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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Washington Brief: A Recap of News from the Hill and Beyond (April 21 - May 18, 2017)


Critical Pro-Israel Funding Contained in Omnibus Bill


On May 5, President Donald Trump signed into law the Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. Passed with strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, the legislation includes key provisions to help Israel address critical security challenges.


The bill provides $3.1 billion plus an additional $75 million in overall security assistance to Israel.


It also contains $600.7 million for vital joint U.S.-Israel missile defense programs, representing a $113 million increase over FY 2016.


In addition, Congress included $42.5 million for continued U.S.-Israel joint development of technologies to address the complex challenge of locating, mapping and destroying terrorist tunnel networks.


The bill also includes a provision that reduces aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) on a dollar-for-dollar basis for any support the PA, the PLO and any successor or affiliated organization provides to Palestinian terrorists or their families.


Congress further included $2 million for U.S.-Israel energy cooperation and $11.8 million for a water desalination grant program that now incentivizes cooperation with Israel.


Entire Senate Issues Bipartisan Call to End Anti-Israel Bias at the U.N.


On April 27, the U.S. Senate unanimously urged U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to end the United Nations' anti-Israel bias.


In a bipartisan letter led by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chris Coons (D-DE), the entire Senate pressed the Secretary General “to engage member states in a comprehensive effort to directly confront and root out this bias.”


The letter notes, “While much good is being done and has been done by the body, many of its member states and agencies are using the U.N.’s privileged platform to advance an anti-Israel agenda.”


The letter continues, “Although, as Republicans and Democrats, we disagree on many issues, we are united in our desire to see the United Nations improve its treatment of Israel and to eliminate anti-Semitism in all its forms.”


Noting that the United States is the “U.N.’s principal founding member and its largest contributor,” the letter concludes by making clear to the Secretary General that the current situation targeting Israel “must change.”  


Treasury Targets Individuals, Entities Linked to Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program


On May 17, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) sanctioned two senior Iranian defense officials and a China-based network for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program. One of the Iranian officials was also found to have coordinated the sale and delivery of explosives to the Assad regime in Syria.


“This Administration is committed to countering Iran's destabilizing behavior, such as Iran's development of ballistic missiles and support to the Assad regime. It is alarming that individuals involved with Iran's missile program are assisting the brutal Assad regime, and we are taking action to curtail this behavior," said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. "These sanctions target Iranian officials as well as a China-based network that are providing support to Syria and supplying items to further Iran's ballistic weapons program. The United States will remain vigilant when it comes to Iran."


OFAC’s action was made in conjunction with the State Department’s release of the semi-annual report issued to Congress that details sanctions imposed on individuals and entities involved in human rights abuses in Iran.


“Iran has compiled one of the world’s most egregious records on human rights since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, and its conduct has only grown worse in recent years,” said the State Department. “Addressing Iran’s continued human rights violations and abuses remains a high priority for the U.S. government…[W]e will continue to work with authorities granted by Congress as well as use existing executive orders to sanction persons involved in abuses of human rights in Iran.”


Bipartisan Letter Urges Robust Funding for Overall Foreign Aid Budget


On April 26, a bipartisan group of 43 senators sent a letter to the leaders of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committees calling for a strong foreign aid budget in Fiscal Year 2018.


Authored by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Todd Young (R-IN), the letter expresses “strong bipartisan support for robust funding for the Fiscal Year 2018 International Affairs Budget.”


“Republican and Democratic national security and foreign policy experts have long championed a strong International Affairs Budget as a key component of our national security,” the letter states.


“The United States International Affairs Budget bolsters our security through programs that identify and help mitigate threats, improve the political and economic lives of others, address humanitarian crises, and help stabilize fragile states that are prone to become unstable havens for terrorism.”


The letter also stresses that the international affairs budget strengthens America’s leadership position in the world by “promoting our national security” and “demonstrating American values.”


U.S. Defense Leaders Visit Israel


On May 9, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford was awarded a Medal of Appreciation during his two-day visit to Israel.  


Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot honored the American general for his personal leadership in strengthening U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation.


Gen. Dunford and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman subsequently met to discuss a range of regional issues, such as “the tri-border region, where Israel, Jordan and Syria come together” and the Islamic State (ISIS) has a growing presence.   


After his meeting with Lieberman, Dunford met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. “We have a great alliance between Israel and the United States and a great alliance between our militaries. We appreciate it and we know that this alliance is good now not only for security but for peace,” said Netanyahu.


On April 20, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis arrived in Israel for a two-day visit—his first trip to the Jewish state since becoming defense secretary. During his visit, he met with top Israeli officials, including President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Lieberman.


In his meeting with Rivlin, the Pentagon chief pledged U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. “We are committed to Israel's defense. We support Israel's internal security and Israel's external security,” he said.


In a joint press conference with Defense Minister Lieberman, Mattis reinforced the need to confront Iran’s destabilizing behavior: “Iran continues to threaten Israel and its neighbors with ballistic missiles through its maritime and cyber activities and through proxies and surrogates, including Lebanese Hezbollah, a terrorist organization helping to keep [Syrian dictator Bashar Assad] in power in Syria.”


