Washington Policy Weekly: US-Israel Brace for Conflict Escalation

1) US Officials Recommit to Supporting Israel in Fight with Hamas.

US officials continued to state their support for Israel’s war efforts in Gaza last week. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III held regular calls with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant as reports emerged that the US Army is sending urban warfare experts to advise Israel ahead of its planned invasion of the Gaza Strip. President Joe Biden also spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, affirming that Israel is within its right to respond to Hamas’s attack. Additionally, the Department of the Treasury and the State Department announced new sanctions against Hamas-linked officials and financial networks.

With respect to Congress, White House National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby reiterated the importance of meeting Biden’s supplemental funding request that calls for the delivery of $14.3 billion in emergency funding for Israel. Congress has already responded positively to the request. In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) declared that he would make it a priority to “act quickly, decisively, and most importantly, with strong bipartisan conviction” to meet the administration’s request. And on October 25, an emergency supplemental appropriations bill for Israel, S.3135, was introduced by Senate Republicans. Republicans have demonstrated a willingness to support emergency aid for Israel but not for Biden’s other priorities in his supplemental request, such as funding for Ukraine and Taiwan. In the House, newly-appointed Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) made it his first order of business to bring H.Res.771 to the floor for a vote. The resolution, which condemns Hamas’s attack and declares the House’s support for Israel, overwhelmingly passed 412-10. Representative Cori Bush (D-MO), one of the few “no” votes, expressed her disappointment that the resolution made no mention of Palestinian civilians who have died as a result of Israel’s operations in Gaza.

2) Efforts Afoot to Mitigate Regional Escalation.

As Israel’s war on Gaza continues, US officials are preparing for the possibility of the conflict spreading throughout the region. Senior State Department officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, met with regional leaders to discuss ways to temper the current conflict. Diplomatic efforts to mitigate the conflict’s expansion have also been accompanied by adjustments to the US military posture. It was reported that Israel has delayed its ground invasion of Gaza at President Biden’s request as the military looks to bolster its defenses and readiness. Following attacks in Iraq and Syria that injured more than 20 US troops, additional air defenses and a squadron of F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft were deployed to US bases in the region. Additional forces are set to bolster US regional deterrence efforts and send a message that the United States is prepared to protect its troops abroad in anticipation of a looming escalation.

This message was fully operationalized on Thursday when it was announced that US forces had launched “self-defense strikes” on two facilities in eastern Syria used by Iran’s affiliated groups. Addressing the strikes, Secretary Austin stated that “These precision self-defense strikes are a response to a series of ongoing and mostly unsuccessful attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militia groups that began on October 17.” The strikes follow earlier comments made by President Biden, who warned the Iranian leadership that “if they continue to move against [US] troops, we will respond.” Biden’s message echoed similar remarks from Blinken earlier in the week.

3) Calls for “Humanitarian Pauses” and a Ceasefire Are Met with Resistance.

The humanitarian situation intensified in Gaza as the death toll exceeded 8,000. In response to the situation, the State Department maintained that the delivery of humanitarian assistance remains a priority, noting that there are ongoing talks between US officials with the United Nations and regional partners to facilitate aid access into Gaza. However, the provision of humanitarian assistance has been met with some pushback. State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller relayed that Israel has expressed concerns that fuel being brought into Gaza is being diverted to Hamas. These concerns were shared by some US lawmakers as Representatives Andrew Ogles (R-TN) and Claudia Tenney (R-NY) introduced H.R.6060 and H.R.6066 respectively, which target the work of international organizations and humanitarian actors whom the representatives accuse of collaborating with or supporting terrorist entities.

With efforts to get aid into Gaza proving difficult, officials reiterated their expectation that Israel minimize civilian casualties and conduct its operations in accordance with international law. At the United Nations Security Council, Secretary Blinken called on Israel to “take all possible precautions to avoid harm to civilians,” including a call for the consideration of humanitarian pauses. Distinct from a ceasefire, a humanitarian pause would be a temporary and localized cessation of hostilities strictly for humanitarian purposes. White House officials echoed Blinken’s sentiment before restating that there is no consideration being made of a potential ceasefire. As John Kirby stated, a “ceasefire right now really only benefits Hamas.”

