Sudan Claims Resolution Act. On December 21st, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), released a statement about reaching a deal with the Trump Administration to resolve lingering issues regarding Sudan’s removal from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism and the reestablishment of Khartoum’s sovereign immunity. While the government’s sovereign immunity will be reinstated, the legislation does not preclude ongoing litigation by the survivors and families of the September 11, 2001 from going forward.
The policy was included as part of the fiscal year 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act which funded the federal government to the tune of $1.4 trillion and budgeted funds for numerous federal agencies, including the intelligence community and the departments of defense and state.
FY 21 Consolidation Appropriations Act. The aforementioned budget included a number of policies pertinent to the Middle East and North Africa. The nearly 5,600-page piece of legislation includes provisions allocating economic and security assistance to Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Yemen, Oman, and the counterterrorism missions in Iraq and Syria.
As is typical with end-of-year spending bills like this one, the legislation also includes language that not only appropriates funds for the government to spend, but also sets forth new policy specifics. In addition to the aforementioned Sudan Claims Resolution Act, the massive omnibus bill includes a revised version of the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act which is intended to give the government more power to provide assistance to American citizens detained or held captive abroad.
No Taxpayer Dollars Used to Enact Sanctions Against Civilian Populations. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) introduced a resolution expressing the sense of the House that taxpayer money should not be used to enforce sanctions that harm civilians. This is particularly timely as activists in Middle East countries like Iran and Syria and outside the region argue that broad US sanctions—no matter the Trump Administration’s declarations to the contrary—bring immense suffering on civilians in those countries despite being tailored to target the regimes. The resolution has little chance of passing a House vote, but it is indicative of a broader movement in the Democratic Party against the United States’ dependence on sanctions that often hurt those they are not intended to harm.
Calling for the Global Repeal of Blasphemy, Heresy, and Apostasy Laws. Senator James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and eight of his Senate colleagues introduced S. Res. 458, calling on countries around the world to reverse laws outlawing things like blasphemy and apostasy. As the resolution outlines, 18 states in the Middle East and North Africa have these kinds of laws on the books, which exposes them to additional pressure regarding international religious freedom if the Senate adopts the resolution.
2) Hearings and Briefings
Speaker Pelosi, Rep. Deutch Talk US Support for Israel. At a virtual event hosted by the Israel Policy Forum, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) spoke about Congressional Democrats’ support for Israel and the need to keep alive the hope of a viable two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Pelosi maintained that there is “ironclad” bipartisan support for Israel in Washington and she called on all sides to avoid taking unilateral steps that would make peace harder to achieve.
Deutch followed by offering support for the Abraham Accords but criticizing other aspects of the Trump Administration’s policies. He argued that Washington must reinstate aid to the Palestinians and do a better job of reaching out to and engaging with Palestinian leaders. He also expressed reticence about what “side deals” the Trump team may have agreed to with Arab states in exchange for their normalizing ties with Israel.
3) Personnel and Correspondence
Senator Cruz Wants JCPOA Submitted to Senate for Treaty Vote. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wrote to President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week urging them to submit US participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to the Senate for ratification as a treaty. Failure to submit the JCPOA to the Senate as a treaty has been one of Republican lawmakers’ greatest criticisms of former President Barack Obama’s diplomacy with Iran, but now Senator Cruz wants this effort undertaken in order to preclude President-elect Joe Biden from rejoining and abiding by the nuclear deal with Iran. Cruz intimates that if Trump submitted the JCPOA for a Senate vote, it would fail and then Biden would be unable to fulfill US commitments under the deal. However, it is unclear why, if the Senate rejected the deal that President Trump already undermined unilaterally, a soon-to-be President Biden could not reverse that executive action and rejoin the deal.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
Jared Kushner Leads Delegation to Israel and Morocco. This week, White House advisor Jared Kushner led a delegation of American officials to Israel in order to escort a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat, Morocco. Upon arrival, Kushner and members of the Israeli delegation met with Moroccan King Mohammed VI and Moroccan and Israeli officials signed a declaration to reopen liaison offices closed in 2000, a move that is below the level of full diplomatic relations. Rabat’s decision to normalize relations with Israel was followed by a commitment by the Trump Administration to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara and an agreement to sell $1 billion in armed drones to the kingdom.
