Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Senator Sanders Withdraws Yemen War Powers Resolution From Consideration. On December 13, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) withdrew S.J.Res.56, the Yemen War Powers Resolution that would have withdrawn US support from the war in Yemen, from the Senate floor after the Biden administration agreed to work with Sanders’ office to end the conflict. However, Sanders vowed to bring his resolution back for a vote if the Biden administration does not work to end the war.

Senators Debate US Policy Toward Yemen, Iran, and Saudi Arabia Ahead of War Powers Resolution. The Senate recently held an open debate on US policy toward Yemen ahead of voting on S.J.Res.56, which Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) ultimately pulled from consideration. On December 12, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) opposed the legislation, arguing that withdrawing US support from the war would help Iran—which supports the Houthis in Yemen—expand its influence. Citing the US Navy’s having stopped a maritime vessel from bringing explosive materials to Yemen from Iran in November, Senator McConnell said that Congress would be alleviating pressure on Tehran if it pulled the United States’ support for the war. On December 13, Senator Sanders addressed opposition to the resolution on the Senate floor, highlighting Saudi Arabia’s role in the war. Sanders expressed that the United States must “fundamentally reassess our relationship with the murderous regime of Saudi Arabia,” and called the kingdom “one of the very most dangerous countries on the face of the earth.” Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) spoke in support of the resolution, arguing that Iran’s influence in Yemen will continue to grow every year that the war persists.

House Passes Iran Hostages Congressional Gold Medal Act. On December 14, the House of Representatives passed S.2607, the Iran Hostages Congressional Gold Medal Act, under suspended rules. If signed into law, the bill will award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 53 American hostages who were held in Iran from 1979–1981. Senator Alex Padilla (D-California) sponsored the bill, and Representative Tom Suozzi (D-New York) sponsored companion legislation in the House.

Senate Passes FY2023 NDAA. On December 15, the Senate passed H.R. 7776, the Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), in an 83-11 vote, sending the massive defense bill to President Biden’s desk for review. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised the legislation for including approval of the Department of State Authorization Act of 2022, which will improve embassy security and procedures for US officials working with Iran and Syria. Risch also applauded the passage of the NDAA for including legislation on human trafficking, nuclear proliferation, and an integrated air and missile defense system in the Middle East. Meanwhile, progressive lawmakers have criticized the $858 billion defense bill, which was $85 billion higher than the Biden administration had originally requested.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senate Foreign Affairs Leaders Express Concerns to Tunisian President. On December 16, Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Tunisian President Kais Saied at the Capitol, one day before Tunisia’s parliamentary elections. The senators spoke “frankly” with President Saied about their concerns over the erosion of institutions and the expansion of presidential powers in Tunisia. They also made clear that US assistance to the country is contingent on democratic reforms beyond parliamentary elections.

Senate Foreign Affairs Leaders Express Concern about Lebanon’s Political Stalemate. On December 16, Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen calling on the Biden administration to hold Lebanon’s political class accountable for its current political stalemate. In the letter, the senators single out Hezbollah and its allies, including Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, calling on the Biden administration to adopt a “more forward leaning policy” for Lebanon. The senators specifically called for sanctions on Lebanon’s political and financial elite in partnership with the European Union’s sanctions framework for the country.

Representatives Ask Secretaries Blinken and Austin for Details on Retired Generals Working for Foreign Governments. On December 13, Representatives Suzan DelBene (D-Washington), Michael Cloud (R-Texas), and Jason Crow (D-Colorado) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III requesting information on the waivers that former US generals often receive to consult with foreign governments after retiring from the US military. The letter cites a recent Washington Post report on the large number of retired US generals advising foreign countries—and particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia–through US-based and international consulting firms. The representatives requested that the Departments of Defense and State release their annual report on waiver approvals and provide further transparency in the waiver approval process. This congressional inquiry follows a separate letter on the same subject from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Representative Sara Jacobs (D-California) that was sent last week requesting that several consulting firms that have employed retired US generals report to Congress.

Republican Senators Call on FBI to End Shireen Abu Akleh Investigation. On December 14, eight Senate Republicans led by Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation urging it to close its investigation into the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. After Israel revealed that Abu Akleh, a US citizen, had likely been killed unintentionally by the Israel Army, the FBI launched an investigation, which has since drawn criticism from pro-Israel lawmakers. In the letter, Senators Rubio and Grassley accuse the Department of Justice and the FBI of politicizing the investigation and express that Israel’s own probe had sufficiently determined the circumstances surrounding Abu Akleh’s death. The senators also warned that the investigation would harm the US-Israel relationship.

