Legislative Round-up: April 2, 2021

1. Bills, Resolutions & Letters
2. US Law, Congress, and aid to UNRWA — Facts vs Fiction
3. Hearings & Markups
4. On the Record

Produced by the Foundation for Middle East Peace in cooperation with Americans for Peace Now, where the Legislative Round-Up was conceived. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.


Shameless plugs:

Upcoming FMEP webinars: 4/6,Israeli and Palestinian Elections: Opportunities for Change or More of Same? ft. Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Diana Buttu, and Orly Noy in conversation with Peter Beinart; and 4/7, “Medical Apartheid”: COVID Vaccinations Under Occupation, ft. Ghada Majadli (Physicians for Human Rights – Israel) and Yara Asi (Al-Shabaka & Arab Center Washington DC), in conversation with FMEP’s Kristin McCarthy.

Also check out the latest edition of FMEP’s Occupied Thoughts podcast featuring Nathan Thrall in conversation with Peter Beinart about Thrall’s remarkable article, “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama”

 

1. Bills, Resolutions & Letters

None.

Letters

(OBEY US LAW RE: ICC & PLO/PA) Duncan/GOP friends letter to Biden & Blinken: On 3/31, Rep. Duncan (R-SC) led a letter, cosigned by 23 House Republicans, to President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken, urging them to obey U.S. law with respect to the PA/PLO and the ICC. According to the law (which is part of the annual State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill (covered in detail every year in the Round-Up), in the event that the Palestinians appeal to the ICC against Israel, the US is barred from giving aid to the Palestinian Authority and the PLO is barred from operating a diplomatic mission in Washington (or more accurately, the Executive is barred from waiving the 1987 law that bars the PLO from operating in the US).

A few observations with respect to the substance of this curious letter:

  • The clause of the SFOPS law cited in the letter bars only assistance for the Palestinian Authority. This is manifestly not the same as barring all aid for the West Bank and Gaza, or even the same as the Taylor Force Act (TFA) which speaks more broadly of barring aid that “directly benefits” the PA.
  • The letter’s insistence on no aid going to the PA due to its actions at the ICC is a bit bizarre, given that under TFA, no aid can be given to the PA regardless of the ICC (should the prisoner payment issue be addressed, this ICC provision would become relevant).
  • The letter is correct about the ICC-related measure in the law barring the re-opening of the PLO mission in Washington. Indeed, ff the Biden Administration wants that mission to re-open, either Congress will have to change the law (unlikely) or President Biden will have to do what other presidents should have been done decades ago: declare the law unconstitutional (because it is). See my analysis here.

A few observations  with respect to the political optics of this curious letter:

  • For such a vanilla message (obey the law! ICC = bad!) it has remarkably few signers – and all of them Republican (many of them from the far-right of the Republican party): Weber (R-TX), Bilirakis (R-FL), Baird (R-IN), Babin (R-TX), Hinson (R-IA), Fleischman (R-TN), Gohmert (R-TX), Reschenthaler (R-PA), Norman (R-SC), Lamborn (R-CO), Garbarino (R-NY), Gaetz (R-FL), Harshbarger (R-TN), Biggs (R-AZ), Posey (R-FL), Gooden (R-TX), Budd (R-NC),McClintock (R-CA), Hice (R-GA), Steube (R-FL), McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Aderholt (R-AL), Good (R-VA), and Cloud (R-TX).
  • The all-GOP list of signers is all the more notable given that the letter at one point states, oddly: “we strongly believe, on a bipartisan basis…
  • The groups behind the letter are also interesting. Per Duncan’s press release, the letter was supported by a set of groups whose common denominator appears to be the shared goal of quashing free speech/activism critical of Israel (there may also be other common denominators): Americans Against Antisemitism (a group associated with New York politician Dov Hikind, described as Meir Kahane’s “right-hand man until the early 1970s” and a former “important leader” of Kahane’s Jewish Defense League who spoke at Kahane’s funeral), the Jewish Preservation Heritage Society (never heard of it and no online presence), the Brandeis Center (which in recent years has focused its work on shutting down criticism of Israel), Human Rights Voices, StandWithUs, the National Jewish Advocacy Center (which works to pass “challenge-proof bills that align with the First Amendment to fight anti-Semitism on college campuses and in other arenas using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition”) and Alliance for Israel (which describes its mission as: “We prepare our national membership base to engage with Israel’s detractors and expose their lies, and to educate the public about the Jewish peoples’ indigenous roots and their right to self-determination in Israel.” Duncan also posted a link on his website to a press release from the far-right group EMET (which is an offshoot of the ZOA) applauding the letter.
  • This odd set of backers is even more interesting given that last year an AIPAC-backed letteron this same topic was circulated in the House, led by Luria (D-VA) and Gallagher (R-WI), ultimately gaining 262 signers (documented in the 3/15/20 edition of the Round-Up). It is also interesting that these groups were happy supporting an entirely partisan initiative like this (AIPAC makes it a priority to get bipartisan support for its initiatives). [NOTE – An error in this section was corrected post-publication – the Luria letter was 2020, not 2021].

