The second session of the 114th Congress opened on 1/4/16 in the midst of a contentious presidential campaign season and closed a year later on 1/3/17, near the end of Pres. Barack Obama’s second term. The Republican-dominated legislative body clashed frequently with the outgoing Democratic administration in its final session, including on issues related to Palestinian affairs and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, as it had in its first.
Over the course of the 114th Congress, the 100 senators and 435 representatives collectively introduced 12,073 independent pieces of legislation; 317 of which carried provisions relating to Palestinian affairs or the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. This year’s Monitor is only concerned with the 25 relevant measures that are under active consideration carried over from the first session, and the 139 introduced during the second.
These totals represent a significant increase in congressional attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict compared to the previous Congress, when only 211 relevant measures were introduced (see JPS 43  and 44 ). The increase reflects persistent disagreements between the Obama administration and the Republican leadership in Congress surrounding the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, the ongoing debate in Congress over how to handle the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis it created, and the steady growth 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 164 measures under consideration here, 117 were binding (10 passed into law), and 47 were simple or concurrent resolutions (10 passed).
Although most of the 164 measures principally concerned issues relating to Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict, 28 were tangentially related and included relevant issues in debates surrounding the measures, amendments proposed to otherwise unrelated legislation, or provisions in vast, multifaceted bills.
Of the unrelated measures, 10 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 allocating funding to those authorized bodies (i.e., disbursement of funds). The 3 appropriations and authorizations bills that passed into law authorized funding for joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense programs, among other things (*S. 2943 of 5/18/16), and extended appropriations from fiscal year (FY) 2016 through the first few months of FY 2017 (*H.R. 5325 of 5/25/16 and *H.R. 2028 of 4/24/16. See *H.R. 2029 of 4/24/15 at congressionalmonitor.org for a full accounting of FY 2016 appropriations).
The 18 other tangential measures dealt with a variety of issues, ranging from water policy (S. 2848 of 4/25/16 and H.R. 5055 of 4/26/16) and the Italian judiciary (S. Con. Res. 48 of 7/14/ 16) to anti-Semitism in Europe (H.R. 6208 of 9/28/16 and S. 3478 of 11/17/16). The 4 tangential bills that passed dealt broadly with trade policy (*H.R. 644 of 2/2/15), North Korea’s nuclear program (*H.R. 757 of 2/5/15), authorizations for certain State Dept. programs and embassy security (*S. 1635 of 6/18/15), and water infrastructure (*S. 612 of 2/27/15). Only 1 of the 4 nonbinding measures passed, commemorating the 195th anniversary of Greek independence (*S. Res. 394 of 3/9/16).
Because neither the composition of Congress nor the Republican leadership’s relationship with Obama changed significantly in 2016, congressional priorities on issues relating to Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict were largely the same as they were in previous sessions. Therefore, all the legislation under consideration here falls into the same 3 broad thematic categories: (1) that directly or indirectly benefiting Israel; (2) that serving Israel’s interests by undermining its adversaries; (3) that securing Israel’s position in the Middle East by reinforcing, influencing, or altering U.S. policy.
Almost a third, or 50, of the measures included in this Monitor carried provisions benefiting Israel directly or indirectly, marking a slight increase from the 46 and 43 such measures introduced in each of the 2 preceding sessions. The 28 binding measures and 22 simple or concurrent resolutions can be further subdivided into the following categories:
- Maintaining or Increasing Military Support: The 17 bills in this category grant Israel military aid or increase U.S.-Israeli military cooperation (4 passed into law). Each of the 3 abovementioned appropriations and authorizations bills that passed into law carried such provisions, delivering Israel more than $3 b. in direct military aid and extending the FY 2016 authorizations for joint U.S.-Israeli anti-tunnel and missile defense programs. Additionally, there was notable movement in Congress toward new partnerships with Israel on emerging military technologies. Two bills authorized joint programs to develop “directed energy capabilities,” or laser-based missile defense systems (H.R. 4810 of 3/17/16 and H.R. 4909 of 4/12/16), and 3 authorized joint cybersecurity programs (H.R. 4860 of 3/23/16, H.R. 5843 of 7/14/16, and *H.R. 5877 of 7/14/16).