The administration’s refusal to pursue a ceasefire has elicited strong criticism. So too has its rhetoric about the death toll in Gaza. Addressing civilian deaths, the White House plainly asserted that “This is war. It is combat. It is bloody. It is ugly, and it’s going to be messy. And innocent civilians are going to be hurt going forward.” The Department of State said that it is an “unfortunate byproduct of this campaign that there are civilians that are unfortunately harmed and civilians that are killed.” This messaging was brought under further scrutiny on Wednesday as President Biden publicly cast doubt on the number of civilian casualties being reported by Hamas. White House officials later reaffirmed the president’s statement, saying that “We can’t

take anything coming out of Hamas, including the so-called Ministry of Health, at face value.” The administration’s stance on the issue has received considerable backlash from the international human rights community, which maintains that civilian death tolls reported by Hamas are usually accurate.

Also Happening This Week in Washington…

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Senate Passes Resolutions Targeting Anti-Semitism and Pro-Palestinian Demonstrations in Higher Education. On October 26, the senate passed S.Res.418 and S.Res.437. The resolutions, which largely conflate anti-Zionist activism on college campuses with bigotry toward Jewish students, condemn antisemitism in the fallout of Hamas’s October 7 attack.

House Republicans Move to Censure Representative Tlaib. House Republicans introduced a resolution to censure Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) for her support of Palestinians amid Israel’s war on Gaza. The resolution accuses Representative Tlaib of participating in “antisemitic activity, sympathizing with terrorist organizations, and leading an insurrection at the United States Capitol Complex.” Tlaib has been a vocal critic of the Biden administration’s handling of the current conflict.

Representative Clyde Reintroduces Bill to Designate Iran-Backed Houthis as an FTO. On October 25, Representative Andrew Clyde (R-GA) introduced H.R.6046, the Standing Against Houthi Aggression Act. The bill would require Secretary of State Antony Blinken to re-designate Ansar Allah, also known as the “Houthis,” as a foreign terrorist organization.

Representative McClain Introduces Bill Prohibiting Biden from Rejoining JCPOA. On October 25, Representative Lisa McClain (R-MI) introduced H.R.6057, the Iran Nuclear Verification Act. The bill would prevent the United States from rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or any nuclear agreement with Iran until UN nuclear inspectors receive full access to Iranian nuclear sites and finalize a report on their findings.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Representatives Comer and Greene Write Letter to Secretary Austin, Request Briefing on DoD Process for Tracking Weapons. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability Chairman James Comer (R-KY) and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III requesting a briefing on the Department of Defense’s “processes for tracking weapons and preventing improper diversion.” The lawmakers expressed concern regarding reports that “Hamas and other terrorist organizations may have obtained American-made weapons.”

3) Briefings and Hearings

House Committee on Homeland Security Assesses Iranian Threat to US Homeland Security. On October 25, the House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing to assess threats posed by Iran to US homeland security in light of Hamas’s October 7 attack. In an opening statement, Committee Chairman Mark Green (R-TN) condemned Iran as “the [financial] force behind Hamas” and detailed Iranian influence in South America. Green suggested that Iran may be supporting suspected terrorists trying to cross the US southern border.

House Committees Hold Hearings on Iran. Last week, the House Financial Services Committee held separate hearings on Iran’s access to and allocation of funds. The Subcommittee on National Security, Illicit Finance and International Financial Institutions examined sanctions on Iran and Hamas. Later in the week, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing to look into Iran’s support for groups in the Middle East. As outlined by Chair Bill Huizenga (R-CA), the hearing focused on ways that lawmakers can push for greater transparency regarding to the president’s sanctions campaign in addition to what Congress can do to “cripple [Iran’s] economy” amid its support for Hamas and other organizations hostile to US interests. And on Thursday, the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a hearing entitled “Combating the Networks of Illicit Finance and Terrorism,” which focused on Hamas’s financing.