Sec. Mattis also reaffirmed America’s commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge: “The United States maintains absolute and unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and to its qualitative military edge over Iran or other threats…Our alliance with Israel is the cornerstone of a larger regional security architecture, which includes cooperation with Egypt, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf partners.”


Congress to Administration: Address PA’s Payments to Terrorists During Abbas Visit


In the lead up to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’ May 3 visit to Washington, members of Congress from both the House and Senate sent letters urging the Trump Administration to address the PA’s practice of paying convicted terrorists and their families.


On May 2, a bipartisan group of 36 House members led by Reps. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) and Thomas Suozzi (D-NY) sent a letter calling for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to raise the issue of these payments during Abbas’ visit and discourage their future practice.


Also on May 2, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) sent a similar letter to President Donald Trump.


On May 1, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) likewise sent a letter to the president urging him to address these payments.


“As members of Congress, we are committed to the long-standing policy of the United States to see a durable peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, resulting in two states; a Jewish, democratic state living in peace and security next to a peaceful Palestinian state,” the Tenney-Suozzi letter states. “So long as the PA continues to compensate and thereby incentivize terrorist activity, we find it difficult to see how the necessary conditions for a lasting peace can be established.”


The United States is the largest individual aid provider to the PA. Since 2015, Congress has mandated a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the amount of this aid to match payments to terrorists and their families. However, the representatives note that “this change alone in current law has not been sufficient to deter the continuation of the PA’s program,” and call on the administration to increase pressure on the PA.


“As the largest providers of aid to the Palestinians, the United States must lead the way in ensuring that the Palestinian Authority ends this practice and that peace is brought to the region, especially since innocent Americans have died at the hands of Palestinian terrorists,” said Rep. Tenney.


“Longstanding U.S. policy is committed to a two-state solution, but this dangerous practice pushes us further away from that goal,” said Rep. Suozzi. “The United States must put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to end this dangerous and unconscionable practice, which only encourages more acts of terror.” 


“We urge you to raise this matter with President Abbas during his visit, and to make clear to him that the PA’s practice of diverting aid money to terrorists and their families must end,” wrote the senators. “Morally it must end because the United States cannot be complicit in incentivizing terror. And strategically it must end because the PA will never convince Americans, the Congress, or Israel that it is serious about peace while it is still funding terror. We agree with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said recently that ending PA funding for terror is ‘a test for peace.’”


“In addition to their commitments toward negotiations, there are a number of important steps that will signal that the Palestinian Authority is serious about finding an end to the conflict,” wrote Reps. Royce and Engel. “First, President Abbas must end payments to imprisoned terrorists and the families of those who were killed carrying out acts of terror. These are not typical welfare payments to needy families, but preferential treatment that incentivizes and rewards terrorism.”


United States Expresses “Strong Opposition” to Anti-Israel UNESCO Resolution


On May 2, the United States voted against a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) resolution that denied Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. The vote coincided with Israel’s 69th Independence Day.


“The United States expresses its strong opposition to this agenda item,” said the U.S. Mission to UNESCO in an explanation of its vote. “We have spoken to many Board members and others about our serious concerns regarding this recurring, highly politicized agenda item that repeatedly and unfairly singles out Israel…This divisive approach continues to erode UNESCO’s global prestige and jeopardizes not just its funding, but its excellent work on other pressing topics.”


Unlike previous anti-Israel UNESCO resolutions, more countries opposed or abstained from the measure than voted in favor of it. Nine countries—Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Paraguay, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Togo and Ukraine—joined the United States in voting against the resolution, 23 abstained from the vote, and 22 voted in favor of the measure.


“We thank the members of the Board who joined us in opposing this decision, and those who abstained. We believe progress can be made on Israeli-Palestinian issues to the benefit of the parties, and UNESCO, but only if addressed in the appropriate venues. To do otherwise is, in our view, injurious to the very peace we hope to achieve,” said the United States


United States Sanctions Syrian Individuals, Entities in Response to Atrocities


On May 16, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned five individuals and five entities in response to continuous attacks by the Syrian regime against civilians. Two of the sanctioned individuals—Ihab Makhluf and Iyad Makhluf—are cousins of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.


“The Syrian government’s relentless attacks on civilians have continued unabated,” said OFAC Director John E. Smith.  “As long as the Syrian government continues its campaign of brutal violence against its own people, Treasury will continue targeting the finances of anyone enabling Assad, and will continue intensifying pressure on Assad’s regime in support of diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Syria.”


On April 24—in one of the largest sanctions designations in its history—OFAC also sanctioned 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC). The designations are in response to the April 4 sarin attack on innocent civilians by al-Assad’s air force.


“These sweeping sanctions target the scientific support center for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s horrific chemical weapons attack on innocent civilian men, women, and children. The United States is sending a strong message with this action that we will hold the entire Assad regime accountable for these blatant human rights violations in order to deter the spread of these types of barbaric chemical weapons,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “We take Syria’s disregard for innocent human life very seriously, and will relentlessly pursue and shut down the financial networks of all individuals involved with the production of chemical weapons used to commit these atrocities.”


According to the Treasury Department, the 271 sanctioned SSRC employees have “expertise in chemistry and related fields and/or have backed the SSRC’s chemical weapons program since at least 2012.”


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