2. US Law, Congress, and Aid to UNRWA – Facts vs Fiction

In last week’s Round-Up I did a deep dive in into the hypocrisy and historical revisionism being exhibited by some Members of Congress (and at least one ex-Trump official) with respect to the Biden Administration granting $15 million in humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza to deal with the COVID crisis. That analysis was subsequently published in op-ed form here. Since then, the Biden Administration announced resumption of additional aid to the Palestinians, sparking more responses that are a-factual, to say the least, eg: Cruz (R-TX); Scott (R-FL)

This week, rumors have begun to swirl about the potential imminent announcement by the Biden Administration of the resumption of US assistance to UNRWA. Such an announcement would be guaranteed to spark backlash and controversy, given the long history of attacks on UNRWA by some in Congress; the drumbeat of attacks on UNRWA that began toward the end of the Trump Administration (led by groups that hoped that before leaving office Trump would once and for all destroy UNRWA); and, after the November 2019 election, the ramping up of a campaign of attacks on UNRWA intended to deter Biden from resuming aid or, if he is not deterred, to lay the groundwork for exacting a high political price for his action.

In this context, this week is a good time for a review of the key facts as they pertain to Congress — both congressional will and the law — and support for UNRWA funding (again in the form of an FAQ):

The Facts about Congress & Funding of UNRWA

Q: Is it true that Congress cut off all aid to UNRWA during the Trump era?

A: No, that is not true.

Q: Is it true that the Trump Administration cut off all aid to UNRWA to comply with the will of Congress?

A: No, that is not true.

Q: In that case, why did the Trump Administration cut off all funding to UNRWA?

A: The Trump Administration cut off all funding to UNRWA for its own political/ideological  reasons.

  • In December 2017 Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announcement of the imminent move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. The action was immediately denounced by the Palestinians and the UN voted to reject that recognition. Shortly thereafter, then-US Ambassador to the UN Nikky Haley stated that the funding for the Palestinians would be cut until the Palestinians “return to the negotiating table.” That funding was formally cut off in August 2018, with the State Department now calling UNRWA an “irredeemably flawed operation.”
  • Notwithstanding the above framing – which initially portrayed the cut off of funding for UNRWA was initially framed as a punitive move, then as a move that reflected dissatisfaction with the organization’s work – the cut-off of funding to UNRWA was fundamentally part of the implementation of the ideological program of Trump’s key supporters and some Trump officials. Of these, then-ambassador to Israel David Friedman in September 2015 summed it up best, describing funding for UNRWA as “funds to perpetuate rather than to mitigate refugee status” and arguing that UNRWA seeks to “deploy it [statelessness] as a political weapon.
  • The worldview behind Friedman’s statements about UNRWA is not new, and embodies a view of many Greater Israel hardliners who have long argued that the Palestinian refugee issue can be resolved merely by dissolving UNRWA (not unlike the view that competing claims to Jerusalem were resolved by Trump taking Jerusalem “off the table).  For more on this, see my January 2018 analysis: Taking Issues “Off the Table” – First Jerusalem, Now Refugees

Q: So what DID Congress do/say with respect to UNRWA funding during the Trump era?

A: The short answer is that Congress continued support for UNRWA during the Trump era in a manner consistent with that support under previous administrations.

