The first session of the 114th Congress opened on 1/6/15 and closed less than a year later on 12/18/15. Leading into the session were the 2014 midterm elections, which produced a major upheaval in the legislature’s makeup. Republicans won a majority of the available Senate seats, giving them control of the upper chamber with 54 members. They also increased their majority in the House of Representatives, winning 247 seats (up from 234 in the previous Congress).
Collectively, members of the 114th Congress introduced 7,893 measures over the course of the first session; of these, 178 carried provisions pertinent to Palestinian affairs or the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, marking a more than twofold increase over the 87 introduced in the previous session (see JPS 44 ). Such variation is typical of first sessions when more measures are traditionally introduced, and bills carry over to the second session in what is typically a slow process. However, this session’s total also represented a substantial increase over the 124 measures introduced during the first session of the 113th Congress, as a result of 3 additional factors: first, disagreements between the Obama administration and the Republican leadership surrounding the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran; second, contentious debate in Congress over the admittance of refugees from the ongoing conflict in Syria; third, the growing strength of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Overview of the Legislation
Congressional measures fall into 2 general categories. There are binding measures—bills and joint resolutions—that can pass into law, and there are nonbinding measures—concurrent and simple resolutions—that merely state the views of Congress on a particular issue. While they are less consequential, nonbinding measures are important indicators of congressional priorities as they typically “urge,” “recognize,” “encourage,” “affirm,” or “support” people, events, and policy positions. Of the 178 measures under discussion here, 119 were binding (8 passed into law), and 59 were simple or concurrent resolutions (11 passed).
Although most of the 178 measures principally concerned issues relating to Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict, 39 were tangentially related (a similar proportion to previous years) and included relevant issues in debates surrounding the measures, amendments proposed but not attached, or provisions in vast, multi-faceted bills.
Of the 39 tangential measures, 16 were authorizations or appropriations bills, with the former providing the legal authority for all U.S. government programs and agencies (i.e., earmarking funds), and the latter approving funding and transfer of monies to those authorized bodies (i.e., disbursement of funds). The 4 appropriations and authorizations bills that passed into law extended appropriations for fiscal year 2015 (*H.R. 719 of 2/4/15 and *H.R. 2250 of 5/12/15), to allow Congress time to agree on the FY 2016 budget (*H.R. 2029 of 4/24/15), and authorized national defense spending in FY 2016 (*S. 1356 of 5/14/15). Some of the measures’ key provisions dealt with military assistance to Israel and Egypt, oversight on the administration’s Iran-related policies, and economic and security aid for the Palestinians.
The other 23 tangential measures dealt with a variety of issues, ranging from restrictions on the crude oil market (H.R. 702 of 2/4/15 and S. 1372 of 5/19/15), to government funding for scientific research (H.R. 1806 of 4/15/15) and global blasphemy laws (H. Res. 290 of 6/2/15). The 3 nonbinding measures that passed urged the administration to counter anti-Semitism in Europe (*H. Res. 354 of 7/9/15 and *S. Res. 87 of 2/25/15) and set the FY 2016 budget (*S. Con. Res. 11 of 3/20/15). The 2 binding measures that passed into law were each, at separate times, vehicles for renewing the president’s “fast track” authority, specifically to expedite congressional approval of trade agreements (*H.R. 1314 of 3/4/15 and *H.R. 2146 of 4/30/15). Among numerous trade-related sections, the various versions of the “fast track” bill each carried provisions designed to counter the growing clout of the BDS movement.
Partisan disagreements led to greater legislative focus on the nuclear talks with Iran and the Syrian refugee crisis but, overall, the Republican-controlled 114th Congress had similar priorities as its predecessors with respect to Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Therefore, the 178 measures under discussion will be broken down into the same 3 broad thematic categories that appeared in the last 2 annual Congressional Monitor reports: (1) those directly or indirectly benefiting Israel; (2) those serving Israel’s interests by undermining its adversaries; (3) those securing Israel’s position in the Middle East by reinforcing, influencing, or altering U.S. regional policy.
Just under a quarter, or 43, of the 178 measures under discussion here carried provisions benefiting Israel directly or indirectly. While there were proportionally fewer than in the past, the total number of measures in this category was consistent with previous years (there were 45 and 46 in the first and second sessions of the 113th Congress, respectively). The 26 bills or joint resolutions and 17 simple or concurrent resolutions in this category can be further broken down into the following subcategories:
- Maintaining or Increasing Military Support: The 16 bills in this category each carried provisions granting military aid to Israel or boosting military cooperation in some other way. Of these, only the 4 previously mentioned appropriations and authorizations bills passed into law, providing Israel with over $3 b. in military and economic aid in 2016. New this year, 7 of the bills carried provisions relating to Hamas’s use of tunnels during Israel’s assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014 (see JPS 44 [1–2]). Although various anti-tunnel measures were proposed and debated, the versions that passed into law: authorized up to $25 m. in spending on a new joint U.S.-Israeli anti-tunnel program (*S. 1356 of 5/14/15); directed the administration to hire an official “to manage the collection and analysis of intelligence regarding the tactical use of tunnels by state and nonstate actors” and submit an annual report to Congress on tunnel usage trends and the U.S.’s collaborative efforts with others (mainly Israel and Egypt) to counter tunnel operations (*H.R. 2029 of 4/24/15).
