The first session of the 115th Congress, which began on 1/3/17 and ended on 1/3/18, largely coincided with the first year of the presidency of Donald Trump, who was inaugurated on 1/20/17. The same election that elevated the flamboyant business mogul to the presidency extended the Republican Party’s control over both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Therefore, 2017 marked the first year since 2009 when the Republicans controlled Congress and the White House.
Single-party control of the legislature and executive branch had no bearing on the amount of legislative activity this session. Over the course of the year, the 100 senators and 435 representatives introduced 8,332 unique measures, only a few hundred more than were introduced during the first session of the 114th Congress (see JPS 45 ). The proportion of those pertaining to Israel, the Palestinians, and broader Arab-Israeli issues was also relatively stable, with 160 carrying at least one relevant provision.
Overview of the Legislation
Congress works with two main types of legislation: binding measures—bills and joint resolutions—that carry the force of law, if passed; and nonbinding measures—simple and concurrent resolutions—that merely state the views of Congress on a particular issue. Nonbinding measures are less consequential since they do not carry the force of law, but they are key indicators of congressional trends and priorities. They “recognize,” “urge,” “encourage,” “affirm,” or “support” people, policies, and events. Of the 160 relevant measures considered during this congressional session, 112 were binding and 48 were nonbinding, with 7 passing into law in each category
Although most of the 160 measures principally concerned issues relating to Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict, 30 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 30 tangential measures, 12 were authorizations and appropriations bills, which are the primary means by which Congress funds the federal government. Authorizations bills provide the legal authority for all government programs and agencies, including the terms and conditions regulating their operations. Appropriations bills allocate funding to those authorized bodies, authorizing their disbursement. Six of the authorizations and appropriations bills passed into law during the first session: 4 of them were continuing resolutions, the stop-gap funding measures Congress uses to extend deadlines and accommodate its own gridlock (*H.R. 601 of 1/23/17, *H.R. 1370 of 3/6/17, *H. J. Res. 99 of 4/26/17, and *H. J. Res. 123 of 12/4/17); 1 authorized Department of Defense programs and activities in fiscal year (FY) 2018 (*H.R. 2810 of 6/7/17); and the remaining 1 included the compromise appropriations package for FY 2017, covering military aid to Israel, economic aid for the Palestinians, and a number of other relevant provisions (*H.R. 244 of 1/4/17).
During the campaign leading up to the presidential election in 2016, then-candidate Trump repeatedly pledged to broker the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and generally strengthen U.S.-Israeli ties. These promises galvanized pro-Israel lawmakers and led to a spate of legislation endorsing Trump’s views and rejecting positions taken by his predecessor. However, the 160 measures under consideration still generally fell into two of the same broad thematic categories this monitor has used in recent years: (1) those directly or indirectly benefiting Israel, and (2) those serving Israel’s interests.
Slightly fewer than a third of the measures under consideration (52) featured language designed to benefit Israel, a similar proportion to that in previous years. The 32 binding measures and 20 nonbinding measures can be further subdivided into the following categories:
- Maintaining or Increasing Military Support: 18 bills introduced during the current session carried provisions authorizing or appropriating military aid to Israel. These were so-called perennial appropriations and authorizations bills, and included measures authorizing joint U.S.- Israeli research on anti-tunnel technology (H.R. 2914 of 6/15/17), additional funds for Israeli missile defense programs (H.R. 2062 of 4/6/17), and other one-off supplemental military aid. The only measures in this category that passed into law were the 6 aforementioned appropriations and authorizations bills. They authorized and appropriated spending on joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense programs, anti-tunneling work, and general military programs.
- Providing Ceremonial or Nonmilitary Support: Eleven bills and 12 nonbinding resolutions were introduced with provisions indirectly benefiting Israel. Nine of these would have strengthened the U.S.-Israel relationship through joint scientific research or joint efforts on other ostensibly nonmilitary issues, 8 called for Trump to fulfill his pledge to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or ordered the move, and 6 weighed in on the prospect of a two-state solution, justifying their respective policy goals in “defense” of Israel. None of these passed.
- Commemorating Jewish and Israeli History: Only 1 of the 7 nonbinding measures introduced to honor aspects of Jewish and Israeli history passed. It commemorated the 50-year anniversary of Jerusalem’s so-called reunification from a messianic perspective (see *S. Res. 176 of 5/24/17).
Undermining Israel's Adversaries
Bolstered by Trump’s bellicose campaign rhetoric and his promise to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship, in the first session of the 115th Congress lawmakers ramped up their collective efforts to undermine Israel’s adversaries. Nearly three-quarters of all the measures considered in this monitor, or 118, carried such provisions, marking a significant increase in the relative proportion over the previous 2 sessions, at respectively 56.7% and 60% (see congressionalmonitor.org for full reports on the first and second sessions of the 114th Congress).