The longer answer is:

  • Funding for UNRWA is provided under the “Migration and Refugee Assistance” (MRA) program, appropriated by Congress annually as part of the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill.
  • MRA funding is appropriated as a lump sum without earmarks or congressional directives (with the exception of an earmark for refugee assistance for Israel – a legacy of the era when huge numbers of Jews from the former Soviet Union were arriving; that earmark currently stands at $5 million). This means that except for that $5 million, none of the MRA is earmarked by Congress for UNRWA or for any other organization, meaning the State Department has discretion.
  • During the Trump era, Congress at no point reduced MRA funding with the intent of cutting UNRWA assistance.
  • Moreover, while for year Congress has required UNRWA-related reporting and certifications from the State Department, as not point during the Trump era did Congress indicate, either in bill text or report language, that its intent was for the State Department to reduce or cut off UNRWA funding.
  • And moreover, in the FY20 appropriations bill, the House sought to include a hard earmark for funding for UNRWA (detailed in this special edition of the Round-Up). This was partially an effort to find a way to allow funding to flow to the Palestinians despite the obstacle posed by ATCA (discussed in last week’s FAQ), and partially a response to suspension of UNRWA aid by Trump.

3. Hearings & Markups

None

3. On the Record

Members On The Record…

re: aid to the Palestinians

Scott (R-FL) 4/1: Tweet – “American taxpayer $ should never be used to prop up corrupt Palestinian leaders who openly support terrorism & wage war against our democratic ally Israel. I urge @POTUS to stand up for Israel, protect taxpayer $ & reverse this decision”. Linked to Scott 4/1 press releaseThe Trump Administration rightly ended aid to Palestinian leaders because of the risks it posed to the peace and security of Israel and the United States. It is unconscionable that President Biden would send American tax dollars to corrupt Palestinian leaders who openly support terrorism and wage war against our great ally Israel. Why on earth does President Biden think this is a good use of taxpayer funds? President Biden should stand up for Israel, protect taxpayer dollars and immediately reverse this decision.

Cruz (R-TX) 3/31: Tweet – “Joe Biden is about to pour almost $100 million into Palestinian areas, while the Palestinians continue to pay for terrorists who murder Israelis & Americans. He kept it from the American public. It’s deeply troubling, to say the least.” [linked to article, Biden administration quietly ramping up aid to Palestinians (AP)

Scott (R-FL) 3/27: Tweet – “First, @POTUS takes weeks to call Israeli PM @netanyahu. Now he wants to re-engage the Palestinian Authority & give aid through the @UNRWA without requiring reforms, democracy & the end of anti-Israel rhetoric. We cannot support those who wish us harm. We must stand with Israel.” Linked to article, Biden admin announces $15M in humanitarian assistance for Palestinians (the Hill)

Re: Israel, Palestine, Normalization

Luria (D-VA) 3/31: Tweet – “I will always be vocal and forward-leaning to do what I can do to strengthen the US-Israel relationship.” Linked to article, Meet the Democrat Aiming to Be Israel’s Biggest Champion in Congress (Haaretz)

Tlaib (D-MI) 3/30: Tweet – “6 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in 1976 when hundreds of people protested the illegal taking of homes and farms leaving families homeless. This day is now referred to as #LandDay & recognizes the fight against oppression + violence continues.” Linked to IMEU tweet of article, Land Day: Palestinians mark the 45th anniversary (MIddle East Eye)

Omar (D-MN) 3/30: Tweet – “Today marks 45 years since 6 Palestinians were killed while protesting the illegal seizure of their land. The occupation robs people of their homes, their human rights and compromises our national security. Today, we renew the call for peace and accountability. #LandDay

Tenney (R-NY) 3/30: Tweet – “The government of Bahrain has appointed its first-ever ambassador to Israel! Congratulations to #Bahrain and #Israel on another historic achievement. This is a monumental step in solidifying ties between these two countries. It symbolizes a new era of peace and prosperity!

Portman (R-OH) 3/27: Tweet – “The establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel & UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco is a huge step toward creating a more peaceful & prosperous Middle East.” & “We should now look to build off the success of the Abraham Accords by encouraging additional Arab League states to normalize relations with Israel.

