Is Congress Prepared to Respond to Netanyahu’s Annexation Plans?

In a speech on September 10, Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to annex part of the occupied West Bank in an effort to turn out support for his Likud Party in the run-up to the September 17 Knesset elections. The response on Capitol Hill has been largely muted and one-sided; only Democrats have commented on his promise by insisting on the two-state solution. Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement raises serious questions, most importantly: is he serious about executing a move that is largely viewed as illegal under international law?

Some observers would flatly assert that Netanyahu is serious about his intentions. After all, Israel’s right-wing government has been operating a kind of slow-motion annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank for years now. Israel’s expropriation of land that belongs to what would be a Palestinian state is well documented and its illegal settlement enterprise has been a thorn in the international community’s side for decades. So, it is logical—even expected—that Netanyahu and his Likudniks would pursue annexation to maintain power.

There are far-right elements in both Israel and the United States that view Netanyahu as too soft on the topic of annexation. For example, Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America actually responded skeptically to Netanyahu’s pledge, arguing that the prime minister has failed to realize the “Greater Israel” crowd’s aspirations too many times before. Aside from this far-right camp, many others in the United States—particularly on Capitol Hill—are not convinced that Netanyahu would actually undertake an act so brazenly illegal and one that is sure to serve as a stain on Israel’s standing in the international community. To many, the prime minister’s pledge is just pandering for votes ahead of arguably the biggest threat to his power in over a decade.

If this camp is wrong and a newly elected Prime Minister Netanyahu does fulfill his promise, is the United States interested or prepared to do anything about such a move? Early indications from the White House show it has little interest in pushing back. In fact, it may even be lending tacit support for the move, despite the fact that it could doom the Trump Administration’s yet-to-be unveiled “peace plan” and would represent a complete departure from long-standing US policy. At this point, therefore, it is unlikely that an administration that is unambiguously supportive of settlements and the “Greater Israel” vision would exert much pressure on Israel over the matter.

Congress seems woefully ill-prepared to exert any pressure either. Democrats and Republicans alike are opposed to any actions that might condition US military support for Israel on its pursuit of policies more in line with Washington’s. Furthermore, all but two members of Congress opposed efforts to exert economic pressure on Israel to change its policies (i.e., through Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). Some Democratic presidential candidates have expressed a willingness to cut off aid to Israel to express opposition to its policies, but at present, it is obvious that Congress is unwilling to do anything besides passing symbolic resolutions decrying the death of the two-state solution.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Sen. Jacky Rosen Talks Democratic Support for Israel. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) recently traveled to Israel and gave an interview to The Jerusalem Post to assert that US support for Israel is unwavering and bipartisan. Rosen is just the latest Democratic lawmaker who has felt obligated to combat the narrative pushed by President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans that paint Democrats as the “anti-Israel” political party.

Senators King, Young Visit Gulf States. This week Senators Angus King (I-Maine) and Todd Young (R-Indiana) traveled to the Arabian Gulf for trips to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. The trip, King said, was meant to allow the two to have “frank conversations with key regional players about security concerns and human rights protections.” As an example, King said that he and Young raised the murder of Jamal Khashoggi directly with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is largely believed to have ordered the journalist’s death.

2) Nominations

Kelly Craft to United Nations. On September 10, the full Senate voted 56-38 to confirm Kelly Craft as ambassador to the United Nations. Craft and her husband are well known financial supporters of President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). Despite her inexperience in diplomacy, she was confirmed as ambassador to Canada before being tapped to represent the United States in Turtle Bay. She was reportedly an absent representative in Ottawa, but she has expressed an interest in working at the United Nations to end humanitarian crises in places like Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. Craft will most probably be much less visible and confrontational at the United Nations than her predecessor, Nikki Haley.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Global Terrorism: Threats to the Homeland, Part I. On September 10, the House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing to assess the range of global terrorist threats facing the United States. Unsurprisingly, a great deal of time was spent on what was termed “Salafi-Jihadist” terrorism threats posed by groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. The witnesses confirmed what most experts believe: that though the groups have been reduced significantly over the years, they are by no means defeated and simply have different priorities at this point. Indeed, experts warn that if these terrorist groups are ignored, their strength could grow, particularly in destabilized countries. Surprisingly, however, the hearing also focused on domestic “white nationalist” terrorism. For the first time, and certainly since the September 11 attacks, the national security community—and even some members of Congress—are placing domestic terrorist threats at or above the level of terrorism typically associated in the United States as being exported from the Middle East.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Jason Greenblatt to Resign; Fate of Peace Deal in Limbo. It was announced on September 5 that Jason Greenblatt will resign his role as Special Envoy for International Negotiations and return to the private sector. Greenblatt has been working closely with White House advisor Jared Kushner on the proposal to solve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Many in Washington suspect that his resignation is the final nail in the coffin for a “peace plan”—an assumption the Trump Administration has refuted. That plan was already much maligned even before it was formally unveiled. Greenblatt will be replaced by Avi Berkowitz, a 29-year old Kushner assistant who also lacks the deep knowledge and understanding necessary for his portfolio on the team.

