U.S. Senate Likely to Pass Revised Version of Taylor Force Act

Former senior officials expressed support for the legislation cutting funding to the PA for supporting terrorists' families, but asked to differentiate between humanitarian projects and direct funding of the Palestinian Authority

A 2009 photo provided by the United States Military Academy shows Taylor Force.
AP

There is a high probability that the U.S. Senate will pass a revised version of the "Taylor Force Act," Republican and Democratic sources on Capitol Hill told Haaretz following a Wednesday hearing on the legislation at the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.

The legislation calls on the U.S. government to freeze payments to the Palestinian Authority until it stops financially supporting convicted terrorists and their families.

The Wednesday morning hearing included testimonies by two former senior U.S. officials: Elliott Abrams, who was a senior foreign policy adviser to three Republican presidents, and Dan Shapiro, who was ambassador to Israel and a Middle East adviser at the National Security Council under the Obama administration.

Both Abrams and Shapiro expressed support for the legislation's goal – to put an end to the PA's financial support of convicted terrorists – but proposed certain revisions to the legislation to make sure it doesn't hurt humanitarian causes and Israeli or American interests such as security coordination with the PA.

Abrams spoke first, and said that he believes there is a way to pass the Taylor Force Act, named after an American citizen killed in a terror attack in Tel Aviv last year, without causing harm to hospitals and humanitarian projects in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that depend on financial assistance from the United States.

"I would make an exception for the hospitals," Abrams said. He specifically mentioned the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, calling it "a renowned and venerable institution" that should not be harmed by the legislation.

Abrams emphasized that if there is a clear differentiation between hospitals and certain humanitarian projects that directly benefit the Palestinian people and funds that go to the bureaucratic ranks of the Palestinian Authority or to Israeli companies providing services to the PA, then the U.S. will be able to pressure the PA and send a strong message regarding the controversial payments without harming Palestinian civilians. "I wish we had done it years ago, including the time I served in government," he concluded.

Dan Shapiro also expressed in his testimony his support for the legislation and commended South Carolina's Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham for bringing it up for a vote. Shapiro recalled the March 2016 murder of Taylor Force, which took place during a state visit by Vice President Joe Biden to Israel that he had accompanied as part of his duties as ambassador.

"As we learned more about Taylor and reached out to offer comfort and assistance to his family, every detail was only more heartbreaking and infuriating," he said in his opening remarks on Wednesday. "Taylor was a West Point graduate and U.S. Army veteran who had survived combat in Iraq. He was in Israel as part of a Vanderbilt University Business School delegation seeking to build connections with the vibrant Israeli technology sector. He had come to Israel only to learn and build and grow, and he was cut down in the prime of life."

Shapiro went further than Abrams in his suggestions on how to amend the bill. He offered a number of principles on this matter. The first was to attach to the legislation a national security waiver that would allow the Trump administration to delay the actual implementation of the bill while using it as a source of leverage over the Palestinian Authority in future peace talks. Abrams also touched on this option and said that he is opposed to it, because "it achieves almost nothing. Congress would be handing the problem to the administration without actually having any impact on the Palestinian practice of paying terrorists for their acts."

Shapiro and Abrams both agreed on the need to "be more targeted," as Shapiro put it, in designating which funds will continue to go into the West Bank and which funds would be cut. Shapiro, however, also proposed that instead of simply cutting the money, the legislation would instruct the State Department to put it aside in a trust, thus signaling to the Palestinians that at any point in time, when they can prove to the U.S. government that they have ceased the payments, the frozen funds will make their way into Ramallah.

Three sources who are involved in the internal discussions over the legislation from both sides of the aisle told Haaretz that Abrams' proposal and at least some of Shapiro's ideas are very likely to become the basis for a bipartisan compromise that would allow the passage of the legislation.

Last month, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that he wants to see a "Taylor Force-like" bill passed by the end of the summer. "This is what that legislation would probably look like," said one source, referring to Abrams' and Shapiro's suggestion to make a differentiation between different kinds of funds.

Another suggestion Shapiro made was to divert funds from direct support of the Palestinian Authority and from payments to Israeli companies for services they provide the PA. Instead, funds would be allocated to support civilian projects in the West Bank, such as encouraging the local high-tech sector or supporting "people-to-people" programs that create dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

"The result would be to promote some of the most pragmatic, least ideological, and highly productive elements of Palestinian society, creating jobs and economic opportunities for Palestinians, and even potential linkages between Palestinian and Israeli hi-tech entrepreneurs," Shapiro explained.

The next step following the hearing will be negotiations between senators from both parties that will most likely lead to a compromise . Noah Pollak, a Republican consultant who is working to promote the legislation, told Haaretz that "it's not a done deal," but the chances for its passage have significantly increased since it was first introduced by Graham in February. 

Another source involved in the discussions over the bill said that a national security waiver as proposed by Shapiro will only be added to the legislation if the Trump administration signals that it is interested in one, something that hasn't yet happened. The administration is working to solve the payments issue directly with the Palestinian Authority, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last month that the Palestinians have agreed to stop the payments. So far there has been no evidence to support his words, which were strongly denied by officials in Ramallah. 

Another option that was discussed during the hearing is that the PA will reform its financial support program so that it will be based on social criteria, such as the number of children in a prisoner's family, instead of the current situation in which the payment levels are based on the prisoner's involvement in militant and terrorist acts. Such a possibility was also hinted at by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in remarks he made on the subject last month.

Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, told Haaretz that "the Taylor Force Act will send an important message to the Palestinian Authority that support for terrorism is intolerable, but it has to be done in a way that balances that with protecting American and Israeli interests. The hearing today demonstrated an emerging bipartisan consensus to amend the legislation in a manner that will make an important distinction between the PA and ordinary Palestinians, which will safeguard Israeli security and keep the West Bank stable."