Portman (R-OH) 3/26: Tweet – “Normalization of relations between Israel and other countries in the region will help build on the success of the Abraham Accords, support our ally Israel & enshrine the longstanding U.S. policy that encourages Arab League states to normalize relations with #Israel.

Re: Iran

Cardin (D-MD) 4/2: Tweet – “Tomorrow is 2,000th day of unjustified imprisonment in Tehran’s notorious Evan Prison for American citizen Siamak Namazi. The int’l community must end Iran’s hostage diplomacy once and for all. #FreetheNamazis” Linked to article, My brother and father are American hostages in Iran. When will they be free?

Schneider (D-IL) 4/2: Tweet – “Iran’s behaviors, in particular its nuclear program, are a threat to the region and the world. The only way to peacefully end Iran’s nuclear ambitions is through negotiations” & “Bringing Iran back into full compliance with the JCPOA is a necessary first step, and only a first step, to addressing the Iranian threat.”  Linked to tweet/article, Breaking News: The U.S. and Iran have agreed to start indirect talks next week in Vienna on returning to the 2015 nuclear deal (New York Times)

Scalise (R-LA) 4/2: Tweet – “Biden is set to give up the leverage Trump gained on Iran. Let’s not forget: The Obama-Biden Iran strategy was a disaster—we sent them pallets of cash as they plotted terror attacks against us. Biden wants to return to that? Scary.” Linked to article, U.S. and Iran Agree to Resume Talks on Nuclear Deal (Wall Street Journal)

Steil (R-WI) 4/1: Tweet – “It’s been a week since I asked the State Department questions regarding the United States’ involvement in facilitating a ransom payment to the Iranian Regime. Still no answer.” Linked to copy of his letter.

Steil (R-WI) 3/31: Tweet – Lifting sanctions on the Iranian regime in order to return to the failed Iran Nuclear Deal is bad policy. Lifting sanctions on the regime to get them to the negotiating table is even worse.” Linked to article, GOP Blasts ‘Outrageous’ Biden Admin Offer to Roll Back Iran Sanctions (Free Beacon)

Lowenthal (D-CA) 3/30: Tweet – “When Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, he destabilized the Middle East. Iran moved closer to a nuclear weapon. Only diplomacy can prevent an arms race, or catastrophic conflict. Linked to article, U.S. tries to break Iran nuclear deadlock with new proposal for Tehran (Politico)

Stewart (R-UT) 3/30: Tweet – “China and Iran united for one purpose: Replace America as the global superpower. @POTUS needs to take notice. ‘While Mr. Biden is preoccupied with ‘transforming’ the U.S. economy, the world is also transforming—and not in a good way.’” Linked to article, The China-Iran Axis (Wall Street Journal)

Ernst (R-IA) 3/27: Tweet – “A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave threat to U.S. national security interests & our allies and partners. I joined my colleagues in urging @POTUS to focus on preventing Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons and constraining its destabilizing activity.” Linked to Menendez-Graham letter on Iran [link is broken]

Young (R-IN) 3/27: Tweet – “Sent a bipartisan message to @POTUS on Iran “Iran should have no doubt about America’s policy… we are united on preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and addressing the wide range of illicit Iranian behavior.” Linked to press release about the Menendez-Graham letter

King (R-IA) 3/27: Tweet – “Russia, China & Iran formed a coalition with the objective to defeat the world’s Super Power. @JoeBiden plays directly into their hands.” Linked to article, Soleimani killing eclipses Iran’s war games with Russia, China (from something called “the Arab Weekly”)

Articles and Reports Related to the Hill

JTA 4/2: Matt Gaetz Says He’s Part of a $25M Extortion Plot. It Involves Iran and a Missing Jewish FBI Agent

Haaretz 3/31: Meet the Democrat Aiming to Be Israel’s Biggest Champion in Congress [Luria, D-VA]

Free Beacon 3/30: GOP Blasts ‘Outrageous’ Biden Admin Offer to Roll Back Iran Sanctions

Al-Monitor 3/30: Senators introduce bill to strengthen Israeli-Arab normalization agreements

Jerusalem Post 3/28: Bipartisan senators introduce bill to expand Abraham Accords

Daily Herald 3/28: Gathering Israel: Utah congressmen say democratic ideals in harmony with latter-day work