Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. aid to the Palestinians

Israel Agrees: Time to Call Abbas’s Bluff

For the past 20 years, whenever some Americans have raised the question of whether U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority should be cut off, opponents have always trumped such calls by invoking a single point: the Israelis disagree. Even as the PA flouted its commitments under the Oslo Accords and acted in various ways that ought to, under U.S. law, mandate a halt to American aid, Israel’s various governments have always opposed such action. But in the wake of the PA’s failed attempt to get the United Nations Security Council to recognize their independence and decision to head to the International Criminal Court to further harass Israel, Jerusalem is preparing to ask Congress to finally enforce the law and end the flow of U.S. taxpayer dollars to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and his corrupt Fatah government. Though the Obama administration disagrees, Congress should do just that.

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For the past 20 years, whenever some Americans have raised the question of whether U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority should be cut off, opponents have always trumped such calls by invoking a single point: the Israelis disagree. Even as the PA flouted its commitments under the Oslo Accords and acted in various ways that ought to, under U.S. law, mandate a halt to American aid, Israel’s various governments have always opposed such action. But in the wake of the PA’s failed attempt to get the United Nations Security Council to recognize their independence and decision to head to the International Criminal Court to further harass Israel, Jerusalem is preparing to ask Congress to finally enforce the law and end the flow of U.S. taxpayer dollars to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and his corrupt Fatah government. Though the Obama administration disagrees, Congress should do just that.

Why were the Israelis so reluctant to turn off the spigot of American cash to the PA up until now? The answer is that for all of its flaws, every Israeli government has always rightly viewed the PA as a necessary evil. Though under both Yasir Arafat and his successor Abbas the Fatah-run Authority has helped foment hatred as well allying itself with terrorists (as it did with its unity pact with Hamas last year), and even financed its own terror groups during the second intifada, it still performed a number of useful tasks. Israel is denounced as an occupier by the world but the PA governs most of the West Bank (not to mention the fact that Hamas-ruled Gaza functions as an independent Palestinian state in all but name). Israel would not wish to have that responsibility thrust upon it. The PA’s massive security forces also provide valuable cooperation for Israel. Moreover, the Israelis also understand that they always need an interlocutor to help keep a lid on the conflict if not to solve it.

It was for those reasons that the Israelis have always sent mixed messages about U.S. aid to the Palestinians. On the one hand, they wanted the Americans to try and hold the Palestinians accountable for their commitments. But whether or not those efforts were successful, they never wanted the plug pulled on the aid for fear of causing the PA to collapse, something that would create a mess that the Israelis would be forced to clean up.

Since all these factors still apply, what could be motivating the Israelis to change their tune?

The key reason is that by blowing up the latest U.S. attempt to negotiate peace with an end run to the UN and its affiliated agencies, the Palestinians have come to believe they can conduct a diplomatic war on Israel with impunity. So long as the PA thinks it can keep receiving the subsidies it gets from the U.S. and the rest of the West without keeping their commitments, there will never be any motivation for them to make peace. Worse than that, if they are not held accountable for a strategy based on perpetual conflict, Abbas and his crew won’t be deterred from further efforts to foment terror against Israelis. Rather than the aid buying a modus vivendi and a low level of violence if not peace, its continuance has had the opposite effect in that the PA thinks it has a blank check to avoid peace and the freedom to carry on the conflict in any manner it chooses.

Throughout the more than 20 years of the PA’s existence, both Israel and the U.S. have treated the PA with kid gloves. Both have at times acquiesced to the whitewashing of PA policies that were not only detrimental to coexistence but also a clear threat to any hope of peace. But the latest Palestinian attempt to isolate Israel has taken this to a new level. If the PA is allowed to not only further isolate Israel internationally but is permitted to use the biased machinery of the ICC to brand it a pariah, it will be setting in motion a series of events that will only lead to more violence.