Israeli Officials Fear Trump Is Close to Securing Meeting with Rouhani. Haaretz reported this week that Israeli officials are fearful that President Trump is close to organizing a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. In fact, defense officials in Israel stated plainly that a meeting is a “done deal.” The Iranians, for their part, have consistently stated their unwillingness to meet with Trump at all, according to Ayatollah Khamenei, and most of them certainly would not meet with Trump without sanctions relief, as President Rouhani has stated a number of times. Interestingly, President Trump has reportedly entertained the idea of easing sanctions to facilitate a meeting; other outlets have noted that he is interested in supporting France’s initiative to offer Iran a $15 billion line of credit to bring Tehran back into compliance with the nuclear accord.

2) Department of State

Brian Hook Offered Money to Captain of Iranian Vessel. Brian Hook, the special envoy for Iran at the State Department, reportedly offered the captain of an Iranian oil tanker money if the captain navigated the ship and its cargo to a country that could then take control of it. The maneuver failed and the vessel eventually sailed to the coast of Syria where, according to the British, it offloaded its oil. The failed unorthodox approach led many to ridicule the stint as a “bribe” and an “email scam.”

This week, Hook also penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal calling Yemen “Iran’s Other Terror Front.” Hook’s piece contains some questionable assumptions, including that few in the international community have noticed Iran’s strategy in Yemen—despite that being a talking point since 2015—and that Iran is trying to turn the Houthi rebels in Yemen into another Hezbollah (most experts agree Iran does not actually have this type of leverage over the group). The piece represents another effort in the public relations aspect of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

David Schenker Visits Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tunisia, and Lebanon. David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, spent the week on his first trip to the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia he met with officials about US-Saudi relations and the ongoing security situation on the peninsula, particularly as a result of the continued fighting in Yemen. Schenker told reporters that the United States is working to end the conflict and trying to establish lines of communication with the Houthi rebels.

Then in Tunisia, Schenker met with officials, including interim President Mohamed Ennaceur, to talk about US-Tunisian relations. Tunisia is home to Washington’s diplomatic post to Libya, so Schenker also used time there to meet with the UN Special Envoy to Libya and discuss the security situation in that country. In Lebanon, Schenker met with a host of critical political actors to discuss US-Lebanese relations, the effects of US sanctions on the Lebanese economy, and the maritime dispute between Lebanon and Israel.

At the time of this publication, little has been publicized about Schenker’s visit to Jordan except to note that he is there to discuss bilateral relations. And although Iraq was not on the official itinerary, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry released a statement saying Schenker and the foreign minister met, presumably in Iraq, during the undersecretary’s swing through the region.

State Department Clears Egypt for $1.3 Billion in Foreign Military Financing. This week, Al Monitor reported that officials at the State Department cleared the way for Egypt to receive the entire $1.3 billion in foreign military financing (FMF) that was appropriated in fiscal year 2019. During the budget cycle, Congress usually ties a portion of FMF money to Egypt’s treatment of human rights—in this case it conditions $300 million on satisfactory respect of those rights. For fiscal year 2019, if the State Department could not certify that Egypt had made progress toward ending human rights abuses (like arbitrary imprisonment of political dissidents and journalists), Cairo was to lose out on that $300 million. However, the bill laying out the budget provided a security waiver, which Pompeo invoked, saying that providing Egypt the full $1.3 billion is in the United States’ national security interest.

3) Department of Defense

US Commences Joint Patrol on Syria Border; Questions Remain About Safe Zone. The US military began a joint patrol with its Turkish counterpart on the Turkish-Syrian border this week. Although the Pentagon has suggested otherwise, the Department of Defense has not yet reached an agreement with the Turks on the parameters of a safe zone that would serve as a buffer between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds that control northeastern Syria.

4) Department of the Treasury

On Anniversary of 9/11 Attacks, Treasury Sanctions 15 for Ties to Terrorist Groups. On September 10, the Treasury Department issued a statement saying that it had levied a new round of sanctions on 15 individuals and entities it deems are connected to terrorist groups. The statement said the department has been “[e]quipped with new tools from President Trump’s recently updated Executive Order 13224, which became effective today” and that it would target individuals and entities with ties to Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. Like most sanctions, these latest ones will block any of the designees’ assets in the United States. However, the “new tools” referred to in the statement includes a “secondary sanction” provision that is meant to discourage third parties from working with the designated entities by threatening sanctions for any entity that has exposure to the United States.

III. Judicial Branch

US Court of Appeals Hears Arguments in Shatsky v. Palestine Liberation Organization. On September 9, the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC heard oral arguments in a case known as Shatsky v. Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Shatsky and the other plaintiffs are taking civil action against the PLO because the plaintiffs assert that the organization provided resources and support to individuals who are believed to be responsible for the deaths of two Americans in a 2002 suicide bombing in the occupied West Bank. This case is relevant because it is being argued based on a US law that, in short, says foreign entities can be held liable for harming or killing US nationals. It will be interesting to see how the court rules, as similar cases in the past have been ruled in the PLO’s favor due to what the courts consider a lack of jurisdiction. These precedents have frustrated both the families seeking justice and the lawmakers, who passed a bill to shore up the Anti-Terrorism Act through the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act. The latter bill resulted in the Palestinian Authority swearing off all US support, though, in order to avoid the negative consequences of the legislation.