International Legal Pressure on Israel Prompts Sharp Criticism from Biden, Congress

The May 20 announcement from International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Khan that he had applied to the court for arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant immediately drew sharp criticism from the United States. (Khan also applied for warrants for Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed al- Masri (AKA Mohammed Deif), and Ismail Haniyeh.) The White House quickly released a statement decrying the move against Israel as “outrageous.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement called the arrest warrants for Israeli leaders “shameful” and reiterated the US position that the “ICC has no jurisdiction over this matter.” Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller later added that the United States does not believe the ICC has jurisdiction “because the Palestinian people do not represent a state, and that includes the leaders of Hamas.”

Congressional Republicans and Democrats echoed the criticism. Efforts to codify the administration’s position that the United States does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC  took shape in the form of Rep. Andy Biggs’s (R-AZ) H.Res.1253 and a bipartisan Senate resolution. A bipartisan statement led by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, condemned the ICC’s action against Israel as running “contrary to the promotion of rule of law globally.” The signatories added that they will “work in a bipartisan manner to strenuously object to the ICC’s actions against our ally, Israel, and take appropriate steps to help Israel and protect American personnel from future ICC action.” Adding to the chorus of criticism was Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA), who declared that “Congress is reviewing all options, including sanctions, to punish the ICC and ensure its leadership faces consequences if they proceed.” The possible actions Congress could take include issuing legislation to impose sanctions on ICC officials. To this end, Congress is likely to revisit Rep. Chip Roy’s (R-TX) and Elise Stefanik’s (R-NY)  “Illegitimate Court Counteraction Act” and a Senate companion version of the bill; a Senate bill to prohibit any US cooperation with and financial assistance to the ICC was also introduced last week.

The week’s end saw additional international legal pressure on Israel. On Friday, May 24, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to immediately stop its military offensive in Rafah and keep the Rafah border crossing open for humanitarian assistance. Members of Congress were quick to criticize the ICJ’s newest provisional measures. Taking to, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) encouraged Israel to “ignore” the ICJ, and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA) accused the court of fostering an “anti-Israel bias.” On May 24, SFRC Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) also condemned the news, stating that “the ICJ is both morally and structurally bankrupt, and the United States should immediately cut off its funding to this prejudiced organization.”

Also Happening in Washington Last Week…

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

HFAC Holds Markup on Key Legislation. On May 22, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HFAC) held a markup to consider key legislation, including H.R.8437, which seeks to prevent the US President from pausing or suspending in any way the delivery of defense articles or services to Israel. Chair Michael McCaul (R-TX) spoke out in support of the bill, criticizing the Biden administration for “circumventing congressional intent” in what he called an “arms embargo” on Israel.

Pressure on Student Protestors Continue. On May 21, Rep. Rudy Yakym (R-IN) introduced H.R.8468, which would prevent students and faculty who have been expelled or fired due to their participation in “pro-Hamas, anti-American” campus protests from being eligible for federal student loans forgiveness. On May 23, Rep. Andrew Ogles (R-TN) introduced H.R.8549, which would render any individual convicted of a crime on a college campus after October 7 ineligible from public service loan forgiveness.

Rep. Jacobs Introduces Bill to Limit Arms Sales to UAE. On May 22, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-CA) introduced H.R.8501, which would prohibit sales of certain US defense articles to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) unless it ends its material support to the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan.

Resolution Seeks End of US Involvement on Gaza Humanitarian Pier. On May 23, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced S.J. Res.89, which would “direct the termination” of the use of the US armed forces in the Gaza humanitarian pier operation.

Bill to Expedite Defense Exports to Israel Introduced. On May 23, Sen. Cruz introduced S.4408, which seeks to “ensure the timely approval of requests to export defense articles and provide defense services to the State of Israel and the fulfillment of each such agreement.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Mast Requests Record of Interaction Between Department of State and Pro-Palestine Groups. On May 22, Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) sent a letter to Secretary of State Blinken requesting information about whether the Department of State met with representatives of “radical pro-Hamas” groups prior to the Biden administration’s recent decision to suspend delivery of certain weapons to Israel.

Letter Pushes HHS Secretary Over Campus Protests. On May 23, a Republican-led letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra “raised concerns over how HHS is ensuring that research universities are preventing harassment and discrimination.” Citing “antisemitic” campus protests around the country, letter threatens to cut federal funding for university research.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Secretary Blinken Testifies at Four Congressional Hearings. Secretary Blinken testified at four congressional hearings last week, appearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate Appropriations Committee, the House Appropriations Committee, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. At each hearing, Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s position on Israel’s war on Gaza, maintaining that the administration’s support is ironclad while expressing concern about an Israeli major military operation in Rafah. Republicans used their time to criticize the administration’s recent pause on certain bombs to Israel. Democratic and Republican members of the different committees also rebuked the ICC’s recent decision to pursue legal action against Israeli officials, which Blinken similarly condemned.

Senate Appropriations Holds Hearing on Army Budget. On May 21, the Senate Appropriations Committee held a hearing on the administration’s Fiscal Year 2025 (FY25) budget request for the Army. Committee members discussed the Army’s munitions stockpiles in the context of security assistance to Israel, threats posed by Iran and its proxies, and recent operations to construct the floating pier on the Gaza coast.

HFAC Holds Budget Hearing for Near Eastern Affairs. On May 23, HFAC held a subcommittee hearing on the FY25 budget request for Near Eastern Affairs. The hearing saw testimonies from Barbara A. Leaf, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and Jeanne Pryor, deputy assistant administrator for the Middle East at USAID.

