Special envoy position

House Foreign Affairs Committee advances Abraham Accords envoy bill

HFAC voted on a bipartisan basis to advance legislation creating an ambassador for the Abraham Accords

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, left, and ranking member Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., talk before the House Foreign Affairs Committee markup hearing in the Capitol Visitor Center on Friday, March 24, 2023.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced legislation creating an ambassador-level special envoy for the Abraham Accords on Tuesday.

Tuesday’s markup highlighted the strong bipartisan support for the Abraham Accords among committee members, as well as the broad support for creating a dedicated post at the State Department focused on expanding the agreements. The committee separately approved a bill barring normalization with Syria under the leadership of Bashar al Assad and a resolution calling for the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is detained in Russia.

“Establishing a special envoy wholly devoted to this purpose will also demonstrate a clear U.S. commitment to cultivating the growth of the Abraham Accords,” Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), a sponsor of the bipartisan envoy bill alongside Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), said during the meeting. “This shows our allies and every nation around the world how much we value normalized relations with Israel… It is a reaffirmation of our commitment to supporting peaceful and productive bilateral relationships in the Middle East, and hopefully far beyond the region.”

He added that provisions in the legislation requiring the administration to report to Congress on efforts to expand the Accords, including specific diplomatic outreach and the status of normalization efforts with specific countries, would keep the Biden administration and other future administrations accountable to continuing to strengthen the agreements.

HFAC Chair Michael McCaul (R-TX), Ranking Member Gregory Meeks (D-NY), and Reps. Joe Wilson (R-SC), Dean Phillips (D-MN), Kathy Manning (D-NC), Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) and Brad Schneider (D-IL) spoke in favor of the bill. Several legislators suggested that a special envoy would be particularly critical in advancing goals such as bringing Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords.

No lawmakers voiced objections to the bill, which passed by a voice vote.

“A special envoy is precisely what we need right now, to raise the emphasis of these important accords,” McCaul said.

“I also believe it is advantageous to the State Department to have an official in place focused on managing and implementing a regional strategy for peace and encouraging cooperation between and among Israel, Arab states and the Palestinians to enhance such prospects for peace and create tangible benefits for all,” Meeks said.

Axios reported on Monday, the day before the markup, that the Department of State is considering appointing former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro to manage the State Department’s Abraham Accords portfolio, although Shapiro’s charge would reportedly include other responsibilities as well. Schneider noted that the bill comes at a time of significant turnover in the administration’s Middle East policy team — with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides stepping down and Amos Hochstein, who has been a key Middle East policy hand at the Department of State, moving out of Foggy Bottom to a new role as the president’s senior advisor for energy and investment.

“This is a good opportunity to cement progress and make sure the State Department has someone in place to guide the complex interagency process needed to further strengthen and expand the Accords,” he said. “I can think of no better person than the one being considered, Dan Shapiro.”

Manning also said she would support Shapiro’s appointment, calling him “extremely well qualified” and adding, “I know that many in the region appreciate his leadership of the Atlantic Council’s N7 Initiative.”

“In addition to making the right personnel and bureaucratic moves, I’m also hopeful we can do something much more comprehensive in this Congress to further these agreements and create tangible benefits for all peoples in the region, including the Palestinians,” Manning continued.

The committee debated and approved by a voice vote legislation that would bar the U.S. from normalizing relations with Syria as long as it remains led by Bashar Al Assad, strengthen sanctions on those supporting Assad and increase oversight of humanitarian aid going to Syria. The bill comes as Arab states appear to be moving toward normalizing relations with the regime after years of international rejection, including readmitting Syria into the Arab League.

“Recently… we have witnessed, sadly, signals of normalization with war criminal [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Assad,” Wilson said.

Wilson noted that the normalization efforts stem in part from efforts to slow the drug trade from Syria into Arab states, but argued, “normalization with an unrepentant dictator and kleptocrat, who continues bombing the earthquake-devastated areas of Syria, does not represent a viable path forward.”

Lawmakers lamented that the Arab League was seemingly allowing Syria readmission without any apparent preconditions. 

The Arab League members are “giving him credibility and they got nothing for it,” Rep. French Hill (R-AR) said.”It’s sickening that we’re we’re essentially abandoning the rest of Syria to Assad’s torture and murder.”

Phillips called the move a “terrible misstep” that “demonstrates why U.S. leadership is so important, now more than ever.” Meeks also expressed support for the legislation.

Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) claimed that committee members had not been given sufficient time to review the legislation in advance of the markup, and pushed for it to be withdrawn. He also expressed broader dissatisfaction with McCaul’s leadership of the committee.

HFAC approved by a voice vote legislation calling for the release of Gershkovich, the son of Soviet Jewish emigres, from Russian custody. The Wall Street Journal reporter, who the administration has designated as wrongfully detained, was arrested on allegations of espionage.

“Evan is innocent. He was simply doing his job reporting on the news in Russia. But we know war criminal Putin doesn’t like that,” McCaul said. “So he arrested Evan with the intention of not only silencing him, but of scaring other journalists to remain silent too. I want to assure Evan’s friends, his co-workers and his family that we will continue our fight every day until we bring him home to you.”

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