The most counterproductive move that the U.S. could possibly make on the Palestinian anti-terrorism front – one that will lead to more terrorism, more instability, and a bigger mess down the road – is set to go into effect on February 1, and it has been sold as an anti-terrorism measure. In just over a week, the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA) will subject the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization to personal jurisdiction in civil suits brought in federal courts if they accept any assistance from the U.S. While the Trump administration has eliminated nearly all aid to the West Bank and Gaza over the past year, the one stream of assistance that remained untouched was the one most critical to maintaining Israel’s security and combating terror, which is the $60 million that goes to supporting the Palestinian Authority Security Forces and funding the office of the U.S. Security Coordinator in Jerusalem. This is the money that helps ensure that security coordination between Israel and the PA continues to go smoothly, and since accepting it going forward will now open the PA up to bankruptcy-level monetary judgments, the PA informed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that it will no longer be taking American security funding.
I’ve briefly touched on the ATCA before, but since there is likely no legislative fix coming by February 1 due to the government shutdown, it is worth delving more deeply into why this law is such a big deal. After all, it is easy to dismiss the potential ramifications. $60 million is a drop in the bucket when the PASF has a budget multiple times that, so eliminating the American money is not going to make the PASF cease operations. It is also in the PA’s interests to continue security coordination with Israel irrespective of whether the U.S. is funding it or overseeing it; ceasing security coordination will hurt the PA far more than it will punish the U.S. There is also an argument that this is the logical conclusion of a process that began with the Taylor Force Act, which was intended to use American non-security assistance as leverage to end PA financial support to families that incentivizes terrorism, and that this is a higher policy priority than supporting Israeli-Palestinian security coordination.
But if the aim of the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act is to combat terrorism, then it is tragically misnamed. The PA is a deeply problematic partner with connections to terrorism, but on balance it is a critical ally of Israel’s in fighting Hamas and keeping the West Bank stable. Efforts designed to weaken the PA and the PASF are not helpful in this regard at all, despite the PA’s corruption and lack of legitimacy. If the aim is to foster a more open and democratic Palestine, come what may, then trying to bankrupt the PA makes plenty of sense. If the aim is to prevent future terrorism victims, then it does not. What’s more, it seems that some of the sponsors and supporters of the new law – including the White House – did not anticipate its actual impact, leading to quiet efforts to have it revised before it takes effect so as to not disrupt existing security funding arrangements. The most remarkable part of this story is just how much the conversation around security assistance, which as recently as the Taylor Force debate just a year ago was an untouchable sacred cow, has moved. This law was proposed, passed, and signed by the president with most people not even realizing what its impact would be, and now that it is out in the open, parties that would have mobilized in the past to reverse its consequences are incredibly blasé about the whole thing. The Israeli government extolls the benefits of security coordination all the time and has vigorously defended security funding to members of Congress for over a decade, yet up until the last moment it has ignored its imminent ignominious death while it gets worked up over public relations distractions such as BDS. Barak Ravid reported yesterday that the Israeli government has asked the Trump administration to amend the law, with an Israeli security official calling it “a deadly blow to the security coordination between Israel and the Palestinians” and declaring, “This will harm a top priority Israeli national security interest.” Yet when the Israeli government could have actually done something to prevent this, it couldn’t be bothered, making the recent noise a public relations effort to give itself cover after it is too late rather than a real effort to nip the problem in the bud.
If U.S. security assistance to the Palestinians ends, it will not mean the end of security coordination between Israel and the PA. It is absolutely true that the PA is not going to risk ending something that it finds so valuable over a relatively paltry financial decision made by the U.S. But it will mean the end of our last remaining channel to the Palestinian Authority and the end of any last shred of influence we still have. The consulate in Jerusalem, which was the de facto American mission to the Palestinians, has been shuttered and absorbed into the embassy. The PA is boycotting U.S. officials over the embassy move. USAID is about to cease all operations in the West Bank and Gaza after being defunded by President Trump. And now the one avenue left into the PA, from which we gained insight and were able to influence security policy while monitoring Israeli-Palestinian relations, is about to be shut down overnight. The idea that this will benefit us in the long-term is ludicrous.
And leaving the direct U.S. angle out of it, security coordination will suffer too. Nobody should underestimate that the success of the past decade’s security coordination between Israel and the PA has rested on a highly professional and well-trained PASF, which did not exist before the U.S. stepped in. Without the training that the U.S. has provided in Jordan under the auspices of the U.S. Security Coordinator, the PASF’s capabilities will erode, making it less effective at maintaining order in the West Bank, less equipped to roll back Hamas inroads into its territory, and less integrated into the wider security architecture that exists between the U.S., Israel, and Jordan. In addition, nobody should underestimate just how much the U.S. Security Coordinator actually coordinates; mediating between the two sides, calming tempers and bridging misunderstandings, lowering the temperature when things get heated, and advocating for each party’s interests with the other side is no easy task. The Israelis and Palestinians can try to do all of these things on their own, but it is not coincidental that the golden age of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation has taken place under the watchful and helpful eye of the U.S. All of this is about to disappear, and the effect it will have is not going to be beneficial to Israelis or to Palestinians.
There is going to be an erosion of the situation in the West Bank, drip by drip, now that the U.S. has proactively decided to take itself out of the Palestinian security assistance and security coordination game. As tensions flare between the two sides, as the PA finds it harder to combat terrorism, as attacks and attempts on Israelis – which were already up this year – continue to climb upward, remember that Congress and the White House tangibly contributed to the mess. It is very tempting to point to the absence of large scale violence and protests that followed Trump’s Jerusalem announcement and assume that things will go on forever as they have been. At some point, that assumption will be proven badly wrong, and when that happens, the U.S. will have demonstrated in innumerable ways just how its current vendetta against the PA and the Palestinians has made Israelis less safe and secure.