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Defunding Palestine

In a major shift, Israel stops protecting aid to Palestine on Capitol Hill.

Pro-Israeli And Pro-Palestinian Groups Rally In Front Of White House
<> on August 8, 2014 in Washington, DC.

For years, Israel has acted as a brake on efforts by pro-Israel members of Congress to cut off aid to Palestine during periodic flare-ups between Arabs and Jews. But Jerusalem, furious with Palestinian efforts to join the International Criminal Court, is no longer standing in the way, according to lawmakers, ending a policy that has existed since the mid-90s.

“I cannot tell you the number of times the Israelis have engaged me to try and stop an emotional reaction by the Congress to terminate aid [to Palestine],” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Foreign Policy. “But now there’s a new game in town.”

Historically, the logic of Israel’s support for Palestinian aid was simple: Jerusalem depends on cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (PA) on a range of security issues in the West Bank — security programs that rely on U.S. taxpayer money. If the PA were to collapse due to a lack of funding, many believe that would lead to an uptick in violence and lawlessness in the West Bank that would jeopardize Israel’s security.

However, the recent downturn in relations between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has unraveled Jerusalem’s long-held support for the aid, according to congressional sources.

Graham, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that governs aid to Palestine, said Israeli officials are no longer opposed to efforts to chip away at the roughly $400 million of aid the United States sends to Palestine every year — a policy change he plans to capitalize on.

“I’m going to lead the charge to make sure the Palestinians feel this,” he said.

Others on Capitol Hill feel similarly emboldened.

On Wednesday, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul introduced legislation to prohibit all assistance to the Palestinian Authority until it withdraws its request to join the International Criminal Court. “Certainly groups that threaten Israel cannot be allies of the U.S.,” said Paul. The United Nations has confirmed that the Palestinians will become part of the criminal court in April.

Brian Darling, a spokesman for the libertarian-leaning Republican, said his office hasn’t received any pushback on the legislation, a shift from just last spring when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a Likud-flavored lobbying organization with close ties to the Netanyahu government, immediately came out against his previous bill to defund the PA.

On Monday, Haaretz reported that Jerusalem would be contacting pro-Israel members of Congress to ensure that aid to the PA is cut off. While pro-Israel lawmakers such as Graham, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) told FP they’re not aware of an overt push by the Israelis to defund, the understanding is that Jerusalem will no longer actively protect Palestinian aid on the Hill.

“I’m not committing to cutting off the funds,” McCain told FP, “but I am saying that the issue is now on the table given the movements that have taken place.”

The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

Although cutting off funds to Palestine is uncontroversial on Capitol Hill, where pro-Israel lobbying dominates the political discourse, it is deeply contentious outside Washington and in Israel itself.

Netanyahu’s decision to freeze the transfer of $127 million in tax revenues to the Palestinians last week earned sharp criticism from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who slammed the move in a closed-door gathering of Israeli ambassadors. “Freezing the transfer of Palestinian tax funds does not benefit us and does not benefit them,” said Rivlin, according to Israeli media. “Using these funds, the Palestinians sustain themselves and [keep] the Palestinian Authority functioning. Israel’s interest is a functioning PA.”

While it’s plausible that a halt in U.S. aid to Palestine could be offset by increases in aid from Arab states, previous promises of funding from those governments have failed to materialize — raising concerns about the impact of Jerusalem’s new policy shift.

“It’s cutting off the nose to spite the face,” said Lisa Goldman of the New America Foundation. “Israel outsources security to the PA. If the West Bank’s not stable, then Israel will have to spend a lot of money to deploy soldiers and border police.”

Opponents of cutting off funds to Palestine note that much of the aid pays for police officers and civil servants and that a protracted suspension of aid could precipitate the collapse of the PA, which gets 25 percent of its $4 billion annual budget from foreign aid.

The dramatic shift in Israel’s position stems from Abbas’s decision to sign the Rome Statute, which initiated the application process to the International Criminal Court. The goal of signing the treaty is to allow the Palestinian Authority to use the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israeli officials for the bombing campaign in Gaza last summer, which killed some 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians. On the Israeli side, seven civilians and 66 soldiers were killed.

Abbas made the move after a successful U.S. and Israeli effort last month to prevent the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an end to Israel’s occupation by 2017. The measure needed nine votes to pass, but only received eight because of no votes from the United States and Australia and abstentions by five countries, including normally pro-Palestinian countries like Nigeria and Rwanda.

The effort was in line with a broader strategic shift by the Palestinians to internationalize the conflict with Israel after decades of American-brokered peace talks have failed to achieve meaningful results. The most recent attempt, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, collapsed entirely in mid-2014, leaving the prospect of new negotiations looking more remote than ever.

Photo via Getty Images

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