Biden’s mideast nominees under fire for anti-Israel bias

Nominee for Mideast aid position walks back criticism of Abraham accords during Senate grilling.

By Dmitriy Shapiro, JNS.org

Two Biden administration nominees for top posts related to the Middle East came under fire for alleged anti-Israel bias by Senate Republicans in their confirmation hearing on Thursday.

The hearing, held in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, comes at a critical time as U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to travel to Israel and Saudi Arabia next month while the United States is struggling to repair its frayed relationship with the Arab kingdom amid skyrocketing gas prices.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took issue with Tamara Cofman Wittes, the nominee for assistant administrator for the Middle East at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which is responsible for distributing aid for development in the Middle East.

Cruz said that rather than a confirmation hearing, the Democratic majority convened a hearing on the “profound anti-Israel bias of the Biden administration.”

During questioning, Cruz pointed to Cofman Wittes’s controversial past of being highly critical of the Abraham Accords during the Trump administration, according to the Washington Free Beacon.

“Why were you urging Arab countries not to deepen ties with Israel?” he asked, referring to a September 2020 tweet, reported by the Washington Free Beacon, where she wrote: “If I were an Arab leader weighing ties with Israel, I would have 2 things in mind. 1) A promise from [Trump adviser Jared] Kushner now isn’t worth much. Why not wait until after Nov elections? 2) Bibi’s backtracked on his commitments to UAE; his promises aren’t worth much either. Let’s wait & see … ”

“I was skeptical when the Emiratis made their announcement, which was breathtaking in August 2020,” she replied. “I was skeptical that other Arab states would join them. I was proven wrong.”

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In her opening statement, Cofman Wittes praised the Abraham Accords, calling them a “foundation for more cooperation between Arab states and Israel on shared interests, including on development.” She added that if confirmed, she would help “build on the Abraham Accords to bolster positive engagement across the region on issues like energy, environment, water and health.”

‘Key pillar of our foreign policy’

Ranking member Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) asked her to reconcile her earlier views on the Abraham Accords with her current support.

Young mentioned that Cofman Wittes had retweeted an article that called the Abraham Accords misogynistic, a “triumph for authoritarianism” and a “new naksa,” Arabic for “setback.”

“I was wrong about that,” she replied. “We’ve seen Morocco, we’ve seen Sudan, we’ve seen Bahrain come, and that, I think, creates a tremendous opportunity that we need to seize.”

Cruz claimed that Wittes’s former employer, the Brookings Institution, had publicly revealed it took millions in funding from Qatar. He also noted that the former president of the Washington-based think tank, retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, has recently resigned after reports that the FBI was investigating allegations that Allen lobbied on behalf of Qatar without registering as a foreign agent.

When asked to what extent she participated in fundraising for Qatar by Cruz, she replied that she had no knowledge of Allen’s activities.

While she claimed that she knew that Qatar funded work produced by the institution, she insisted that it played no role in the research and that she only once participated in a fundraising meeting with Qatari representatives in 2012, but it was under former Brookings executive vice president Martin Indyk.

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“I want to be very clear, I had no knowledge of any of these disturbing allegations regarding General Allen,” she said. “I didn’t discuss research on Qatar with General Allen. I did not do fundraising meetings for foreign governments with General Allen.”

Cofman Wittes insisted that despite Brookings’ projects being funded by Qatar, her research and the research she supervised were completely independent of international donors.

‘Wrapped within our values’

Michael Ratney, current Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. embassy in Israel, who is nominated for the post of ambassador to Saudi Arabia, had a slightly less contentious time during the hearing, despite the importance of his role in the current climate.

He said that he was going to continue building on the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States while staying in line with the Biden administration’s focus on human rights as a “key pillar of our foreign policy.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) echoed some of the priorities laid out by Ratney in his opening statements, mentioning the need for progress towards normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, “but this all needs to be wrapped within our values.”

Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), who himself served as ambassador to Japan in the Trump administration, asked Ratney about an incident during his time as U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem from 2012 to 2015, where American taxpayer funds provided as grants to a pro-Democracy organization in the region ended up being used to oppose then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election bid.

“Under your watch, the State Department provided $465,000 in grants to a group called OneVoice, which then joined a group called Victory 15 and worked to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party in Israel’s elections,” said Hagerty. “This struck many observers, including me, as highly inappropriate, if not unethical, especially given that the Obama administration disagreed with Netanyahu and his many policies, including the Iran nuclear deal.”

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Hagerty asked Ratney how he did not foresee and guard against the risk that U.S. State Department funding would go towards political activism.

Ratney said he was only responsible for oversight of the “Palestinian component” of the grant to OneVoice, which was going towards building “grassroots support for a two-state solution” and the negotiating process underway at the time.

Hagerty then asked if Ratney disputed findings in a report on the incident by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that he deleted emails related to the review of OneVoice grants.

Ratney said that this finding by the investigation was the result of a systematic issue at the State Department at that time, where there was no requirement to archive all of the routine emails that the State Department sent or received.

“At the time, the State Department—the email systems didn’t have the storage capacity to retain large numbers of emails in people’s inboxes. This was not unique to me,” said Ratney. “We were routinely instructed by our IT staff that if you don’t delete emails, especially those with large attachments, your inbox freezes and you stop getting emails. So that was a systemic problem that was addressed both by improvements in the technology and also a change to the policy about archiving of these messages.”