That is why Israel is withholding the tax revenues it normally passes along to the PA as well as advising Congress to put a halt to its generous aid. In response, Abbas’s aide Saeb Erekat has said the PA may just dissolve itself, ending security cooperation and saddling the Israelis with the unwanted and difficult burden of governing the West Bank. These are serious threats, but Washington should call the PA’s bluff immediately.

The notion that Abbas and his Fatah kleptocracy would simply go home and abandon the huge patronage scheme they have created on the West Bank is absurd. Abbas operates his Ramallah government for the sake of his party and cronies, not for Israel. Power and the ability to skim money from international aid is not a sideline for Fatah; it is their raison d’être. He needs the money he gets from Israel and international donors to keep his organization going. That is why it is reasonable to suppose that if he felt that there was a genuine threat to its existence, he would abandon his UN gambit even if he continued to talk about it for domestic purposes. Moreover, the security cooperation with Israel is as much if not more in Abbas’s interests as it is in that of the Jewish state. He relies on Israel to protect him against threats to his life and his government from Hamas and other terror groups backed by Iran. Without the Israelis, his future isn’t worth a shekel.

Having shown that appeasement of the PA doesn’t work, it’s time for both the U.S. and Israel to put the hammer to Abbas and remind him that the money he gets from American taxpayers comes at a price. While there are many Palestinians who might be willing to send the West Bank up in flames for the purpose of furthering their century-old war on Israel, the corrupt leaders of the PA have other priorities. It’s time for Congress, acting with the support of the Israelis, to remind him of that.

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Obama Shouldn’t Oppose Effort to Hold Palestinians Accountable

For six years, the Obama administration has tried in vain to give the Palestinian Authority what it wanted. It has undermined Israel’s negotiating position at every turn and treated PA leader Mahmoud Abbas as a champion of peace even though he has repeatedly turned down opportunities to end the conflict. But by thumbing his nose at the U.S. at the United Nations Security Council with a doomed effort to pass a one-sided resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood and then heading to the International Criminal Court to pursue specious human-rights cases against Israel, Abbas may have finally gone one step too far. The new Congress can and probably will enact sanctions against the PA. The question is will the administration, which is the injured party in this nasty breakup, seek to prevent Congress from doing the right thing and holding the Palestinians accountable?

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For six years, the Obama administration has tried in vain to give the Palestinian Authority what it wanted. It has undermined Israel’s negotiating position at every turn and treated PA leader Mahmoud Abbas as a champion of peace even though he has repeatedly turned down opportunities to end the conflict. But by thumbing his nose at the U.S. at the United Nations Security Council with a doomed effort to pass a one-sided resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood and then heading to the International Criminal Court to pursue specious human-rights cases against Israel, Abbas may have finally gone one step too far. The new Congress can and probably will enact sanctions against the PA. The question is will the administration, which is the injured party in this nasty breakup, seek to prevent Congress from doing the right thing and holding the Palestinians accountable?

The end-run around the U.S.-sponsored peace process is not the first time the PA has flouted its commitment to negotiations under the 1993 Oslo Accords. For two decades, the PA, first under the leadership of Yasir Arafat and now of Abbas, has treated that famous peace deal and its follow-up agreements as merely pieces of paper to be discarded at will. It has sponsored terrorism, fomented hate for Israel and Jews, and refused to negotiate or even accept peace offers from Israel that offered them all they could reasonably hope for including an independent state in almost all the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem.

But in spite of these outrageous actions, the U.S. has not pulled the plug on the generous aid package that the PA received all these years. That has happened largely because the Clinton and Obama administrations have been so committed to the myth of Oslo that they have chosen to whitewash the PA. The Bush administration did the same thing once Abbas replaced Arafat. That did not advance peace but it allowed the Palestinians to think they would never be held accountable for their actions. Though legislation has been passed that would have cut off aid, presidential waivers were always exercised to prevent it from being enforced.