- Providing Ceremonial or Nonmilitary Support: There were 9 bills and 11 simple or concurrent resolutions with provisions designed to offer Israel nonmilitary support or otherwise strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance. Of these, 3 nonbinding measures passed: the first welcoming Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress in 3/2015 (*S. Res. 76 of 2/12/15; see JPS 44 ), the second defending Israel at the UN and calling on the administration to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (*S. Con. Res. 11 of 3/20/15); and the third supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against so-called Palestinian terror attacks amid the wave of violence in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) that escalated in 10/2015 (*S. Res. 302 of 11/3/15; see also the Update in JPS 45 [2–3]). Other notable trends within this subcategory include measures authorizing or encouraging joint scientific research (H.R. 3717 of 10/8/15, H. Res. 551 of 12/3/15, H.R. 1806 of 4/15/15, and H.R. 2028 of 4/24/15) and those citing Israeli security concerns to justify lifting restrictions on U.S. crude oil exports (H.R. 702 of 2/4/15 and H.R. 8 of 9/16/15).
- Commemorating Jewish and Israeli History: Each of the 7 nonbinding measures in this category would have honored or commemorated some aspect of Jewish or Israeli history (none passed). Of these, 3 called for Holocaust commemoration ceremonies (H. Res. 49 of 1/26/15, H. Con. Res. 9 of 1/26/15, and H. Res. 57 of 1/27/15), 3 honored former Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin around the 20th anniversary of his death (S. Res. 299 of 10/28/15, H. Res. 502 of 10/28/15, and H. Res. 513 of 11/3/15), and 1 praised the American Jewish Comm. on its 109th anniversary (H. Res. 518 of 11/5/15).
Undermining Israel's Adversaries
Marking both a proportional and an absolute increase over previous years, more than half, or 101, of the 178 measures under discussion carried provisions that would undermine Israel’s adversaries in some way. Fifteen of these passed, 9 of which were binding.
The lion’s share of measures in this category, or 72, carried provisions relating to the international nuclear negotiations with Iran. These measures largely sought to influence or undermine the talks and the historic agreement they produced on 7/14/15 (see JPS 45 ), with their sponsors often citing Israeli security and Iranian human rights violations as justification. Overall, 50 were bills or joint resolutions, 5 of which passed into law, and 22 were simple or concurrent resolutions, 4 of which passed.
- Influencing Diplomacy: All 72 of the measures under discussion aimed to influence the talks, the 7/14 deal, and its eventual implementation, with all but 8 of them carrying provisions directly related to the issue. Among the 64 measures, there were numerous proposals for increased congressional oversight, restrictions on the U.S. negotiating team, and limitations on the U.S. obligations under the agreement (which would have scuttled the deal ex post facto), as well as statements of both disapproval and approval for various elements of the Obama administration’s strategy. The most significant measures in this category were the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, establishing a procedure for Congress to overturn the 7/14 deal (*H.R. 1191 of 3/2/15) as well as the main vehicle for such congressional disapproval (H. J. Res. 61 of 7/23/15), which failed to gather enough Democratic support in the Senate, thereby ensuring that the Obama administration could proceed with its obligations (see JPS 45 [1–2]). Furthermore, the 4 abovementioned appropriations and authorizations bills carried oversight measures from FY 2015 (*H.R. 719 of 2/4/15 and *H.R. 2250 of 5/12/15), and instituted new ones for FY 2016 (*S. 1356 of 5/14/15 and *H.R. 2029 of 4/24/15).
- Human Rights and Diplomacy: 12 of these measures—5 bills and 7 simple and concurrent resolutions—carried provisions that dealt with the nuclear negotiations indirectly. Of these, 5 proposed mechanisms to redistribute fines from sanctions violations to the U.S. citizens taken hostage in Iran in 1979 (S. Con Res. 11 of 3/20/15, S. 868 of 3/26/15, S. 1635 of 6/18/15, H.R. 3338 of 7/29/15, and *H.R. 2029 of 4/24/15); 3 condemned the Iranian government’s targeting of religious minorities or called for the release of prisoners held on the basis of their religious beliefs (H. Res. 111 of 2/13/15, *S. Res. 148 of 4/23/15, and H. Res. 20 of 4/24/15); 3 called for the release of U.S. citizens being held in Iran or authorized new means for the president to pursue their release (H. Res. 148 of 3/10/15, S. Res. 99 of 3/10/15, and H.R. 3259 of 7/28/15); and 1 supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Iran (H. Res. 500 of 10/28/15).