House Committee on Education and the Workforce Continues Investigation of Campus Protests. On May 23, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a full committee hearing entitled “Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos.” The hearings featured testimonies from university officials, whom committee members questioned about their responses to the student protest movement and pushed for a greater crackdown on campus activism.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Jake Sullivan Meets with Palestinian Leadership in the West Bank. On May 19, White House National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan met in Ramallah with Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary General Hussein Al Sheikh and Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa. They discussed the status of Gaza ceasefire/hostage negotiations and the need to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into the Strip. They also discussed the importance of international partnerships to support the new PA government, which Sullivan commended for its efforts to maintain stability in the West Bank.

Sullivan Meets with Israeli Officials. On May 20, NSA Sullivan met with Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Chief of Defense Herzi Halevi, and War Cabinet members Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot in Israel. According to the White House readout, while conveying the United States’ “unwavering” support for Israel, Sullivan reiterated the “President’s longstanding position” on Israeli military operations in Rafah. Sullivan also discussed humanitarian concerns and pushed for a surge of assistance into Gaza. Sullivan’s trip also saw him continue to promote a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to White House National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby at a May 20 press gaggle, during the trip Sullivan made “significant progress on the bilateral elements of what we believe would be a truly historic deal that would lead to a more integrated region…which the President believes is better for security and stability, not just for the United States and our national security interests, but the interests of those who are living in the region.”

President Biden Renews 2003 State of Emergency Declaration in Iraq. On May 20, the White House announced that President Biden had extended the determination of “national emergency with respect to the stabilization of Iraq declared in Executive Order 13303 of May 22, 2003.” The statement described the rationale as continued “obstacles to the orderly reconstruction of Iraq, the restoration and maintenance of peace and security in the country, and the development of political, administrative, and economic institutions in Iraq [that] continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

Biden Administration “Engaging” Israel on Rafah Strike That Killed 45 Gazans. The Biden administration reportedly is “actively engaging” with Israeli military officials after Sunday’s Israeli airstrike that killed 45 people and wounded more than 200 in a tent camp near Rafah. A White House national security spokesperson told Axios, “The devastating images following the IDF strike in Rafah last night that killed dozens of innocent Palestinians are heartbreaking. Israel has a right to go after Hamas … but as we’ve been clear, Israel must take every precaution possible to protect civilians.” Axios also reported that “the White House is in the process of determining what exactly happened in order to decide if the circumstances warrant U.S. action.”

2) Department of State

Department Reaffirms Support for Iranian People After Death of President. On May 20, the Department of State Spokesperson Matthew Miller offered condolences for the death that day of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian, and other Iranian officials in a helicopter crash in the northwest of the country. “As Iran selects a new president, we reaffirm our support for the Iranian people and their struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the statement read. At a press briefing on May 20, Miller added that “our fundamental approach to Iran has not changed and will not change…And we will continue to confront the Iranian regime’s support for terrorism, its proliferation of dangerous weapons, and its advancement of… its nuclear program in ways that have no credible civilian purpose.” The Department’s condolences drew some criticism from Congress as Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI) introduced H.Res.1246 condemning the statement.

US Special Envoy for Yemen Visits Gulf Partners. Department of State Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled last week to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman to “discuss steps to de-escalate the current situation and support the Yemeni people.”

Blinken Speaks with Israeli Minister. On May 24, Secretary Blinken spoke with Israeli Minister Benny Gantz. According to the Department of State readout, Blinken reiterated the administration’s position on a major operation in Rafah and discussed the importance of increasing levels of humanitarian assistance, especially through the reopening of the Rafah crossing. He also outlined the “US vision for durable peace and security for Israel through further integration in the region and emphasized the importance to Israel’s security of planning for the post-conflict period in Gaza.”

3) Department of Defense

Defense Secretary Austin Reaffirms US Support for Israel. On May 22, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant about the situation in Gaza. According to the Department of Defense readout, the Secretary reaffirmed US support for Israel and discussed “how best to defeat Hamas’ Rafah remnants while minimizing civilian harm.” Austin also encouraged the Israeli government to finalize talks with Egypt to reopen the Rafah Crossing for humanitarian aid.

United States and Kuwait Hold Joint Military Commission. On May 20-21, the United States and Kuwait held the 15th Joint Military Commission (JMC). The meetings featured discussions on the interoperability of US and Kuwaiti forces, bilateral cooperation on border and maritime security, and foreign military sales and procurement, among other issues.

Officials Say Too Little Aid is Getting into Gaza. On May 23, Pentagon and USAID officials answered questions about the recently constructed humanitarian pier in Gaza. Officials noted that just over 500 metric tons of humanitarian supplies had been distributed so far. Despite the addition of the maritime corridor, however, humanitarian assistance into Gaza has plummeted in the last month. Daniel Dieckhaus, the director of USAID’s Levant Response Management Team stated, “Conditions on the ground have not dramatically improved. And in the past two weeks we have seen the vital Rafah border crossing close and remain closed, resulting in aid supply declining at a time when it is critical we see more aid move.” Dieckhaus added, “This humanitarian maritime corridor alone is not enough to meet the staggering needs in Gaza, but it is an important addition. It is meant to augment, not replace or substitute for land crossings into Gaza.”

4) United States Agency for International Development

USAID Announces Initiatives in Morocco. On May 20, USAID announced the launch of the Cooperative Resilience Program to “catalyze sustainable economic development and resilience to climate impacts” in Morocco. Wrapping up her visit to the country on May 22, Administrator Samantha Power also announced initiatives in the areas of food security and youth empowerment.