Senator Van Hollen Warns Against Incoming Far-Right Israeli Ministers. On December 11, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) spoke on the US-Israel relationship during an interview in which he discussed the FBI’s investigation into Shireen Abu Akleh’s death and the incoming Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Van Hollen expressed concern about incoming far-right ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, whom he described as “avowed racists who have been very involved in inciting violence against Palestinians.” Senator Van Hollen also said that the new government would undermine the prospect of a two-state solution, and vowed to pay close attention to settlement expansion and settler violence during its administration.

Anti-War Groups Urge Congressional Leadership to Repeal 2002 Iraq War Authorization. On December 14, 37 anti-war groups released a letter urging congressional leadership to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq (AUMF). In the letter, the groups said that the act must be repealed so it “cannot be misused to breathe new life into an unforeseen national security crisis, driven by an unchecked president.” In 2020, the Trump administration used the AUMF as legal justification for the assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani. President Biden has indicated his willingness to repeal the act, but little legislative progress has been made.

Jewish Groups Defend Representative Omar After Threats of Removal from the Foreign Affairs Committee. On December 12, eight Jewish organizations, including J Street and the New Israel Fund, released a joint statement condemning Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-California) for vowing to remove Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee over her criticism of Israel. In their statement, the groups said that while they may disagree with Omar’s views, they reject the idea that any of her actions should disqualify her from sitting on a committee.

Congressional Foreign Affairs Leaders Condemn Turkish Arrest of Opposition Leader. On December 14, Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) condemned Turkey’s sentencing of opposition leader and Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu. Imamoglu is being charged with insulting public officials, but the charge is reported to be politically-motivated given that it may disqualify him from running in next year’s presidential election. Menendez, a prominent US critic of Turkey, said, “[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan cannot bar his political opponents from office and at the same time pretend to share our values.” On December 15, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks (D-New York) condemned the arrest as well, calling on Turkey to “allow the people to decide their political future.”

Senator Merkley Calls for Release of Egyptian Political Prisoners During Sisi’s Visit. On December 15, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) called on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to release all political prisoners and stated that “the United States must call out human rights abuses wherever and whenever they occur—including from key security partners, like Egypt.” A day prior to Merkley’s criticism, President Sisi met with senior Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, during the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.

Representative Omar Calls on Biden to Pardon Drone Whistleblower. On December 16, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) urged the Biden administration to pardon Daniel Hale, a former military analyst who was sentenced to 45 months in prison for leaking government documents about US drone warfare and civilian deaths in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Prior to her calls for Hale’s pardon, Omar joined Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) in an attempt to amend the FY2023 NDAA to include whistleblower protections.

3) Briefings and Hearings

MENA Subcommittee Hosts Hearing on Humanitarian Landscape in Yemen. On December 14, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism hosted a hearing on the political and humanitarian landscape in Yemen. The hearing featured briefings from four experts on Yemen, who discussed the challenges to delivering humanitarian aid. Representatives asked questions about restrictions on the movement of women aid workers and women who are recipients of aid, the role of Saudi import restrictions, and methods to reunite Yemen’s economy. At the briefings, civil society representatives urged Congress to address gender-based violence in Yemen.

HFAC Hosts Classified Briefing on Iran. On December 15, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a classified briefing on Iran.


II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Calls on Biden to Improve US-Saudi Relations. On December 16, incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the Biden administration to reaffirm its relationship with Saudi Arabia after announcing his own intentions to normalize relations with the kingdom. In his announcement, Netanyahu called the US-Saudi alliance “the anchor of stability” in the region and vowed to speak with President Biden on the issue.

Biden Administration Commends UN Women Commission’s Decision to Remove Iran. On December 14, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan commended the United Nations’ vote to remove Iran from its Commission on the Status of Women following the regime’s crackdown on peaceful protesters. Sullivan argued that the United States is working hard to hold Iran accountable for its abuse of women and its recent destabilizing actions, including providing drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine. Sullivan vowed that the United States will “pursue all possible mechanisms of accountability against the Iranian regime” for its actions.