With the Republican majority largely in agreement on the 7/14/15 nuclear agreement with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and with Trump leading the campaign against the deal (see JPS 46 –47 ), the number of Iran-centric pieces of legislation introduced this session decreased. From a total of 66 Iran-related measures introduced, this session saw 2 major ones passed into law: the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (*H.R. 3364 of 7/24/17), which included the text of 2 other new sanctions bills (S. 722 of 3/23/17 and H.R. 1644 of 3/21/17), and the Iran Ballistic Missile Reporting Act of 2017 (H.R. 3078 of 6/27/17), which passed into law as a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2018 (*H.R. 2810 of 6/7/17). Overall, the 51 bills and joint resolutions and 15 nonbinding measures largely fell into following categories:
- Sanctions: The lion’s share of the measures would have either imposed new sanctions, strengthened existing sanctions, or facilitated the future application of further sanctions on Iran. Of the 29 bills and joint resolutions in this category, only the aforementioned Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act passed into law. But both before and after that, lawmakers introduced a slew of measures directing the president to impose new restrictions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC; e.g., S. 67 of 1/9/17), as well as purported money laundering activities by the Iranian leadership (e.g., H.R. 1638 of 3/20/17), and the Tehran government’s alleged use of commercial planes for military purposes (e.g., H.R. 566 of 1/13/17).
- Human Rights and Prisoners: The 10 resolutions in this category either condemned Iranian human rights abuses, called for the release of political prisoners, specifically U.S. citizens being held in Iran, or both. Only two of these passed, both calling for the “unconditional” release of U.S. prisoners in Iran (*H. Res. 317 of 5/4/17 and *S. Res. 245 of 8/3/17). The three bills in this category were introduced in direct response to then-president Barack Obama’s $1.7 b. payment to the Iranian government in 1/2016, which coincided with Iran’s release of 4 U.S. prisoners, and prompted speculation in Congress about a secret diplomatic arrangement (see S. 386 of 2/15/17 for details). None of the measures passed
- Countering Iranian Influence: While many of the measures carrying provisions targeting Iran included some mention of Iran’s deployment of “proxies” in the Syrian civil war and across the Middle East, only 5 bills were designed explicitly to counter such activities. None of them passed. Also in this category, 3 resolutions encouraged the Argentine government to continue to investigate the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires and the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman in 1/2015 (Nisman was found dead hours before he was set to defend his claim that then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had covered up Iran’s alleged involvement in the 1994 AMIA bombing). One of these resolutions passed (*H. Res. 54 of 1/23/17).
There were a few signs that the bipartisan consensus on Palestinians was changing this session. Notably, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act (H.R. 4391) on 11/14/17, and was able to sign on 19 cosponsors by the end of the session. The bill, which would have imposed restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel in connection with its maltreatment of Palestinian minors, marked the first truly significant piece of legislation in recent memory to uphold Palestinian human rights. Aside from McCollum’s initiative, the legislative output in the first session of the 115th Congress was indistinguishable from that in previous sessions. Of the 21 measures carrying relevant provisions, 15 were bills or joint resolutions that either maintained restrictions on U.S. economic aid to the Palestinians or imposed new, harsher restrictions (e.g., H.R. 1164 of 2/16/17). No new restrictions passed into law.
There were also four bills directly targeting Palestinian institutions, including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO; S. 1757 of 8/3/17 and S. 2192 of 12/5/17), Hamas (H.R. 3542 of 7/28/17), and both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine (PIJ; H.R. 2712 of 5/25/17). The remaining measure in this category condemned Palestinian leaders for allegedly inciting violence against Israelis (H. Res. 68 of 1/27/17). None of these measures passed.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement
Although there were fewer anti-BDS measures under discussion this session, the issue was just as prominent as in previous years in the broader debate around the U.S. relationship with Israel. Down from 9 and 14 in the first and second sessions of the 114th Congress, respectively, there were only 7 new anti-BDS measures introduced in the first session of the 115th Congress, and none of them passed into law.
The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would have levied new restrictions and punishments on BDS-friendly companies and their affiliates, sparked the greatest controversy (see S. 720 of 3/23/17), with Palestinian solidarity activists, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other civil rights groups leading a campaign against the bill. Their efforts resulted in convincing one senator, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), to formally stop cosponsoring the bill, which abruptly suspended its otherwise expedited passage through the legislative process
Over the years, Israel’s allies in Congress have secured numerous restrictions on the United Nations (UN) and various UN agencies and programs for their alleged bias against Israel. This year saw an expansion of those efforts, specifically in response to former president Obama’s decision not to veto UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2334 censuring Israel’s settlement enterprise on 12/23/16 (see JPS 46 ). Ten bills and 5 resolutions carried provisions responding directly to the UN measure, and 1 of them passed (*H. Res. 11 of 1/3/17). Apart from those 15 initiatives, there were an additional 4 bills and 5 resolutions with provisions responding to other UN actions on Israel, targeting UN agencies, or otherwise adjusting the U.S. stance toward the UN.
In a related development, lawmakers introduced four bills to buttress U.S. efforts against international anti-Semitism. These measures would have elevated to the status of ambassador the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism (S. 1292 of 6/6/17 and H.R. 1911 of 4/5/17) and introduced a new reporting requirement related to anti-Semitism in Europe (H.R. 672 of 1/24/17 and S. 198 of 1/24/17).
Many of the measures discussed above related Israel’s security to Iran’s regional influence, and cited Hizballah as a “threat” to Israel. In addition, there were 6 measures carrying provisions explicitly targeting Hizballah. The only nonbinding measure in this category, a simple resolution urging the European Union to designate the group a terrorist organization (*H. Res. 359 of 5/25/17), passed on 10/25/17. The same day the House passed that resolution, it passed two other measures targeting Hizballah: The Sanctioning Hizballah’s Illicit Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act (H.R. 3342 of 7/20/17) and the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2017 (H.R. 3329 of 7/20/17). Neither of these bills, nor any of the other Hizballah-specific legislation, passed into law.