The same lessons applied in spades to the negotiations over the Palestinians’ decision to go to the UN. As even Tzipi Livni, who hopes to topple Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in the March elections, told the New York Times last month, Abbas walked away from the talks even after the U.S. offered a framework that would have given them what they wanted and was okayed by the Israelis. Once the effort to get a UN resolution that would have given the Palestinians a state without having first made peace with Israel was in motion, the Obama administration made more noises about its reluctance to veto this destructive and pointless effort than exercising pressure on the PA.

But now that the PA is heading to the International Criminal Court for more mischief against Israel—a move that even warranted a stiff condemnation from the State Department—there can no longer be any doubt that the basis for U.S. aid to the Palestinians has been exploded.

Fortunately the leadership of the new Republican Congress seems to understand this and they are likely to pass new legislation that will seek to force an end to further subsidies for the PA. Given that it is President Obama’s policies and efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction that have been undermined by the PA, it stands to reason the White House ought not to try to obstruct this effort. Yet, still besotted with their unrealistic dreams of making Middle East peace, the president and Secretary of State Kerry may argue that cutting off the PA will hurt the prospects for future negotiations.

What they need to come to grips with is the fact that Abbas is no more inclined to ever make peace with Israel than are his Hamas rivals. While it’s doubtful that the PA would ever actually sign an agreement that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, if the peace process is ever to be revived it can only happen when the Palestinians realize that the U.S. will not continue to subsidize an entity that is dedicated to obstructing peace.

If Obama and Kerry wish to fight an aid cutoff the Palestinians have given them very little room to maneuver or arguments with which to stop the GOP. Indeed, given the disillusionment about the PA among congressional Democrats, it’s likely that any legislation about the Palestinians might be passed with a veto-proof majority. House Speaker John Boehner and new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shouldn’t hesitate about pushing forward such legislation. If Obama and Kerry are smart, they will realize that this will strengthen their hands in future talks with the Palestinians, not weaken them.

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Obama, Abbas, and ‘Contaminating’ Jews

In a follow-up to his now infamous column in which he quoted “senior administration officials” hurling vulgar insults at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg echoed the Obama foreign-policy team in praising Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as “the best interlocutor Israel is going to have” in the pursuit of peace. Though he acknowledged the Palestinian had “flaws,” the onus for the lack of progress toward peace was placed squarely on Israel, which was urged to take measures to appease Abbas. Given that Abbas’s “flaws” had already demonstrated his utter lack of interest in making peace, Goldberg’s incendiary pieces told us more about Obama’s animus for Israel than the state of the peace process. But Abbas’s most recent bouts of incitement toward violence place those who have vouched for him in a difficult spot and make their current silence about his activities all the more reprehensible.

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In a follow-up to his now infamous column in which he quoted “senior administration officials” hurling vulgar insults at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg echoed the Obama foreign-policy team in praising Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as “the best interlocutor Israel is going to have” in the pursuit of peace. Though he acknowledged the Palestinian had “flaws,” the onus for the lack of progress toward peace was placed squarely on Israel, which was urged to take measures to appease Abbas. Given that Abbas’s “flaws” had already demonstrated his utter lack of interest in making peace, Goldberg’s incendiary pieces told us more about Obama’s animus for Israel than the state of the peace process. But Abbas’s most recent bouts of incitement toward violence place those who have vouched for him in a difficult spot and make their current silence about his activities all the more reprehensible.

Abbas helped launch the latest round of Palestinian violence by urging his people to resist Jews who venture onto the Temple Mount by all means. Those means turned out to be murder and when the PA head praised a slain terrorist who had attempted to murder a Jewish activist as a “martyr” who was heading straight to heaven, it showed just how far he was willing to go to capitalize on traditional memes of Palestinian hatred for Jews. Today, in the wake of more fatal car attacks and stabbings of Jews, Abbas doubled down on the hate. Referring to the attempts by some Jews to gain the right to pray on what it the holiest site in Judaism, Abbas was reported as saying the following in the Times of Israel:

“Keep the settlers and the extremists away from Al-Aqsa and our holy places,” Abbas demanded. “We will not allow our holy places to be contaminated. Keep them away from us and we will stay away from them, but if they enter al-Aqsa, [we] will protect al-Aqsa and the church and the entire country,” he said. It was unclear what church Abbas was referring to.