The U.S. relationship with the Palestinians remained largely unchanged. The Republican-led Congress earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and security support for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and for programs serving Palestinians in the oPt while at the same time criticizing Palestinian efforts to deviate from the U.S. vision of a 2-state solution or opposing the Israeli occupation. Down from 27 last session, there were 19 measures introduced in the first session of the 114th Congress—13 bills and 6 simple or concurrent resolutions—with provisions along these lines. The measures can be further categorized as follows:
- Restricting Aid: 6 of the abovementioned appropriations and authorizations bills, 3 of which passed, carried provisions approving aid for the Palestinians but also extending restrictions (*H.R. 719 of 2/4/15, *H.R. 2029 of 4/24/15, and *H.R. 2250 of 5/12/15). There were also 6 other bills proposing new restrictions: 3 would have barred aid to the PA until the Palestinians dropped their bid for membership at the International Criminal Court (ICC); (S. 34 of 1/6/15, H.R. 277 of 1/12/15, and H.R. 364 of 1/14/15); one would have barred aid to the PA until it recognized “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state” and met several other Israeli demands (S. 633 of 3/4/15); and 2 would have placed new restrictions on U.S. aid to UNRWA (H.R. 3667 of 10/1/15 and H.R. 3829 of 10/26/15). None of these passed.
- Criticism and Condemnation: The remaining 7 measures in the Palestinian category (of which 2 passed) carried provisions opposing specific actions: 2 censured the Palestinians’ accession to the ICC (H. Res. 209 of 4/16/15 and H. Res. 270 of 5/18/15) and 5 condemned statements from Palestinian leaders deemed to be incitement, in 10/2015 (*H. Res. 293 of 6/3/15, S. 1635 of 6/18/15, H. Res. 485 of 10/21/15, *S. Res. 302 of 11/3/15, and H. Con. Res. 96 of 11/19/15).
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement
With BDS gaining strength across the U.S. in 2015 (see JPS 44 –45 ), opponents of the movement consolidated their efforts in Congress, leading to a significant increase in the number of measures explicitly designed to counter BDS efforts. Up from 4 last session, 14 measures—11 bills and 3 simple resolutions—from the 114th Congress’s first session fall under this category. Although the increase was, in part, due to the fact that a key anti-BDS provision was shuffled from bill to bill during debates over Pres. Barack Obama’s overall trade agenda, BDS opponents also scored a major victory this session. They tacked a set of anti-BDS objectives for the U.S. to pursue in trade negotiations onto a larger trade bill, which eventually passed into law (*H.R. 2146 of 4/30/15). Similar provisions introduced as 2 independent measures were added to 6 other trade-related bills but neither passed into law. Of the remaining measures, 2 called on Obama or the European Union to take action against BDS (H. Res. 402 of 7/29/15 and H. Res. 567 of 12/16/15); 1 condemned academic boycotts (H. Res. 318 of 6/16/15); and 2 would have restricted the government’s ability to do business with companies that participate in boycotts targeting Israel (H.R. 2645 of 6/4/15 and H.R. 1572 of 3/24/15).
While many of the measures regarding Israel or the Iran nuclear negotiations noted that Hezbollah posed a threat to Israel, only 2 bills introduced this session had the explicit goal of sanctioning the group, and only 1 passed into law. Both versions of the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 were designed to tighten sanctions, increase congressional oversight, and facilitate the application of 2 official key designations which would allow the U.S. to hamper the group’s international activities further (S. 1617 of 6/18/15 and *H.R. 2297 of 5/13/15).
Buttressing Israel via U.S. Regional Policy
The Refugee Crisis
In the aftermath of what were widely held to be ISIS-affiliated attacks in Paris on 11/13/15, U.S. politicians and media focused increasingly on the perceived threats posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the refugees fleeing the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Prior to the Paris attacks, 5 measures had been introduced offering support to persecuted religious minorities (H.R. 3942 of 11/5/15 and *S. Res. 310 of 11/9/15), commending Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon for accepting refugees (H. Res. 509 of 11/2/15), providing funds for refugee resettlement (S. 2145 of 10/6/15), and levying oversight procedures and securityrelated limitations on the Visa Waiver Program (H.R. 158 of 1/6/15). After the attacks, 28 measures were introduced, mostly by Republicans, opposing, restricting, or otherwise blocking entry to the U.S. for refugees from Syria, Iraq, and other places in the Middle East, including Egypt and the oPt. Furthermore, in an effort to counter ISIS, funding and nonlethal aid for rebel groups in Syria was extended through FY 2016 (*H.R. 719 of 2/4/15, *H.R. 2250 of 5/12/15, and *H.R. 2029 of 4/24/15).
As Pres. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi further consolidated the authoritarian credentials of his regime in Egypt, the U.S. government’s relationship with Cairo remained guarded. The 7 measures carrying Egypt-related provisions thus reflected Washington’s growing concern with the country’s human rights situation, but also the consensus view that Egypt’s adherence to its 1979 peace treaty with Israel was essential for regional stability. Of the 7 Egypt-relevant measures, 6 were appropriations or authorizations bills; each of the 3 that passed into law approved military and economic aid, renewed the conditionality of such aid on the human rights situation in the country (*H.R. 719 of 2/4/15, *H.R. 2250 of 5/12/15, and *H.R. 2029 of 4/24/15). The final measure, a simple resolution, called on Pres. Obama to designate Egypt as a “country of particular concern” for violations of religious freedom and urged the Egyptian government to repeal or amend its blasphemy laws (H. Res. 290 of 6/2/15). It did not pass.