WASHINGTON – With U.S. President Joe Biden’s landmark visit to the Middle East just two weeks away, members of the U.S. Congress are increasing the pressure on his administration over various issues related to Israel.
The most headline-grabbing matter is whether the United States will be part of an investigation into Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing last month – as requested by 26 senators and 57 House Democrats.
No less pressing, though, are the 57 bipartisan House lawmakers who have urged Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin not to downgrade the “crucial” post of the U.S. official in charge of security coordination between the United States and the Palestinian Authority.
The lawmakers, led by Democratic Rep. Grace Meng and Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, called on the Pentagon to avoid changing the ranking of the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority from a three-star general to a colonel.
The letter follows a similar missive from 32 bipartisan senators, as well as pressure from the State Department, Israel’s Defense Ministry and experts in both countries, amid concerns that the move would harm both U.S.-Palestinian security cooperation and Israeli-Palestinian coordination.
While the move is technically required by a U.S. law that stipulates a decrease in the number of generals, the lawmakers request that the coordinator (also known as the USSC) not be included in any reduction in active duty general and flag officers.
“This coordination helps prevent terrorism against Israeli and Palestinian civilians, and combats efforts by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to establish a foothold in the West Bank,” the 44 Democrats and 13 Republicans wrote. They added that the robust coordination can be attributed to the USSC’s work.
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The coordinator position was created in 2005 in a bid to bolster the Palestinian security forces. It has since been held by a three-star general who reports directly to the most senior levels of U.S. government, while maintaining direct access to U.S., Israeli and Palestinian civilian and military officials.
Seven members of the House Armed Services Committee and eight members of the House Appropriations Committee (notably Chairwoman Rep. Rosa DeLauro) were among the lawmakers warning that the downgrading would undermine U.S. credibility, and that the United States needs a high-ranking official to engage with regional leaders of equal stature.
The letter comes as Republican lawmakers in both houses of Congress doubled down on their opposition to the administration’s symbolic steps aimed at upgrading the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s Palestinian Affairs Unit to a separate office reporting directly to the State Department.
Sen. Bill Hagerty and Rep. Lee Zeldin led 35 senators and 56 House Republicans decrying the “alarming” move, warning that it undermines U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and “signals support for dividing Jerusalem.”
The Biden administration rebranded the Palestinian Affairs Unit the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs under the move. Prior to becoming the Palestinian Affairs Unit, it had been the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem and a focus of Palestinian statehood goals in the city.
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, outraged Palestinians by formally closing the consulate and redesignating it as the Palestinian Affairs Unit, within the U.S. Embassy that was moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in May 2018.
The U.S. administration hopes this change will encourage the Palestinians to distinguish between American diplomats serving Israel and the Palestinians, the latter of whom would report directly to Washington. This would also lead, in the Biden administration’s view, to Palestinian perspectives having more independence from Israel.
The administration maintains that it still intends to reopen the consulate, though Israel has drawn an explicit line in the sand on the matter, proposing that a consulate be opened in Ramallah instead.
The matter has become a domestic political football for Biden – one he is not expected to engage with ahead of the critical 2022 midterm elections.
While unanimous Republican opposition is noteworthy in the political sense, Biden’s move is relatively minor and does not require congressional approval since it doesn’t pertain to the creation of an actual diplomatic mission.
On the other end of the political spectrum, 31 Democrats led by Reps. Mark Pocan and Jan Schakowsky are circulating a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing concern over Israel’s renewed efforts to construct so-called “doomsday settlements” in the area known as E-1 between the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Settlement construction in E-1 – which is east of Jerusalem and beyond the armistice demarcation line that separated Israel and the West Bank before the 1967 Six-Day War – has long been considered a red line for previous U.S. administrations, and a point of no return for a potential two-state solution.
Building in the 12-square-kilometer (4.6-square-mile) area, considered vital to everyday Palestinian life, would effectively cut the West Bank in half, impeding traffic between its northern and southern parts, and between the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The plans were delayed following international pressure, though the Israeli government informed the High Court of Justice last month that the plans were back on the agenda.
While the progressive Democrats welcomed the administration’s efforts thus far in opposing the plans, they warned about the rescheduled hearing on E-1 construction currently slated for days after Biden’s visit. They urge the administration to continue prioritizing the matter with the caretaker Israeli government and any future governing coalitions, insisting that U.S. intervention at this pivotal moment is critical.
Other lawmakers, meanwhile, are pushing the administration to continue fostering Israeli-Arab normalization beyond the closely monitored developments between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Democratic Sens. Jacky Rosen and Cory Booker, and Republican Sen. Joni Ernst – founding members of the bipartisan Senate Abraham Accords Caucus – are nudging Blinken on the Prosperity Green and Prosperity Blue projects between the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Jordan.
The UAE-facilitated projects would ensure that Jordan supplies Israel with solar power and, in exchange, Israel supplies Jordan with desalinated water.
“This project is an opportunity for all countries involved to bolster the use of innovative energy technologies and to counter water scarcity in the region,” the senators wrote, adding that it would “foster economic, diplomatic, and technological coordination between the three countries, building on the Abraham Accords and the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty.”
Their letter comes weeks after they were among the co-sponsors introducing legislation aimed at bolstering defense cooperation between Israel and several Arab states with the Pentagon’s explicit involvement, in order to thwart threats from Iran and its proxies.