It should be acknowledged that Abbas is locked in a fierce competition with Hamas for support from Palestinians and by diving even deeper into the barrel of ancient libels, he is, by his own lights, merely pandering to domestic opinion. But the green light he is giving to random violence by Palestinians is unmistakable. The question is when will his Washington cheering section recognize that they have invested heavily in a figure that is counting on their support insulating him against any consequences for his actions?

On its face, Abbas would seem to be the last person who would want a third intifada since he stands to lose the most by an open breach with an Israeli security apparatus that is his only guarantee of survival against Hamas. Nor can he afford to alienate the Americans or the European Union since both provide him with the cash he needs to irrigate the corrupt kleptocracy that he presides over in the West Bank.

That ought to give both Israel and the West some leverage in moderating his language even if it has never been enough to cause him to be willing to defy Palestinian public opinion and negotiate a peace deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn.

That is why the silence of the West about Abbas is so frustrating for Israel. For months, the Obama administration has been lauding the PA head as a courageous man of peace while badmouthing Netanyahu as an obstacle to it in both on and off the record statements. Thus it is no surprise that Abbas believes he has virtual carte blanche from his donors and political sponsors to go as far as he wants when it comes to inciting violence.

The problem here is that while the White House and State Department can often be relied upon to issue statements urging both sides to show restraint and condemning violence of all kinds, they generally have no problem being specific when it comes to Israel and Netanyahu. But even if we leave aside the unfair nature of most of the criticisms of the Israeli, they find it difficult, if not impossible to turn the same critical gaze at Abbas.

Let’s concede that even if Abbas were to have held his tongue and sought to calm tensions over Jerusalem, there is no guarantee that no violence would have occurred. But by seeking to outpace Hamas when it comes to fanning the flames about the mosques on the Temple Mount, Abbas has made a material contribution to Middle East violence. And he is doing it on the American taxpayer’s dime.

It should also be stated that some inflammatory voices on the Israeli right have contributed to the problem. As unfair as the status quo on the Temple Mount might be to Jews, overturning it right now would be the sort of thing that will get a lot of people killed. But it should be pointed out that instead of feeding and/or profiting from anger over this issue, Netanyahu and his government have tried to prevent violence, not encourage it, but keep getting slammed by Western critics for not altogether conceding Jewish rights throughout Jerusalem.

The issue here isn’t so much who gets to pray on the Temple Mount since there is no chance of the status quo being altered. Rather it is whether the West thinks it is OK for the recipient of their largesse to refer to Jews as “contaminators” of their own capital city. Such language isn’t merely pandering to Palestinian opinion; it is a sign that Abbas is part of the problem of violence and hate, not its potential solution.

For years, the same people hammering Netanyahu and excusing Abbas now were the ones urging a similar policy toward Yasir Arafat and his blatant incitement toward hate. Those who did so bore a degree of responsibility for the violence that ensued when Arafat blew up the peace process with a bloody second intifada. The same judgment will apply to the president and his cheerleaders as they stand by and watch Abbas play the same card.

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Kerry’s Counterproductive Peace Diplomacy

Give Secretary of State John Kerry credit. His pursuit of Middle East peace may be futile, but it is determined. Weeks after Palestinian decisions to return to the United Nations for an end run around Kerry’s efforts and then a Fatah-Hamas unity pact blew them up, Kerry is back at it. He is scheduled to meet tomorrow in London with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the peace process and the future of the relationship between the United States and the PA. Most observers are treating this meeting as evidence of Kerry’s determination never to give up the search for peace and therefore a praiseworthy act almost by definition.

