Senator Lindsey Graham on Tuesday reintroduced the Taylor Force Act, which is an effort to end the Palestinian Authority’s support for terror by withholding U.S. funds to the Palestinians until the PA ceases its practice of paying stipends to individuals or to families of individuals convicted of terrorism against American or Israeli citizens. It goes without saying that ending Palestinian support for or encouragement of terror is an important policy goal. But as with every element of foreign policy, there are inevitable tradeoffs involved. In this case, there is a strange and terrible irony at work, which is that punishing the PA for its rewarding of terrorism will damage Israeli security rather than improve it.
Named after an American veteran killed in a stabbing attack in Jaffa last year, the Taylor Force Act would not cut off every dollar of American aid that goes to the PA. American funds are split between economic assistance and security assistance, with a heavy weight toward the economic side. The overall numbers have declined since 2011, when the PA received $395 million in economic aid and $150 million in security aid, to last year’s approximately $232 million in economic assistance and $70 million in security assistance. The economic assistance, which goes toward USAID projects and PA budgetary support, is what the Taylor Force Act would cut off. The security assistance, which helps develop and train the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF), would remain in place, although few consider that aid to be completely untouchable in perpetuity. In order for the economic assistance to be transferred to the PA, the act stipulates that the PA take steps to end violence against Americans and Israelis, publicly condemn such violence, and most crucially stop paying convicted terrorists and their families.
These payments, known colloquially as the martyrs fund, rightly represent one of the biggest areas of contention between Israel and the U.S. on one side and the Palestinian Authority on the other. While the PA provides funds to families of Palestinians who are jailed in Israel for any reason, doing so to families of those who have attacked and killed Israelis in terrorist attacks is particularly odious. PA officials give a host of justifications for this practice, none of which are convincing. A common defense from the PA is that the innocent family members of convicted killers should not be left destitute as a result of something with which they had no involvement, and that forcing a terrorist’s children into penury only makes it more likely that those children will follow the same path as their terrorist parent. While this may sound logical in theory, it relies on a rhetorical sleight of hand. It is one thing not to take away basic government assistance or benefits from families of terrorists that are available to everyone, akin to not making the families of convicted murderers in the U.S. ineligible for Medicaid or Social Security benefits. It is quite another to provide the families of terrorists with extra funds, which is what the PA does. Wanting to help families who have lost their primary breadwinner overnight is not morally justified given the circumstances that led to the breadwinner’s death or incarceration.
In their more honest moments, some PA officials will appeal to their ongoing battle with Hamas and point out that if they do not make these payments, Hamas will do it and thereby gain a greater foothold in the West Bank. While this may be true, it still means that the PA is rewarding terror, providing incentives for those who feel like they have little to lose to take up violence, creating an enormous moral hazard problem that cannot be adequately measured or combatted, and casting doubts on its ability to ever function as a truly responsible governing body that is ready to take on the burdens of running a stable and non-belligerent state. These payments are indefensible, and they should be condemned without qualification, raised in every meeting with PA officials, and brought up in response every time someone describes the PA as a uniformly peace-loving and non-violent body.
As repugnant and loathsome as the martyrs fund is, what to do about it is more complicated than it seems at first glance, as it becomes tied up in what is actually keeping organized terrorism in Israeli cities at a remarkable low. The reason that nobody has yet brought up eliminating American security assistance to the PA – although it is important to note that the preliminary budget for FY 2017 cuts it from $70 million to $35 million – is that the most overlooked fact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past decade has been the remarkable record of the PASF in helping keep Israelis safe. Ask any Israeli security official, and they will tell you that coordination with the PASF is one of the primary reasons that terrorist attacks on Israelis now consist of lone-wolf stabbings and shootings rather than mass suicide bombings, and why there are rockets from Gaza but zero from the West Bank. Despite the rhetoric of Israeli politicians about the PA being barely a step removed from terrorism, the PA has become Israel’s most important security partner on the ground. The Israeli security establishment, the Ministry of Defense, the IDF, and AIPAC have all opposed cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority for this very reason; I was once regaled with stories from a former high-ranking MoD official about his government trips to Washington to inform the most pro-Israel members of Congress that their efforts to defund the PA were not actually going to benefit Israel. Palestinian security cooperation with Israel is the biggest – and perhaps only – success story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the Oslo Agreements, and anything that endangers that opens up Israelis to their nightmare of the West Bank actually turning into Gaza.
While the Taylor Force Act does not touch the security assistance component of American aid, eliminating the far larger bucket of economic assistance puts the PA in danger of collapse, and with the end of the PA comes the end of the PASF and its partnership with the IDF. The PA is far from perfect – it is corrupt, authoritarian, unimaginative, concerned with maintaining its power above actually accomplishing anything productive, and paralyzed by indecision. But it is the best of the bad options out there, and that has to be balanced against the wholly understandable and laudable desire to punish official remuneration for terrorism. The current practice of reducing the amount of aid to the PA by the same amount that the PA pays to terrorists’ families is not as satisfying as turning off the spigot entirely, but it sends a message without taking a drastic move that will make things worse. The Taylor Force Act’s sponsors are acting with the best intentions, but they risk paving the road to Israel’s hell.