- Providing Ceremonial or Nonmilitary Support: There were 7 bills and 17 simple and concurrent resolutions in this category. Of these, 2 simple resolutions passed, calling for an increase in annual military aid to Israel (*H. Res. 729 of 5/13/16) and reaffirming the U.S.-Israeli economic relationship (*S. Res. 383 of 3/1/16). The only bill in this category that passed carried a minor provision directing the Obama administration to leverage the experience of allies like Israel on water infrastructure issues (*S. 612 of 2/27/15). Of the measures that did not pass, 10 simple resolutions called for a more forceful defense of Israel in the international diplomatic arena, including at the UN Security Council (UNSC) and International Criminal Court (ICC); 3 bills would have authorized new U.S.-Israeli scientific partnerships; 3 bills would have adjusted U.S. policy on imports from the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) to support Israel’s settlement enterprise; and the remaining 5 resolutions affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense and its control over the Golan Heights, or called for stronger U.S.-Israeli partnerships on various nonmilitary matters.
- Commemorating Jewish and Israeli History: Of the 9 measures introduced to honor or commemorate Jewish and Israeli history, 3 simple and concurrent resolutions passed. They approved the use of the Capitol for a Holocaust commemoration ceremony (*H. Con. Res. 111 of 2/2/16) and honored Holocaust survivor and noted author Elie Wiesel on the occasion of his death (*H. Res. 810 of 7/7/16 and *S. Res. 523 of 7/7/16).
Undermining Israel's Adversaries
The 114th Congress continued its efforts to undermine Israel’s adversaries during the second session, with 97 new measures and 11 carried over from the previous session. While the number of such measures decreased in comparison to the first session, the proportion increased slightly, from 57% to almost 60%. Ten of these measures passed, including 6 that were binding.
Although the P5+1 and Iran’s 7/14/15 nuclear agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), went into effect 2 weeks after this congressional session opened, the partisan divide over issues related to Iran persisted. In fact, the number of measures carrying provisions aimed at strengthening or imposing sanctions on Iran, countering various Iranian activities in the Middle East, and challenging Iran’s human rights record increased. Up from 72 last session, there were 84 measures in this category; 72 were bills or joint resolutions (5 passed into law), and 12 were simple or concurrent resolutions (3 passed).
- Sanctions: The vast majority, 54, of these measures dealt with sanctions. Because sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program were suspended under the JCPOA, both Republicans and right-leaning Democrats sought new mechanisms to block Iran’s access to the U.S. dollar, stifle its ballistic missile and cybersecurity programs, designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization, and target alleged human rights abusers. In part due to Obama’s pledge to veto any measure that could threaten the JCPOA, only 1 of these bills (*H.R. 6297 of 11/14/16) passed. It extended the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996, which imposed economic sanctions on firms doing business with Iran’s oil industry, through 12/31/26; the bill passed into law without Obama’s signature on 12/15/16.
- Human Rights and Prisoners: There were 8 bills and 8 nonbinding measures carrying provisions related to Iran’s human rights record and imprisonment of U.S. citizens. These included bills designed to block Obama from paying ransoms, as Republicans alleged he did to secure the release of 4 high-profile U.S. prisoners in 1/2016 (see Update on Conflict and Diplomacy in JPS 45 ). The only 2 binding measures that passed were the 2 appropriations bills extending FY 2016 funding (*H.R. 5325 of 5/25/16 and *H.R. 2028 of 4/24/16). They included provisions to distribute money to the U.S. citizens taken hostage in Tehran in 1979 and programs promoting Internet freedom and access in Iran (see *H.R. 2029 of 4/24/15 on congressionalmonitor.org). Three of the 8 nonbinding measures passed. They called for the release of an individual U.S. prisoner in Iran (*H. Res. 148 of 3/10/15 and *S. Res. 99 of 3/10/15) and condemned Iran’s persecution of its Baha’i minority (*H. Res. 220 of 4/23/15).
- Influencing Diplomacy: The remaining 18 measures—14 binding and 4 nonbinding—contained a wide variety of provisions meant to redirect or reinforce the new, post-JCPOA dynamic in the Middle East. The 2 appropriations bills that passed into law carried over a series of congressional JCPOA oversight procedures (*H.R. 5325 of 5/25/16 and *H.R. 2028 of 4/24/16), in addition to the other Iran-related provisions mentioned above. Only 2 other bills in this category passed. One required a new report on Iranian cybersecurity and authorized $4 m. for JCPOA oversight (*S. 2943 of 5/18/16), and the other sparked a debate in Congress about Iranian–North Korean nuclear cooperation (*H.R. 757 of 2/5/15). None of the nonbinding measures passed.
