bridging the gap

Leaf hints at Abraham Accords expansion surrounding Biden’s Israel, Saudi Arabia trip

‘I don’t want to get ahead of the president on anything that may figure around his visit, but I can assure you that [normalization] is a piece that we are collectively working on,’ the State Dept. official said

Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr/U.S. Air Force

Barbara Leaf

Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, hinted on Wednesday that there may be developments related to expanding the Abraham Accords during President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to the Middle East.

“We are working in the space that is not in the public domain with a couple of other countries,” that do not have preexisting relationships with Israel, “and I think you’ll see some interesting things around the time of the president’s visit,” Leaf told the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East, North Africa and global counterterrorism subcommittee.

Biden will arrive in Israel on July 13 for meetings in Israel and the West Bank before traveling on to Saudi Arabia.

Asked by a lawmaker about efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Leaf said, “I don’t want to get ahead of the president on anything that may figure around his visit, but I can assure you that this is a piece that we are collectively working on.”

Leaf emphasized that the administration has also engaged in a range of efforts to build on the existing normalization agreements, highlighting trilateral cooperation with Israel and the United Arab Emirates and a group including four Arab states that met in March at a summit hosted by Israel in the Negev Desert. She said the U.S. is also setting up working groups on issues including water, food security, tourism and health. She added that the administration hopes to further expand these efforts, but said there are no plans to appoint a specific official to handle the matter.

Leaf also said that she spoke with Palestinian leaders during a recent visit to the region about expanding economic cooperation with Israel.

“I think the door is beginning to crack, I’m going to continue to work on this space, because I think the Palestinians owe it to their people to engage in issues like water security, food security, renewables, issues of climate change, even as they work towards an eventual negotiation,” Leaf said.

Leaf explained that Palestinian leaders were anxious to ensure that such cooperation would not become a “substitute” for an ultimate political settlement, but said she had given assurances that she would “continue to work very hard” on a two-state solution.

Leaf and Andrew Plitt, the acting assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Middle East Bureau, who also testified Wednesday, both defended the U.S.’ provision of aid to the Palestinians, which she said was supported by Israel.

“Economic measures and economic hope, do, without question, bring a calm and a stability to areas that otherwise would pose immense security threats for Israel,” she said.

Another major topic of discussion on Wednesday was Iran.

Leaf insisted that the currently stalled nuclear talks with Iran are “not an open-ended, ‘till the ends of time situation” and that “there will come a point” where the U.S. cuts off negotiations, at the president’s discretion.

She added that there is “a draft that is largely finished — not entirely” of a potential nuclear deal, but that the U.S. is increasing and tightening U.S. sanctions and has “maintained all the sanctions that were put on Iran by the Trump administration.” 

Leaf also confirmed that talks were derailed by Iran’s insistence that the U.S. remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization — which had been widely reported by not frequently acknowledged publicly by administration officials.

“They inserted a non-nuclear issue into the mix. We said, ‘No thanks, unless you’re willing to do the sort of things that would allow us to even consider discussing that non-nuclear issue,’” Leaf recounted.

The U.S. is also working with Europeans and regional allies to disrupt financial networks supporting Iranian proxy groups, according to Leaf. And she said the International Atomic Energy Agency board’s rebuke of Iran earlier this month “came as an extremely unpleasant surprise to the Iranians. I think they thought they could duck and dodge it. So they are feeling the pressure.”

Leaf said that the administration has additionally been engaged in a “long and tortured discussion” as part of efforts to free U.S. citizens held in Iran, adding that there are “some ideas bubbling around” to prevent future detentions, without specifying further.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), who chairs the subcommittee and opposed the original nuclear deal in 2015, but has largely refrained from commenting on the Biden administration’s efforts to renew it, expressed frustration with the administration’s approach during Wednesday’s hearing.

“I remain concerned that U.S. policy towards Iran seems to continue to be focused solely on JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] reentry, as opposed to simultaneously creating a comprehensive strategy that may include a nuclear deal toward countering a long-standing threat that Iran poses to the U.S. [and] our allies and partners,” Deutch said, “and I’m eager to hear how the U.S. plans to approach Iran’s malign influence in a more comprehensive way.”

Deutch later praised the administration for maintaining the IRGC’s FTO designation, but urged officials to be more clear in stating publicly that Iran’s nuclear activity is unacceptable.

“It’s not just Iran’s ability to pursue and get closer to nuclear weapons, it ultimately starts to call into question the entire nonproliferation regime and its effectiveness,” Deutch said.

He also pushed for further clarity about what would prompt the administration to walk away from the talks, and a “clear articulation now” of “the lines that we will not accept Iran crossing” in the event that JCPOA reentry fails.

Leaf and Plitt were on Capitol Hill to discuss the administration’s 2023 budget requests for Middle East-related matters. The administration requested $7.6 billion for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs — which includes $3.3 billion in aid to Israel; $219 million for the Palestinians, $1.4 billion for Egypt; $282.5 million for Lebanon, focused on public services and employment; and $1.45 billion as part of a new Memorandum of Understanding with Jordan, including both civilian economic support and military funding. Overall, the bureau’s budget request is a 1.2% drop from the 2021 funding level and less than 1% below the administration’s 2022 funding request.

The administration also requested $50 million to continue the Middle East Partnership for Peace. 

USAID’s Plitt said the administration will be announcing additional MEPPA awards in the next few weeks, “including a large award on building regional and economic bridges which will have further grants. And that’s really meant to make economic linkages between Israelis and Palestinians and really grow… the ability to bring people together behind investments.”