House passes bill to create special envoy for Abraham Accords; Summer Lee votes no
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House passes bill to create special envoy for Abraham Accords; Summer Lee votes no

Lee was one of only 13 representatives to vote no on this bill

Negev Forum participants hold a meeting in Abu Dhabi on January 10, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the UAE Foreign Affairs Ministry, via The Times of Israel)
Negev Forum participants hold a meeting in Abu Dhabi on January 10, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the UAE Foreign Affairs Ministry, via The Times of Israel)

Congresswoman Summer Lee, who represents Pennsylvania’s 12th District, which includes Squirrel Hill, was one of only 13 representatives to vote against a bill mandating the Biden administration to appoint a special envoy for the Abraham Accords.

Lee did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the legislation on Tuesday. The special envoy will be tasked with encouraging additional countries to follow the lead of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, which normalized relations with Israel in 2020.

The envoy will also be expected to strengthen those existing agreements between Israel and Muslim-majority countries while “coordinating efforts across the U.S. government and engaging diplomatically with foreign governments, nongovernmental organizations, and other stakeholders,” reads the bipartisan legislation introduced by Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres and Republican Rep. Michael Lawler.

The State Department appointee would have the rank of ambassador, thereby requiring Senate confirmation — a stipulation likely to politicize the process in an already polarized Washington.

The bill passed 413 to 13, with 11 of the no votes being from progressive Democrats known for their Israel criticism who were joined by conservative Republican Reps. Thomas Massie and Rich McCormick. Among the no votes were so-called “Squad” members Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The bill still needs to make it through the Senate before becoming law. Leadership in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has announced that it will introduce its own bill aimed at boosting the Abraham Accords and a congressional aide told The Times of Israel that it will include a section comparable to the House version passed on Tuesday.

The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Senate bill would offer a more holistic approach to strengthening the Abraham Accords than the House bill, which is specifically focused on establishing a special envoy position. The Senate legislation will also encourage the expansion of the Negev Forum — a Biden administration initiative that seeks to establish regional projects in a variety of fields while also improving Palestinian livelihood.

The House bill was passed days after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken already announced that the Biden administration was planning to soon announce the appointment of a point person for the Abraham Accords.

The congressional aide insisted that the new legislation was still necessary since it would codify the position for future administrations.

But an administration official hinted to The Times of Israel that some in the administration feel that the congressional efforts are overkill and won’t actually contribute to the shared goal of advancing the Abraham Accords.

“We’ve made clear from the beginning that this is a priority for us… We recognize that it’s a very popular issue and that Congress wants to get its slice of the pie, but these various efforts are not what’s going to move the needle,” the administration official said.

“Nonetheless, we appreciate the initiative and look forward to working with Congress to advance this important issue,” they clarified.

On the other hand, proponents of the congressional initiatives to boost the Abraham Accords argue that consistent pressure from the Hill is what keeps the administration focused on these issues.

In his remarks announcing the administration’s decision to establish the new post, Blinken said “Israel’s further integration in the region contributes to a more stable, a more secure and more prosperous region. That’s why President Biden has made it a cornerstone of his Middle East policy.”

“We will soon create a new position to further our diplomacy and engagement with governments and private sector, nongovernmental organizations, all working toward a more peaceful and a more connected region,” he added.

The secretary of state did not elaborate further on the nature of the new position, but a U.S. official confirmed to The Times of Israel last month that former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro’s name has been floated for the post.

Blinken traveled to Saudi Arabia the next day and raised the idea of Riyadh normalizing with Israel during his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Biden administration has worked over the past year to further integrate Israel in the region, forming the Negev Forum and I2U2 to boost cooperation across the Middle East and beyond, coaxing Saudi Arabia and Oman to open their skies to Israeli airliners, and brokering a maritime deal between Israel and Lebanon.

But responsibility for that effort has been scattered across different offices, with the White House’s Brett McGurk, Biden’s energy envoy Amos Hoschstein, and Yael Lempert from the State Department among those playing integral roles.

Lempert is slated to serve as U.S. ambassador to Jordan and will have her plate full with other issues.

Notably, the decision to tap a point person for advancing the Abraham Accords comes following a decision by Biden not to appoint a special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as previous presidents have done.

The administration maintains that the conditions are not currently ripe for the launching of a high-stakes peace initiative. PJC

Toby Tabachnick contributed to this report.

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