Congress’s relationship with the Palestinians was largely unchanged in 2016—the Republican-dominated legislature approved hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and humanitarian programs in the oPt, while maintaining annual restrictions and conditions on its disbursement. There were 16 measures carrying such provisions this session, down from 19 and 27 in the 2 previous sessions.
- Restricting Aid: Apart from the 2 appropriations bills that extended annual restrictions on aid to the Palestinians through 4/2017 (*H.R. 5325 of 5/25/16 and *H.R. 2028 of 4/24/16), there were 8 binding measures with new restrictions on aid and Palestinian diplomatic initiatives, including 2 bills that would have imposed new conditions on the PLO operating an office in Washington (S. 2537 and H.R. 4522 of 2/10/16) and 2 that would have barred PLO officials from the U.S. (S. 3241 and H.R. 5851 of 7/14/16), none of which passed.
- Criticism and Condemnation: None of the 5 nonbinding measures condemning Palestinian violence against Israelis and U.S. citizens, or the Palestinian efforts at the UNSC and ICC passed
- Countering Hamas: Although there were numerous measures citing the threat posed to Israel by Hamas, only 1 measure targeted the group specifically (H. J. Res. 84 of 3/2/16). It would have authorized the use of military force against both Hamas and Hezbollah, and it did not pass.
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement
Although many members of Congress continued their efforts to undermine the BDS movement in 2016, there were fewer anti-BDS measures this quarter than last. Of the 11 considered, including 2 carried over from the 14 introduced during the previous session, 2 were nonbinding measures encouraging the Obama administration to intensify its defense of Israel against BDS in international forums (H. Res. 567 of 12/16/15 and S. Res. 346 of 1/20/16); neither passed. Of the 9 binding measures with anti-BDS provisions, only the so-called customs bill passed, which includes a set of anti-BDS objectives for the U.S. to pursue in trade negotiations (*H.R. 644 of 2/2/15).
Up from 2 last session, there were 4 measures explicitly targeting Hezbollah (many of the measures targeting Iran or benefiting Israel noted Hezbollah as a threat, but did not carry any specific provisions meant to counter the group). Neither of the 2 binding measures in this category passed (H.R. 5197 of 5/11/16 and H. J. Res. 84 of 3/2/16), but 1 of the nonbinding measures did, urging the EU to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization (*S. Res. 482 of 6/6/16).
Buttressing Israel via U.S. Regional Policy
The Refugee Crisis
Near the end of the previous congressional session, on 11/13/15, ISIS-affiliated gunmen and suicide bombers launched a series of coordinated strikes in Paris, killing at least 130 people. The attacks prompted U.S. politicians to act against the alleged threat posed by refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq, as well as immigrants from elsewhere in the Middle East, including the oPt; that effort carried over into the second session. In addition to extending the funding for nonlethal aid to vetted rebel groups fighting ISIS (*H.R. 5325 of 5/25/16 and *H.R. 2028 of 4/24/ 16), Congress considered 10 bills that would have altered, suspended, or terminated U.S. intake of these refugees and immigrants. None passed, although Donald Trump’s victory in the 11/8/16 presidential election re-energized proponents of the measures, and they pledged to renew their efforts in the 115th Congress.
As Pres. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi continued consolidating authoritarian power in Egypt, the U.S. government maintained a guarded relationship with Cairo. Of the 9 measures in this category, 5 were appropriation and authorizations bills that apportioned both military and economic aid conditioned on the Egyptian government’s adherence to its 1979 peace treaty with Israel and certain human rights–related benchmarks. Two bills would have amended the Internal Revenue Code to designate the Sinai Peninsula a “qualified hazardous duty area,” making U.S. armed forces serving there eligible for special pay (S. 3272 of 7/14/16 and H.R. 5924 of 7/21/16). The remaining 2 measures—1 bill and 1 simple resolution—dealt directly with human rights issues (H. Res. 290 of 6/2/15 and H.R. 5974 of 9/8/16).