But even if we are prepared to praise the secretary for never giving up hope for peace, this effort to entice Abbas back to the table to talk with Israel is misguided. While the U.S. has falsely sought to portray the collapse of the talks as being the fault of both sides in the negotiations in order not to alienate the Palestinians, the latest evidence of Kerry’s belief that sweet talking the PA is the only way to go is likely to do more harm than good. After nine months of praise of Abbas as a man of peace coming from the mouths of President Obama and Kerry while they were also trashing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the U.S. is not merely presiding over a standoff; the administration has become one of its main causes. If Kerry isn’t prepared to start pressuring Abbas to make peace and stating that there will be stark consequences for the PA if he fails to do so, the secretary would be better off avoiding the Palestinian leader.

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Give Secretary of State John Kerry credit. His pursuit of Middle East peace may be futile, but it is determined. Weeks after Palestinian decisions to return to the United Nations for an end run around Kerry’s efforts and then a Fatah-Hamas unity pact blew them up, Kerry is back at it. He is scheduled to meet tomorrow in London with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the peace process and the future of the relationship between the United States and the PA. Most observers are treating this meeting as evidence of Kerry’s determination never to give up the search for peace and therefore a praiseworthy act almost by definition.

But even if we are prepared to praise the secretary for never giving up hope for peace, this effort to entice Abbas back to the table to talk with Israel is misguided. While the U.S. has falsely sought to portray the collapse of the talks as being the fault of both sides in the negotiations in order not to alienate the Palestinians, the latest evidence of Kerry’s belief that sweet talking the PA is the only way to go is likely to do more harm than good. After nine months of praise of Abbas as a man of peace coming from the mouths of President Obama and Kerry while they were also trashing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the U.S. is not merely presiding over a standoff; the administration has become one of its main causes. If Kerry isn’t prepared to start pressuring Abbas to make peace and stating that there will be stark consequences for the PA if he fails to do so, the secretary would be better off avoiding the Palestinian leader.

Kerry embarked on his quest for Middle East peace despite advice from nearly every veteran foreign-policy hand that he was wasting his time. The Palestinians were too divided and had demonstrated no sign that they had evolved from the rejectionist stance they adopted when Israel made three separate offers of statehood in 2000, 2001, and 2008. That skepticism was justified when, once again, Abbas refused Kerry’s entreaties to make a symbolic acceptance that Israel was the Jewish state and therefore signaling that the conflict was over. But despite Netanyahu’s willingness to talk about a large-scale withdrawal from the West Bank in exchange for peace, Abbas never budged from his previous positions on territory, Jerusalem, and refugees. He then fled the talks at the first pretext, an announcement of building in a 40-year-old neighborhood of the capital that everyone knows will never change hands even in the event of a peace treaty. In doing so, he walked away from what was, for all intents and purposes, a fourth Israeli offer of peace. He solidified that lack of interest in peace by signing an agreement with the Islamists of Hamas rather than with Israel. The new coalition may provide the Palestinians with unity, but it will be unity in favor of continued conflict, not peace.

At this point the only rational response to these Palestinian decisions ought to be to warn the Palestinians that the unity pact necessitates the end of U.S. aid to the PA. But Kerry has been soft-pedaling the fact that such aid is now illegal under U.S. law and continuing to pretend that Israel, rather than Palestinians, are the main problem. Just as important, even if Obama and Kerry think they must continue to play the even-handed moderator and criticize Israel at every conceivable opportunity, they need to understand that unless they use the considerable leverage the U.S. has over the Palestinians, there is not even a remote chance that Abbas will return to the talks, let alone do what he must to make peace.

If Kerry must meet with Abbas, it is not too late to stop coddling him. The secretary isn’t big on admitting failure, but unless he stops pretending that Abbas is a force for peace when he is anything but, Kerry will remain part of the peace process problem, not its solution. 

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