House and Senate release finalized 2024 NDAA compromise bill

The legislation creates an ambassador for the Abraham Accords, a new Middle East maritime defense cooperative initiative and various U.S.-Israel cooperative programs

From left, Reps. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, Harriet Hageman, R-Wyo., Laurel Lee, R-Fla., and Mike Collins, R-Ga., attend the House and Senate committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024 in Dirksen Building on Wednesday, November 29, 2023.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

From left, Reps. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, Harriet Hageman, R-Wyo., Laurel Lee, R-Fla., and Mike Collins, R-Ga., attend the House and Senate committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024 in Dirksen Building on Wednesday, November 29, 2023.

House and Senate negotiators released their finalized draft of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act late last night. The massive annual bill, which sets out defense and national security policy across a range of areas, includes provisions creating an ambassador for the Abraham Accords, a Middle East maritime cooperative initiative and a range of programs aimed at strengthening U.S.-Israel cooperation.

The NDAA formally creates a dedicated State Department envoy for the Abraham Accords, Negev Forum and other regional normalization efforts, at the rank of ambassador. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro is currently serving in a similar role, set up unilaterally within the State Department earlier this year, without Senate confirmation. 

The legislation further seeks expanded economic cooperation, including a “comprehensive economic framework” among the Abraham Accords and Negev Forum states. It names Saudi Arabia as a “key partner in regional integration” and the Palestinian Authority as another partner of interest in the region, eligible for cooperative initiatives laid out in the legislation.

The compromise bill includes language instructing the Pentagon to work to establish an integrated Middle East maritime capability, with U.S. partners in the region, including Israel. The initiative, originally introduced as the MARITIME Act, aims to counter Iranian malign activity at sea.

The bill mandates a review of U.S. precision-guided munitions stockpiled in Israel and an assessment of the types of munitions Israel would need to respond to a sustained multi-front war, to update and modernize the stockpile. This language was in the works before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in Israel and the current Israel-Hamas war, but has taken on especially high salience since the attack.

The NDAA includes a stringent new oversight provision requiring the administration to promptly alert Congress when Iran enriches uranium above 60% purity, increases the purity to which it is enriching uranium or engages in large-scale enrichment. This is a pared-down version of a bill introduced earlier this year.

The bill seeks to facilitate training Israeli pilots on new aerial refueling aircraft that Israel has ordered and to expedite the delivery of those tankers. It instructs the Pentagon to conduct a study on preemptively deploying some U.S.-owned aircraft to Israel. These new tankers are widely seen as key to an Israeli strike on Iran. It also allows the U.S. to transfer tankers that are otherwise being retired to Israel.

The bill requires biannual CENTCOM exercises, with invitations for Israeli participation and that of other regional partners, to simulate large-scale and long-range strike missions and U.S. refueling of Israeli aircraft — meant to simulate a U.S.-assisted Israeli attack on Iran. 

In response to attacks by Iran and its proxies on U.S. military bases throughout the Middle East, the bill requires the Pentagon to develop and submit to Congress a strategy to harden defenses at such bases. 

The conference report accompanying the bill includes language condemning the Oct. 7 attack. It affirms that Israel is “one of the strongest friends and allies of the United States” and that it is “essential to the strategic interest of the United States to continue to provide full security assistance and related support to Israel,” particularly due to the current threats Israel faces.

The NDAA draft reauthorizes cooperative missile-defense programs such as Iron Dome, extends through 2026 U.S. authorities for anti-tunneling cooperation with Israel and proposes increased funding for cooperation on counter-drone technology. It seeks to push ahead with cooperative directed energy systems development, like the Iron Beam, including authorizing additional funding.

The bill authorizes $27 million in new funding for other joint U.S.-Israel defense research and development projects.

It also requires the Pentagon to examine adding Israel to a U.S.-run fighter pilot training program for NATO combat pilots.

The bill requires reports to Congress on whether any Defense Department-run stores stock products from companies that boycott Israel, China’s efforts to gain influence in the Middle East, the potential intelligence benefits of expanding the Abraham Accords, efforts to increase the frequency of military exercises with Israel and other Middle East partners, U.S. capabilities in the Middle East, possibilities for expediting the delivery of fighters jets to Israel, and on the capacity of the defense industrial base to meet the needs for Israel and Ukraine’s air and missile-defense needs.

It expands existing reporting requirements regarding Iran to include information on Iranian unconventional, paramilitary and proxy forces; Iranian nuclear capabilities; Iran’s missile launch and storage sites; Iran’s space launch and drone programs; threats by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to Europe; Russian-Iranian cooperation; Chinese-Iranian cooperation; Iranian threats to U.S. military bases; Iranian narcotics trafficking; IRGC officials stationed outside Iran in clandestine roles; and Iranian military assistance to South American countries.

The compromise bill strips out a provision put forward by the House that would have blocked any Iran nuclear agreement unless it received explicit congressional approval.

The bill authorizes the federal government to provide funding to the families of Americans wrongfully detained abroad so that the families can travel to Washington to meet with U.S. government officials.

It prohibits any funding from going to the Iranian government and its affiliates. It also bars U.S. aircraft from refueling non-American places engaging in hostilities in Yemen. It bans any former service members from accepting employment in positions related to Iran or Syria. 

And includes non-actionable language rejecting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel. 

The legislation preserves a provision introduced in the House that would shut down the Pentagon’s Countering Extremism Working Group, but strips other language that aimed to kneecap the Defense Department’s counter-extremism efforts within its ranks. Language in the conference report directs other Pentagon officials to oversee the implementation of the working group’s already released recommendations.

It includes some, but not all, of the House-pushed provisions that would limit Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs at the Defense Department, including prohibiting the creation or hiring of any new DEI officials or positions until a review of DEI programs is provided to Congress, and capping the pay for DEI officials.

And the bill bans defense officials from communicating with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group founded by a Jewish veteran opposing alleged religious intimidation in the military, or acting on complaints submitted by the group without approval from the secretary of defense.

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