Knesset Israel Victory Caucus. Both caucuses are composed of members who represent the more hard-right elements of the pro-Israel camp. During this meeting, the two sides issued a Joint Declaration of Principles that, among other things, stated that the foremost obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians is the latter’s refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state and its rejection of “the right of self-determination for the Jewish People.”

II. Executive Branch

White House Looking to Defer Embassy Move Again. According to a recent report, President Donald Trump is expected to sign another waiver on December 1 to postpone the move of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. There have been serious lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and in the president’s inner circle to persuade Trump to forego the waiver and allow the move, but Trump is expected to cite security concerns and sign another waiver.

Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to defeat the Islamic State (IS), Brett McGurk, was in Amman, Jordan this week for a small group meeting between some members of the coalition. Mr. McGurk gave an update on the operations against IS in both Iraq and Syria and touted the coalition’s successes against the group since its formation in 2014. The rest of the members in attendance reaffirmed their commitment to the goals of the coalition, including a recently inaugurated Donor Consortium focused on early recovery efforts in Syria, particularly the provision of services in post-IS Raqqa.

White House Envoy Visits Israel to Assuage Fears. The letter, mentioned above, that voiced concerns about developments in Syria and the security considerations for Israel was sent at the same time that a White House national security delegation was in Tel Aviv for the purpose of assuaging fears in Israel about Iranian influence in neighboring Syria. It is expected that officials from both sides will focus on more forcefully countering Iranian influence near Israel’s borders and weakening Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Deputy Secretary Sullivan Visits Sudan, Tunisia. The State Department’s second-in-command, John Sullivan, made stops in Europe and Africa this week. His second visit was to Sudan, where he spoke with officials in Khartoum about its relations with North Korea, human rights concerns, and progress made on the implementation of a Five-Track Engagement Plan, signed last year, that exchanges sanctions relief for favorable progress in five areas of concern.

From Sudan, Deputy Secretary Sullivan shuttled north to Tunis to meet with Tunisian officials about bilateral political, economic, and security cooperation. Additionally, he was slated to meet with representatives of the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord in hopes of making progress toward realizing a sustainable political process for the people of Libya.