All of Kushner’s efforts and those of the Trump Administration to entice Arab states to normalize relations with Israel could be at risk once the Biden Administration is inaugurated in January 2021. Some predicted that President-elect Joe Biden’s presumptive Secretary of State Tony Blinken will explore options to roll back the generous policies struck between the Trump team and Arab capitals in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel.
2) Department of State
Sec. Pompeo Speaks with Turkish FM, KRG PM, and Announces New Sanctions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a pair of phone calls with regional partners and he announced the imposition of new sanctions on the Syrian and Iranian regimes. Pompeo spoke with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu about US-Turkish relations following Washington’s imposition of sanctions on Ankara. According to the readout, Pompeo urged Cavusoglu and the rest of the Turkish government to resolve the government’s use of the Russian-made S-400 missile system that prompted the new sanctions.
In addition, Pompeo spoke with the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Masrour Barzani, about security and governing cooperation between Kurdistan and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. According to Al-Monitor, Barzani and his team formally asked the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition to deploy observers on Iraqi Kurdistan’s border with the Kurdish-controlled northeast of Syria.
When it comes to sanctions, the State Department announced this week a new set on entities supporting Iran’s petroleum industry, as well as the regime in Syria. Chinese and Vietnamese entities and individuals were targeted for allegedly conducting transactions with agents of Iran’s petroleum and petrochemical sectors. Meanwhile, Washington blacklisted Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, members of her family, the Central Bank of Syria, and key advisers to President Assad.
Special Envoy Carr Explores Criticism of Israel, Modern Anti-Semitism. The Trump Administration’s Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combatting Anti-Semitism, Elan Carr, participated in a webinar to explore modern anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and criticism of Israel. First, Carr championed the Trump Administration’s decision that saw the federal government adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. This move is controversial to many because, among other things, the definition plainly states that anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic.
As Carr put it, anti-Zionism—or “hatred of the Jewish state,” as he repeatedly called it—is hatred of the Jewish people and hence it is anti-Semitic. He also essentially argued that, despite saying that it was acceptable to criticize Israeli policies, criticism of Israel’s human rights abuses, which he said don’t exist, and efforts to hold Israel accountable for its actions (e.g., through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement) are inherently anti-Semitic. He even went so far as to call Congress’ two public supporters of BDS anti-Semitic, though he did not mention Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) by name.
Carr’s understanding of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and the BDS movement are extremely problematic for free speech advocates and pro-Palestinian movements in the United States and in the Middle East. The implications of his preferred policies significantly hamper efforts to pressure the Israeli government to change its policies and they could see a chilling effect that stifles criticism of Israel in Washington and elsewhere.
UN Ambassador Craft Travels to Israel, Assistant Secretary Schenker Warns of China. US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft arrived in Israel on December 22 in order to meet with her Israeli counterpart Gilad Erdan, among others. Craft spoke with officials about the need to reform the UN Human Rights Council, which critics accuse of having a bias against Israel.
While Craft visited Israel in-person, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker participated in a virtual briefing where he warned the Israeli government that it must do more to protect its economy from China. According to Schenker, Chinese investment in Israel’s tech sector could potentially undermine US-Israeli national security cooperation.
State Department Considering Immunity for Saudi Crown Prince. After Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) was named in a lawsuit by a former top Saudi intelligence official, Saad Aljabri, the State Department reportedly explored granting the controversial Saudi prince legal immunity that would see him exonerated as a defendant in the case. After a formal request from the Saudi embassy, officials at the State Department are considering moves that would protect MbS from any liability for what Aljabri has said was an attempt to have him killed.
3) Department of Defense
Gen. Mark Milley Travels to Israel. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, visited Israel on December 18 where he met with (now caretaker) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and the Chief of Staff for the Israel Defense Forces. The officials talked about US-Israeli defense cooperation and the general state of threats in the region, particularly from Iran. Milley’s trip abroad included visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE where he also spoke with officials about threats Tehran poses in the region.
4) Department of Justice
Attorney General Barr Charges Libyan for Role in Lockerbie Bombing. Outgoing Attorney General Bill Barr announced on December 22 that the Department of Justice will bring charges against a Libyan man for allegedly building the bomb that took down Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, United Kingdom. The department accused Abu Agela Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi, a former member of the Libyan
intelligence service, with delivering the bomb that destroyed the aircraft, an act for which the Libyan government under former dictator Muammar Qadhafi took responsibility. Al-Marimi is currently in Libyan custody, but Barr has urged Tripoli to hand the suspect over for prosecution in the United States.