Congress Shouldn’t Cut Aid to the Palestinian Authority

Brian Reeves June 2014
Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

Following the kidnapping of three Israeli youths and Secretary of State John Kerry hinting at Hamas responsibility, U.S. congressmen were right to question the merits of the new Palestinian Authority “government of national consensus.” But the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee’s decision to approve a State and Foreign Operations bill on June 24 that would slash PA aid, however, highlights the shortsighted decision-making by Congress toward Israel and prospects for peace down the road.

By voting to reduce aid to the PA, Congressional representatives jeopardize Abbas’ legitimacy, Israeli security and future prospects for peace.

The bill in question calls for the US to withhold funds “equivalent” to those the PA provides families of Palestinian terrorists, and to prevent dollars to any Palestinian government formed as a result of “an agreement with Hamas.”

Altogether, these restrictions would deny the PA some $70 million of the $400 million it receives annually—a figure less than a quarter of what it was in 2008. Unsurprisingly, the bill was chiefly backed by Republicans, and stands in marked contrast to the Obama administration’s support for continued aid to the “technocratic” government. The bill, however, also reflects a sentiment shared by many Democrats, AIPAC, and 88 of the Senate’s 100 members. The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to approve a sister bill, after which the two chambers will put them to a general vote.

On the surface, the bill appears well grounded, especially in light of Netanyahu’s protestations and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s charges that Americans are financing PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ stipends to Palestinian terrorists in prison. In practice, it would weaken an already beleaguered PA, undermining the legitimacy it has recently garnered for the first time in years. In so doing it threatens to collapse the very institution that was created for advancing the peace process and that is demonstrating its willingness against unbearable domestic pressure to cooperate with Israel for its security and against extremism in the region.

For starters, as Sec. Kerry’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, already pointed out, the Israeli government itself has maintained its security cooperation with the PA and in fact had transferred aid to the PA on the same day as the government was announced—a tacit admission that the lack of any actual Hamas leaders in the technocratic government permits continued relations with the PA.

Vindicating this latter point is the PA’s condemnation of the recent kidnapping and its active participation in the search for Israel’s “lost boys,” despite Israel’s mass arrests of Palestinians not connected in the affair, as well as Hamas and Israel’s own controversial MK Haneen Zoabi’s censure of the PA’s efforts as betrayal and a crime.

On a deeper level, the PA represents a moderate force among Palestinians, is often receptive to Western demands, and most of all is key to strengthening the Palestinian economy and infrastructure—ingredients widely accepted as conducive to Israel’s security. Even a partial reduction in aid, as Congress is proposing, would hamper the PA’s ability to pay for projects and employee salaries—a move that would further stall the economy and the Gaza Strip’s long road to recovery. These benefits far outweigh the PA’s less palatable practices, such as the stipends to the families of Palestinian prisoners.

Indeed, it is for these reasons that in a similar congressional climate in 2011, Brigadier General Nitzan Alon—at the time in charge of Israeli security in the West Bank—was prompted to write an article in the New York Times appealing to Congress not to cut funding to the PA. When Congress ultimately froze $200 million in annual funds, then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta—who has been known to criticize Obama for not taking military action in Syria—also voiced that that it was a “mistake.” That aid, which largely paid for the 22% of the Palestinian work force that the PA employs, was not reinstated until 2013.

Congress as whole should learn from this fruitless episode and forego plans to dwindle the PA’s budget. If anything, it should be praising the PA for having managed to maintain a government of national consensus all the while fighting Hamas and combatting the glorification of terrorism. It should be offering moral support to Abbas in the face of domestic and Israeli critics.

If Congress were to do this, it would strategically position the U.S. to leverage the PA’s cooperative efforts and governing legitimacy, a legitimacy that Israel has long demanded, and to restart negotiations on a credible and durable path to peace.

(originally published in Haaretz)

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