Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must have heaved a sigh of relief at the end of his press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Wednesday.
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By all accounts leading up to the meeting, his greatest worries were reports that the U.S. president would publicly pressure him to make a move he views as an existential threat to the Palestinian Authority end a decades-long practice of financial support to the families of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks against Israelis and Palestinians in Israeli prisons for terror.
The payments by the so-called Martyrs Fund estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars have long been viewed by Israelis as a government subsidy for terror. As a number of American citizens have been killed in the most recent terror wave in Israel, the Republican party has taken up the cause as well, with GOP senators pushing Trump to put the issue high on the agenda with Abbas.
Ultimately, the payments did not make it into Trump’s public remarks. Still, White House aides made a point of informing the media that the president had brought up the issue privately.
“The president raised concerns about the payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who have committed acts of terror and to their families and emphasized the need to resolve this issue,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said following the meeting.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing that message in the U.S. media and included it in Hebrew in an Israeli Memorial Day ceremony, addressing Abbas directly: “President Abbas ... how can you speak of peace with Israel and at the same time fund murderers who spill the blood of innocent Israelis at every turn? You want to take a real step for peace that we want? Stop the payments to murderers. Cancel the law that requires payments to these murderers. Fund peace, not murder.”
But on Thursday a senior Palestinian official told Israel Radio that in 2014, Netanyahu’s emissary had quietly been party to an agreement with the Palestinians, brokered by then-Secretary of State John Kerry. That agreement allowed payments to the families of Palestinians in Israeli prisons with Israeli looking the other way as long as the money was funneled through the PLO and not by the PA itself. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office denies this claim.
It’s an issue that seems simple on the surface why should either Israel or the United States support the PA financially, knowing that millions of dollars of that support indirectly subsidizes terrorism by supporting an estimated 35,000 families of Palestinian assailants who have been killed, wounded or imprisoned? And why shouldn’t halting that support be a precondition to any peace process that involves the PA?
That’s how pro-Israel groups in the United States, notably evangelical supporters, see it, and it’s the thinking behind the Taylor Force Act reintroduced in February by Republican senators, proposing that Washington cut off all funding to the Palestinian Authority until all monetary support offered by the PA to Palestinian terrorists and their families is halted. The bill was named after an American who was murdered in a terror attack in Jaffa in March 2016. It was first introduced in the previous Congress. A public relations campaign behind the bill vows that it will put a stop to “incentivizing terrorism,” using catchphrases like “pay for slay.”
The implications of forcing the Palestinians to halt the payments, however, aren’t so simple. That’s why the Obama administration never did so, why the Democrats haven’t supported the legislation and why, because of a lack of bipartisan support, even the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC has yet to put its weight behind it.
The reason: In the past, Israeli officials, especially from the military and security establishments, have warned U.S. lawmakers against any cuts to American funding of the PA since the Israeli security agencies rely on cooperation with their Palestinian counterparts to combat terrorism in the West Bank.
As Michael Koplow, director of the Israel Policy Forum, wrote in Haaretz, “there is a strange and terrible irony at work: punishing the PA for its rewarding of terrorism will damage Israeli security rather than improve it.”
More seriously, there is concern that such an unpopular move would be seen as a betrayal of the Palestinian national struggle and delegitimize the Palestinian Authority, leading to the collapse of the PA which would pave the way to Hamas control of the West Bank.
Thus while politicians in Israel and now in the United States slam the PA for supporting terror, behind closed doors Israeli security officials argue against cutting off funding as punishment a likely reason why AIPAC has been dragging its feet on getting behind the Taylor Force Act full throttle.
PA, PLO or does it matter?
A look at the history of the payments helps explain why Abbas so fears the repercussions of being seen as ending them in any way.
The PLO began supporting families who lost “martyrs” to the armed struggle against Israel as long ago as 1966, including those who perpetrated terror acts against civilians. When the PA was created following the Oslo Accords, it took over support for Palestinian prisoners in Israel while keeping support for families under PLO auspices.
Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, one of the two main nongovernmental organizations that advocates for prisoners’ rights, told The Forward last August that the trouble began in recent years when the payments for both the prisoners and their families moved from the PLO to the PA which receives foreign aid and which the Israeli government supports. In 2014 the U.S. Congress moved to stop this by passing a law that deducted the family and prisoner support from U.S. aid. As a result, said Fares, the funding for prisoners and families moved back to the PLO this fits with the narrative of the Israel Radio report of the Kerry-sponsored agreement.
However, the Obama State Department told The Forward at the time that “it makes no difference through which conduit the money flows” the PLO or the PA that U.S. assistance to the PA in fiscal year 2015 had been reduced “in relation to these payments and in accordance” with congressional legislation.
So presumably, the GOP senators behind the Taylor Force Act, the American pro-Israel groups that are pushing the issue and the Israeli leaders who support them don’t distinguish between whether the money comes directly from Abbas’ PA or not. They want it stopped and they're looking to Trump to continue to put the squeeze on Abbas to stop the payments if he wants to keep getting aid from the United States.
And the next time, they hope, he won’t hesitate to do it publicly.