on the hill

Cardin ‘very concerned’ about Houthi attacks, says it ‘may be time’ to reinstate terror designation

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair also said Arab states are ready to help rebuild Gaza, but only in the context of a path toward a two-state solution

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U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) presides over a hearing about the recent rise in antisemitism and its threat to democracy in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on December 13, 2022, in Washington, DC.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Thursday that he is “very concerned” about the Houthis’ escalating attacks on shipping lanes and commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

“The Houthis are extremely dangerous, what they’re doing with commercial shipping,” Cardin told Jewish Insider. “It’s a very dangerous situation. We’ve been briefed on it. And the United States will protect our interests.”

Cardin said that it “may be time” to look at redesignating the Houthis as a terrorist organization, a label the Biden administration withdrew in 2021. But he also emphasized that the U.S. has to “be careful” not to disrupt the delicate cease-fires that have been reached between the Houthis and opponents in the region.

“That’s a dimension of this that we need to consider as we consider further actions,” Cardin said.

Cardin attended the COP 28 climate conference in the United Arab Emirates last weekend, during which he met with Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed; he also met in Washington last week with senior officials from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

The chairman said that the Arab states are “all willing to get engaged” politically and financially in rebuilding and setting the course for the future of Gaza and the Palestinian people after the current war with Hamas ends, “but it must be with a genuine path forward in regards to two states.”

“That needs to be basically a precondition of their willingness to get invested again, because they said they don’t want to invest in Gaza and see it blown up again,” he explained. “That’s been a consistent message that we’ve heard from the Arab leaders.”

Cardin rejected criticisms of Israel’s military operations in Gaza and calls for a permanent cease-fire. The committee chair said he was not “expert enough” to critique Israel’s specific military decisions, while also emphasizing that he has “impressed upon Israel the need to be as strategic as possible in regards to civilian losses.”

He was not willing to echo recent comments by President Joe Biden at a fundraiser that Israel was engaging in “indiscriminate” bombing.” He said he saw no reason to change the U.S.’ posture toward Israel, arguing that more direct “conflict” with Israel would only make the U.S.’ advice to and pressure on Israel less effective.

He downplayed global pressure on Israel, noting that “criticism against Israel by the global community is nothing new” and that “we’re used to seeing an evaluation of Israel’s conduct that defies any objective standards.”

Resisting calls from some Democrats to add conditions on emergency supplemental aid to Israel, Cardin emphasized that U.S. aid to all of its allies is already conditioned on compliance with U.S. and international law.

He further argued that a proposed floor amendment to the emergency appropriations bill is not the appropriate venue to attempt to introduce new restrictions and oversight provisions on military assistance, a debate he said is better left to the regular committee process that can produce a “rational policy… more objectively.”

The U.S.’ sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey remains on hold, as the problematic NATO ally continues to stonewall Sweden’s entry into the European alliance. Cardin said he had expected Turkey to approve Sweden’s NATO accession already, an issue he linked to the F-16 sale. He said Turkish leaders had explained the delay as part of the normal process in Turkey’s parliament, although Cardin expressed skepticism of that explanation.

He said that there have, however, been recent talks between Greece and Turkey, potentially helping to address another avenue of U.S. concern about the F-16 deal.

Cardin also spoke about negotiations to pass the supplemental bill including aid for Israel and Ukraine. Senators involved in the discussions, focused on reforming immigration policy, indicated they were making progress toward a deal on Thursday, prompting Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to cancel the first week of the Senate’s Christmas recess.

Some Republicans said that, even if a deal is reached promptly, the week won’t be enough time to finalize it and pass the bill. Some also suggested that they don’t plan to show up for votes next week. And House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) refused to keep the House in Washington to wait for a Senate-passed deal, meaning that the supplemental won’t be finalized until the new year, regardless of what happens in the Senate next week.

House Republican leadership has also offered no guarantees that it will take up whatever bill the Senate passes, according to Cardin and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), the lead Democratic border negotiator.

“They’ve got to see it, they’re not going to commit to something that they haven’t seen,” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), the lead GOP negotiator on border policy, said.

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