For U.S. Aid to the Palestinians, Don’t Use a Sledgehammer When a Scalpel Would Do
American legislation on aid to the Palestinians could have unintended consequences.
Taylor Force, a U.S. Army veteran who survived combat in Iraq, was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in a knife attack in Tel Aviv last year. His death, which occurred while Vice President Joe Biden was meeting with former President of Israel Shimon Peres at the Peres Center for Peace less than a mile away, highlighted the Palestinian Authority’s practice of providing welfare payments to the families of Palestinians in prison, including those who killed Israelis. Indeed, the Palestinian system actually provides more money to those who serve longer sentences. This is an abominable practice and it should stop.
It is not as politically easy as some might think. In Palestinian culture, prisoners who have committed violent acts against Israelis are revered as freedom fighters, and acting against them comes with a high political cost for the Palestinian leadership. But this is not an acceptable excuse. While we understand the need to provide families that are struggling economically and have lost a breadwinner with welfare payments similar to other families in that position, there should be no extra bonuses for someone who attacks Israelis.
Now, legislation to address this problem is advancing in the U.S. Congress. It is championed by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and named for Force, the veteran who was killed last year. The proposed law would cut off U.S. economic aid to the Palestinians, which in the past few years has totaled roughly $250 million per year, unless these payments are stopped.
The legislation is well intended and we support its goals, but in its current form, enacting it would lead to a number of unintended consequences that would worsen things for Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States.
One problem is the legislation’s inflexibility. The way the current language is framed, the cutoff in economic aid would be a near certainty, leaving in place only assistance for the Palestinian security forces, which in recent years has been between $40 and $75 million per year.
But American economic investments keep the West Bank stable, which is in everyone’s interests. Much of U.S. investment goes towards schools, roads, and similar infrastructure projects critical to keeping the Palestinian economy running. Indeed, even before deepening its involvement in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a visit last week by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, the Trump administration has greatly emphasized the importance of improved economic conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank.
The administration will undoubtedly hear the same thing from Israeli officials. Despite years of complaints about Palestinian incitement, the Israeli government has not cut off any of the steps it takes to ensure that the Palestinian economy remains viable. For example, the Palestinians do not have the capacity to collect their own tax revenue, so Israel collects revenue on their behalf and then transfers money every month to the Palestinian Authority. On occasion, when Israel has gotten frustrated with Palestinian actions, it has temporarily halted these transfers. But Israel has always resumed them after a short hiatus because it knows the risks to Palestinian stability, and therefore to Israel’s security, are too high.
And despite intense feelings about the prisoner payments in Israel, the Israeli government has never stopped financial transfers to the Palestinians over this issue because the long-term consequences are too severe. That is why a group representing more than 270 retired Israeli generals came out against the current version of the Force legislation last week. Active duty Israeli officers charged with maintaining security and stability in the West Bank have also repeatedly affirmed to us that they would not welcome any sustained reduction in assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
Some argue that American aid is going to support terrorism, but this is not the case. Most U.S. aid goes not to the Palestinian Authority itself, but to contractors and NGOs who are working in the West Bank to build roads, schools, hospitals, and other important investments. The only exception is the roughly $75 million that the United States pays to Israeli power and fuel companies to provide electricity to the West Bank and Gaza and to the Israeli-run East Jerusalem Hospital Network, to which the Palestinian Authority sends sick patients when their illnesses are not treatable in the Palestinian territories. And even that money does not go directly to the Palestinian Authority, but to its creditors.
The legislation also contains no exception for humanitarian assistance. In the case of another conflict with Hamas in Gaza, the United States would be prevented potentially from providing basic foods, medicine, blankets, and shelter for the thousands of Palestinians — many of them children — who would be homeless. After past conflicts, Israel, anxious to avoid a humanitarian disaster on its doorstep, turned to the United States to play that role, which it always has with bipartisan support.
And while the legislation does not touch U.S. funding for the training of Palestinian security forces, it could nevertheless harm security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps the most positive story of the past 10 years with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the development of effective Palestinian security forces, which coordinate closely with Israel to counter threats of terrorism.
But the Palestinian public often views these security forces as puppets of the Israelis, even as the Palestinian Authority and these forces remain deeply committed to the mission because they fear the threat posed by Hamas. But if security assistance is the only U.S. support that remains, and no other economic benefits for the Palestinians materialize, then it becomes politically much more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to accept these funds and continue the program.
How can the legislation be amended to address these concerns? The easiest and most meaningful fix would be to add a national security waiver. This would allow the executive branch to waive the requirement to cut off aid to the Palestinians if the administration judged that it was in the national security interest of the United States to continue the aid.
The Trump administration has already prioritized this issue and is pressing the Palestinians to reform. The legislation would give the administration an additional tool to pressure the Palestinians, but the waiver would also give it some some flexibility and not completely tie its hands.
Another possibility would be to take a scalpel — not a sledgehammer — to economic aid. For example, threatening to cut off only the budget assistance that goes to the Israeli companies providing electricity and fuel in the West Bank would have the most meaningful effect on Palestinian leadership’s calculus and impact the Palestinian Authority’s budget without cutting off aid that goes directly to the Palestinian people or provides humanitarian relief.
Making clear that it is unacceptable to incentivize or reward terrorism in any way is completely appropriate, and it is a worthy goal of the Force legislation. Doing so in a way that preserves stability and security in the West Bank would be consistent with the goals of the Trump administration, which has already devoted considerable energy to the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Photo credit: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel B. Shapiro is distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, and senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, in the Obama administration.