Senior Biden Administration Officials Meet with Egyptian President Sisi. On December 14, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the US Africa Leaders Summit. The officials discussed their commitment to the US-Egypt partnership, Egypt’s hosting of the COP27 climate conference, bilateral defense cooperation and regional defense issues, and the importance of human rights in Egypt. During his address at the summit, Sisi called on the United States to help Africa reduce food insecurity and end his country’s dispute with Ethiopia and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. On December 16, Sisi met with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to discuss water security, the US-Egypt defense relationship, and human rights. While in Washington, Sisi also met with major pro-Israel US Jewish groups, including J Street and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to discuss the trilateral US-Egypt-Israel relationship.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Meets with Tunisian President. On December 14, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Tunisian President Kais Saied during the US-Africa Leaders Summit. During their meeting, Blinken reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Tunisian democracy ahead of its parliamentary elections on December 17. Prior to the meeting, President Saied spoke to Blinken and other US State Department representatives, justifying his dissolution of the Tunisian parliament in March.

Deputy Secretary Benaim Comments on China-GCC Relations. On December 14, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim delivered a keynote address on China’s relations with countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). During his address, Benaim argued that the Biden administration’s stance on China in the Gulf does not resemble cold war competition, but rather that the administration is “actively seeking cooperation.” Benaim also stated that Chinese investments and economic relationships do not necessarily threaten US-Gulf relations, citing key votes in the United Nations where Gulf Arab states supported the United States in condemning Chinese actions towards Xinjiang and Taiwan.

State Department Condemns Conviction of Istanbul Mayor. On December 15, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price stated that the United States is “deeply troubled” by Turkey’s conviction of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and that the conviction is “inconsistent with respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law.” Price urged Turkey to end the use of its criminal “insult” laws and to uphold the right to freedom of expression and association, which includes creating an open environment for public debate.

State Department Calls for Accountability for Israel’s Killing of 15-Year-Old Palestinian. On December 13, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that the United States hopes to see accountability for the death of Jana Majdi Zakarneh, a 15-year-old Palestinian girl who was killed by Israeli forces on December 11 while trying to retrieve her cat from her roof. Incoming far-right Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir responded to the State Department’s comments, calling them “distressing.” Ben-Gvir, who is set to become minister of national security in the incoming Israeli government, then expressed his support for the Israeli Army.

Secretaries Blinken and Austin Meet with Djiboutian and Somali Presidents. On December 13, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met with Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud at the US-Africa Leaders Summit. The leaders discussed the countries’ close partnerships with US military forces and stressed the need for good governance, economic growth, and the professionalization of security forces in Djibouti and Somalia.

Law Enforcement Coordination Group Discusses Hezbollah Activity in Africa. On December 14 and 15, the State Department led the Law Enforcement Coordination Group (LECG) for its first regional meeting focusing on Hezbollah’s activity in Africa. Several African government delegations and organizations participated in the meeting, along with the United States, Israel, and Europol. Participants discussed Hezbollah’s fundraising mechanisms in Africa and its evasion of law enforcement. The LECG was formed by the United States and Europol in 2014 to improve global coordination in countering Hezbollah’s illicit activities.

Deputy Secretary Sherman Condemns Iranian Public Execution of Protester. On December 13, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman condemned Iran’s public execution of Majidreza Rahnavard, calling his trial and execution “outrageous.” Rahnavard was the second individual to be publicly executed during the mass protest movement in Iran.

State Department Commemorates Bahrain National Day. On December 16, Secretary of State Antony Blinken wished Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the Bahraini people a happy National Day. Secretary Blinken also said that the United States will continue to work with Bahrain on regional security, human trafficking, and economic relations.

State Department Calls for Expanded Political Participation in Tunisian Elections. On December 18, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price commented on Tunisia’s parliamentary elections, stating that “low voter turnout reinforces the need to further expand political participation.” Price’s comments follow reports that voter turnout in Tunisia was just 8.8 percent of eligible voters. Price called for inclusive and transparent reforms to empower an elected legislature, establish a constitutional court, and protect human rights in Tunisia.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield Meets with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. On December 18, while leading President Biden’s delegation to the closing ceremonies of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, US Ambassador the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield met with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield underscored the US-Qatar strategic partnership, the importance of Qatar’s role in Afghanistan and in Afghan relocation, and encouraged Qatar to commit to labor and human rights reforms.

3) Department of Defense

General Kurilla Meets with Iraqi Leaders. On December 13, General Michael “Erik” Kurilla visited Baghdad to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, Minister of Defense Thabet Mohammed Saeed, Chief of Defense Lieutenant General Abdul Amir Rashid Yarallah, and Commander of Joint Operations Command for Iraq Lieutenant General Qais Al-Muhammadawi al-Abbasi. The leaders discussed potential areas of military cooperation, developing the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces, and the ongoing fight against the so-called Islamic State.

