on the hill

Jordan ambassador nominee Yael Lempert questioned on Sbarro bomber extradition, Abraham Accords

Sen. Ted Cruz floats withholding aid to Jordan to secure extradition of Ahlam Tamimi

Photo by MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images

US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Yael Lempert looks on during the Negev Forum's first Steering Committee meeting in the town of in Zallaq, south of the Bahraini capital of Manama on June 27, 2022.

Yael Lempert, the Biden administration’s nominee to serve as U.S. ambassador to Jordan, pledged on Thursday to “do everything in my power” to secure the extradition of Ahlam Tamimi, who helped plan a bombing that killed U.S. citizens in Israel, but stopped short of endorsing a call for the U.S. to withhold its aid to Amman to secure her capture.

Tamimi was involved in carrying out the 2001 bombing of a Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem, which killed 15, including two U.S. citizens, and injured 130. She was imprisoned in Israel until 2011, when she was released as part of a deal between Israel and Hamas that brought the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 security prisoners held by Israel. Tamimi, who now lives in Jordan, is on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and the U.S. has requested her extradition under its extradition treaty with Amman. Jordan has claimed the agreement is invalid, a position the U.S. rejects. Lempert appeared yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for her confirmation hearing.

“I think our relationship with Jordan is multifaceted and extremely important. There’s obviously some issues that we’re not going to agree on,” said Lempert, currently the principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. “I think that what I can confirm to you is that I will do everything in my power to ensure that Ahlam Tamimi faces justice in the United States.”

Pressed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on whether the U.S. should consider withholding military and economic assistance to Jordan — more than $1 billion annually — Lempert demurred, while calling the case “difficult and frustrating.”

“I think that would need to be weighed very carefully against the range of issues and priorities that we have with the Jordanians before considering such a step, which I think would be profound,” she said. “I would want to, if confirmed, get out there and try and work on this and see if we can make progress in other ways.”

Cruz said that Lempert’s predecessor in Amman had agreed that conditioning aid should be on the table, and said he would ask her to do so in writing in follow-up questions. The Texas senator has confronted Jordanian King Abdullah II on the issue during visits to Capitol Hill, describing one conversation on the subject to Jewish Insider as “productive.” 

Cruz added that he has “no desire to cut off aid to Jordan. What I have a desire for is to get this terrorist who murdered Americans to face justice.”

Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has been a proponent of leveraging U.S. aid to Jordan to secure greater cooperation on Tamimi’s extradition and tamp down on Jordan’s alleged incitement of violence by Palestinians in Israel. Dubowitz called Cruz’s proposal “only the beginning of a new approach on the Hill to hold Amman accountable.”

While the hearing touched on disagreements between the U.S. and Jordan, it provided little indication of a change in attitudes from lawmakers or the administration toward Jordan. Lempert and top lawmakers emphasized the importance of maintaining close ties between the U.S. and the Hashemite Kingdom, as well as elevating the Israeli-Jordanian relationship.

Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) described Jordan as “an important advocate for calm [and] stability, particularly given its role with respect to the holy sites in Jerusalem,” and praised Jordan for brokering talks between Israel, the Palestinians and other parties to reduce tensions.

Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) called Jordan “an essential partner in an often turbulent region” and praised Abdullah for working “very hard to keep our relationship strong. We want to keep it that way.”

Lempert said in her opening statement that the U.S. has “a profound interest in supporting the political and economic reform agenda laid out by the Jordanian government to address persistent economic, environmental and regional challenges”; that Amman is “a key ally in the fight against terrorism, while also supporting international peacekeeping efforts and providing humanitarian assistance”; and that “Jordan’s commitment to working towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as partnering with the United States and others to advance deescalation efforts, is indispensable.”

“These goals,” she added, “are advanced through our new seven-year assistance [Memorandum of Understanding],” which also “bolsters Jordan’s capacity to play a stabilizing role in the Middle East.”

At the same time, both Menendez and Risch emphasized a desire to see Jordan cooperate with the Abraham Accords and join the Negev Forum, which it has been reticent to do.

Lempert emphasized the strength of the bilateral Jordanian-Israeli relationship, but said that she would “work to strengthen and advance” the relationship, including urging Jordan to join the Negev Forum. “Jordan belongs in the Negev Forum,” she said, adding that she has been working on the subject in her current role.

Lawmakers also raised concerns about Jordan’s ties with China, and its apparent rebuilding of ties with Syria, which remains under heavy U.S. sanctions.

Lempert emphasized that addressing competition with China in the region will be a top priority for her, if confirmed. The U.S., she said, needs to “continue to double down on our partnership with Jordan” in response to Chinese engagement, arguing that “our deep and decades long strategic cooperation” provides an advantage to the U.S.

She also said that Washington’s opposition to normalization with Syria will not change.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) questioned Lempert over a new report issued by the U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. 

Van Hollen sent a letter to the State Department earlier this week seeking access to the report and raising concerns that State was allegedly making changes to the report.

Lempert said that the department was working on “technical issues” related to the document’s classification and were seeking to give committee members access to it. “I want to assure you that the department has not and will not make any substantive changes to the document,” she added.

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