4) Nominations

SFRC Advances Ambassadorial Nominations for Israel, Egypt, and Somalia to the Full Senate. On October 25, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) advanced President Biden’s ambassadorial nominations for Israel, Egypt, and Somalia, in addition to other nominees. SFRC Chairman Ben Cardin (D-MD) celebrated the committee’s work, emphasizing the urgency of confirming Jack Lew as US Ambassador to Israel. Chairman Cardin also urged the prompt confirmation of Herro Mustafa Garg as US Ambassador to Egypt “at a time when we are working closely with the Egyptian government on the conflict in Israel.”

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Speaks with Crown Prince bin Salman, Continues Support for Israel-Saudi Normalization Amidst Conflict. On October 24, President Biden spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman about the “situation in the Middle East region.” The leaders also affirmed the importance of working toward a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, building on US-led efforts between Saudi Arabia and Israel in recent months.

2) State Department

State Department Observes 40th Anniversary of Beirut Marine Corps Barracks Bombing. On October 23, Secretary of State Antony Blinken observed the 40th anniversary of a Hezbollah member’s suicide attack on the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 US military personnel.

Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Visits Libya and Tunisia. Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Anne Witkowsky returned from her visit to Libya and Tunisia. In Libya, Assistant Secretary Witkowsky met with the Presidential Council and other Libyan officials to “welcome continued input and engagement from Libyan partners as progress continues on the implementation of the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability in Libya” and reinforce US support for the political peace process. In Tunisia, Witkowsky continued her discussions with representatives of the United Nations and other organizations operating in Libya.

US, UK, and Norway Welcome Steps Toward Democracy in Sudan, US, KSA, and African Union Reconvene Ceasefire Talks. On October 26, the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway welcomed news that Sudanese civilian actors had met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to discuss Sudan’s political future and work towards restoring democratic governance in the country. On October 29, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, in partnership with the African Union, reconvened ceasefire talks between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces. The talks will focus solely on humanitarian aid, confidence building between the two sides, and permanently ending the conflict.

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Travels to KSA and UAE. On October 27, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry began a trip to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to “advance US objectives on climate and clean energy prior to the 28th UN Climate Change Conference (COP28).”

Secretary Blinken Calls Turkish Foreign Minister, Connects Israel-Gaza to Swedish NATO Accession. On October 29, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and discussed “the need for engagement with regional leaders to prevent the spread of the Israel-Hamas conflict, secure the release of hostages, and mobilize humanitarian aid.” Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Fidan also discussed Sweden’s accession to NATO.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Austin Discusses Attacks on US Forces with Prime Minister of Iraq. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia` al-Sudani and thanked him for committing to protect US forces in Iraq. Secretary Austin’s conversation comes in the wake of recent drone attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria. According to a recent Department of Defense press briefing, “US forces remain in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government, to support the Iraqi Security Forces who are in the lead, to achieve the enduring defeat of [the Islamic State].” Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke with Sudani about the security of US forces in Iraq.

AFRICOM Commander Visits Mauritania. AFRICOM Commander General Michael Langley traveled to Mauritania and joined the US Ambassador in Nouakchott Cynthia Kierscht in meetings with the president and minister of defense. General Langley’s meetings focused on US-Mauritanian security cooperation and shared security concerns, including violent extremist organizations in the Sahel region.

4) Department of the Treasury

Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Travels to the Middle East. Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson traveled to Saudi Arabia and Qatar to “further U.S. efforts to deny Hamas and other terrorist organizations the ability to raise and move funds for their violent acts.” In Saudi Arabia, Under Secretary Nelson met with Saudi national security officials and co-chaired a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, a multilateral body of Gulf states dedicated to disrupting terrorist financing networks. In Qatar, Nelson met with senior Qatari officials to further discuss countering terrorist financing.