US Navy Performs Joint Patrol of Arabian Gulf with Iraq and Kuwait. On December 11, the US Navy participated in a joint patrol of the Arabian Gulf with vessels from the Iraqi Navy and the Kuwaiti Coast Guard. This was the second joint patrol between the three countries in recent months.

US Military Detains IS Militants. On December 16, US Central Command (CENTCOM) Spokesperson Colonel Joe Buccino announced that the US military and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have conducted six partnered operations against the so-called Islamic State (IS), resulting in the detention of five IS operatives. The SDF had announced earlier this month that it would stop working with US forces following Turkish military action in northeastern Syria, but joint operations have since resumed.

US and Finland Host Global Coalition to Defeat-ISIS Meeting. On December 16, the United States and Finland hosted a political-military consultation meeting in Helsinki, Finland with senior defense officials from the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The officials discussed campaign priorities, the need to increase humanitarian assistance in liberated areas, and the need to repatriate former members of the so-called Islamic State (IS).

4) Department of Justice

FBI Takes Custody of Libyan Intelligence Operative Behind Lockerbie Bombing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Libyan intelligence operative Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir al-Marimi, who was charged with the 1988 bombing of an American plane flying over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 passengers, 190 of whom were Americans. On December 12, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall commended the Justice Department for al-Marimi’s arrest. On December 14, Libyan Public Prosecutor al-Siddiq al-Sour announced that Libya will investigate how the United States obtained al-Marimi, as the two countries do not have an extradition treaty. Al-Marimi’s family claims that he was kidnapped in Tripoli in November, and earlier this week, rival-Prime Minister Fathi Bashaga echoed these claims and called for al-Marimi’s release. On December 16, Libyan Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah admitted that his administration played a role in the transfer and claimed that the extradition was lawful.

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Criticizes FBI’s Hate Crime Report. On December 12, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) released a statement criticizing the FBI’s hate crime statistics for 2021. The organization cautioned against comparing this year’s statistics with those from previous years, as underreporting by law enforcement has been a common issue under the FBI’s new National Incident-Based Reporting System for collecting crime data. ADC states that the report’s data likely underestimates the number of incidents of hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans in 2021.

5) US Agency for International Development

USAID Celebrates Conclusion of $100 Million Agreement with ANERA in Palestine. On December 14, USAID and ANERA concluded a nine-year, $100 million Palestinian Community Infrastructure Development (PCID) program. The PCID program addressed basic infrastructure needs in the West Bank and Gaza, including water and sanitation, education, and health infrastructure.

USAID Announces $1 Million Digital Finance Project for Palestine. On December 14, USAID Mission Director Amy Tohill-Stull launched a new Digital Financial Services Pilot Activity in Palestine. The $1 million project aims to build global and local partnerships to facilitate digital payment services and to increase financial literacy and digital financial services for small and mid-size Palestinian enterprises.


III. Judicial Branch

US Federal Court Sentences Ex-Twitter Manager for Spying for Saudi Arabia. On December 14, a US district court in San Francisco sentenced Ahmad Abouammo to three and a half years in prison for spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia while he worked for Twitter. According to prosecutors, Abouammo sold sensitive information to Saudi officials while overseeing Twitter’s relationship with journalists and celebrities in the Middle East and North Africa.

Tunisian Citizens Sue Two Tunisian Officials in US Court for Torture. On December 14, two Tunisian citizens filed a civil lawsuit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia against Tunisian Minister of the Interior Taoufik Charfeddine and presidential guard member Khaled Yahyaoui over allegations of torture. The plaintiffs are suing the senior Tunisian officials for their abduction-style detention and torture of a lawyer and the extrajudicial killing of a protester during protests in January.

Unilever Resolves West Bank Ice Cream Sales Suit with Ben and Jerry’s. On December 15, Unilever announced that it had resolved a legal dispute with ice cream manufacturer Ben and Jerry’s over the company’s lawsuit to stop the sale of its business to a licensee in the occupied West Bank. Following a 2021 announcement that Ben and Jerry’s was going to end sales of its products in the West Bank, its parent-company Unilever announced that it would license sales to an Israeli individual, Avi Zinger, leading Ben and Jerry’s to file a lawsuit. Sources do not detail how the suit was resolved.