The Perplexing Problem of Propping Up the PA

March 2, 2017 § 2 Comments

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.

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Welcome to the Jungle

January 19, 2017 § 3 Comments

With tomorrow’s inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, Israel is entering an era of uncertainty unseen to this extent since 1967. It is not only Trump’s ascent to the presidency – expertly broken down by my colleague Ilan Goldenberg – that is causing so much ambiguity for Israel’s future; the Trump presidency is coinciding with two other variables whose outcomes are unknown, and the combination of the three together makes predicting Israel’s path forward with regard to its relations with the U.S., with the Palestinians, and with the rest of the world very difficult.

Trump’s Israel Policy

While there has been no shortage of guessing – including by yours truly – as to what Trump’s policies toward Israel and in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be, the truth of the matter is that nobody actually knows. While Trump has actually been consistent, if simplistic, on other foreign policy issues – protectionism, questioning NATO’s contribution to global and American security, a less antagonistic relationship with Russia, for example – on Israel he has sent conflicting signals.

On the one hand, he is quite obviously seduced by the idea of making what he calls “the ultimate deal” and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has spoken about the need to be seen as a “neutral guy” on Israel in order to command the Palestinians’ trust as a mediator. He has announced his intention to appoint Jared Kushner as his Middle East peace envoy because he views Kushner as uniquely suited to get the two parties to an agreement. On the other, he has taken actions that will make his stated goal of reaching a deal harder and possibly call it into question entirely, from supporting relocating the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to removing any mention of the two-state solution from the GOP platform.

On the one hand, he has nominated Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis to serve as his secretaries of state and defense, and neither of them is associated with rightwing policies on Israel. In particular, Mattis has talked about the damage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does to American interests in the Middle East and has squarely cast the blame on settlements for the impasse between the two sides. On the other, David Friedman is as rightwing and hawkish on Israel issues as any nominee to serve as Trump’s ambassador to Israel could possibly be, and Jason Greenblatt – Trump’s new envoy for international negotiations – has stated that he does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace in any way, and looks askance at the two-state solution as unwise and impractical.

There is no way of knowing at this point which of these competing impulses will win out. The main takeaway, however, is that the Israeli government has no way of knowing either, making any sudden moves fraught with danger. If, for instance, the Israeli government moves ahead with Bezalel Smotrich’s plan to annex Ma’ale Adumim, it may meet with a green light from the Trump White House, or it may be met with opposition from the White House and the State and Defense Departments. This is the genesis of the disagreement between Naftali Bennett, who wants Israel to quickly move ahead with annexation plans and formally abandon the two-state solution, and Avigdor Lieberman, who wants Israel to work out an agreement with the U.S. that would allow building in the blocs while freezing construction outside of them, similar to the plan developed by the Commanders for Israel’s Security. Whichever direction Israel moves in, what is certain is that it cannot be sure what the consequences, if any, will be.

Netanyahu’s Future

The second uncertain variable is the investigations into Prime Minister Netanyahu and how they will be resolved. Either Case 1000 – the allegations that billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer supplied the Netanyahu family with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cigars, pink champagne, flights on private jets, luxury hotel stays, and the use of posh vacation residences in return for favors from the prime minister – or Case 2000 – the allegations that Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes conspired to reduce rival newspaper Yisrael HaYom’s circulation in return for more favorable coverage of Netanyahu in Yedioth – have the potential to end in Netanyahu’s indictment. Whether or not they result in indictments or end with no charges filed, they are creating gridlock while they are ongoing. The talk of early elections that has sprung up overnight is partially because other politicians smell blood in the water, but partially because a prime minister under such serious investigation is limited in what he can carry out. Until the situation is resolved, Israel’s political system is in a state of limbo.

If Netanyahu is ultimately charged, it is difficult to see how he will manage to stay in power rather than being forced to resign as the Likud and coalition MKs abandon him. Should Netanyahu step down – voluntarily or otherwise – it will not, however, mean the end of the political chaos. Netanyahu has purposely cultivated a leadership vacuum underneath him, from chasing away serious challengers to his primacy on top of Likud – Moshe Ya’alon, Gidon Sa’ar, and Moshe Kahlon being the most prominent recent examples – to not appointing a deputy prime minister underneath him. Should Netanyahu suddenly be whisked away from the scene, who will replace him is entirely unclear. New elections will not resolve the uncertainty either; the current polls indicate that Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid would receive the most seats in Knesset, but would be unable to put together a coalition unless the Haredi parties and Lapid are able to bridge their seemingly unbridgeable differences. This would mean a repeat of 2009, when Kadima and Tzipi Livni won the elections, but after weeks of futile attempts at creating a government, Netanyahu was left standing as prime minister instead. While this makes for great news for political junkies, it does not make for stability in Israel’s policymaking.

Palestinian Leadership Transition

The third uncertain variable surrounds Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. While Abbas’s actions make clear that he is going to serve as the Palestinian president and head of the PLO until he dies, that could happen at any moment given his age and proclivity for chain smoking, and who will replace him is a complete black box. The recent Fatah Central Committee elections and conference sidelined Muhammad Dahlan and all of his allies while empowering Jibril Rajoub and Marwan Barghouti. Rajoub is well placed in terms of controlling the relevant institutions and organs of power but does not have much popularity or legitimacy with the Palestinian public, while Barghouti is enormously popular with the public but is sitting in HaSharon prison serving out multiple life terms for orchestrating the terrorist murders of Israelis. Furthermore, it is possible that when Abbas is gone, no single person will hold the reins of power but that it will be more of a politburo, or that the roles of Palestinian Authority president, PLO chief, and Fatah leader will be separated.

The stakes involved for how this gets resolved are enormous for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the single biggest factor preventing the resumption of mass organized Palestinian terrorism from assaulting the streets of Israeli cities is the robust cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian security forces. The PA security cooperation with Israel is immensely unpopular, and to Abbas’s credit, he has not wavered in his commitment to continuing it, even if his reasons for doing so are not entirely altruistic. But there is no guarantee that whomever comes after Abbas will evince the same commitment; in fact, in a protracted leadership fight, one of the easiest ways to win public support will be to pledge to end security coordination with Israel. The negative consequences should this happen cannot be overstated, and thus Israeli officials are watching with bated breath to see how the post-Abbas period will play out. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is as unclear as can be.

The irony of all this is that Israel is entering this era of uncertainty on so many political fronts when its security has never been more certain. The conventional threats from neighboring states has evaporated; the Iranian nuclear threat has been deferred – though certainly not eliminated – in the estimation of Israel’s military and intelligence brass; the borders with Gaza and Lebanon have been unprecedentedly quiet for a variety of reasons from effective Israeli deterrence to the Syrian civil war; and organized terrorism (as opposed to lone wolf attacks) is at its lowest point since before the Second Intifada. Yet on the political and diplomatic fronts, the status Israel’s relationships with the U.S., the wider international community, the Palestinians, and Diaspora Jewry have rarely been so murky. While all may turn out fine in the end, Israel should be prepared for a period of potential upheaval.

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