White House gingerly backs ‘goals’ of bill slashing PA funding

WASHINGTON — The White House said on Wednesday it supports the objective of a bill working its way through the Senate that would cut US funding to the Palestinians over salaries paid to terrorists and their families, but stopped short of endorsing the legislation.

The Taylor Force Act, which is due for a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before lawmakers leave for their August recess, would require the Palestinian Authority to stop paying stipends to the families of terrorists who kill Israelis, or else lose American aid.

“While the administration agrees with the high-level goals of the Taylor Force Act, it is currently in Congress’s hands and we will continue to closely monitor the specifics of the legislation,” a senior administration official told The Times of Israel.

The bill is named after a former US army officer who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian assailant while visiting Tel Aviv in March 2016.

The United States currently gives the PA nearly $500 million in annual aid. The legislation would allow only the portion designated for security assistance — roughly $60 million — to remain in place.

Up until now, the White House had remained mum on the bill. That has left some on Capitol Hill to wonder whether US President Donald Trump and his team fears the legislation would disrupt their attempts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, which the administration consistently says is a “top priority.”

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas during their news conference in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, May 3, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Trump did, however, confront PA President Mahmoud Abbas about the topic of Palestinian terror payments during their meetings in Washington and Bethlehem in May.

On Tuesday, one of Trump’s top envoys for Middle East peace, Jason Greenblatt, met with Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker (R), who chairs the Senate foreign affairs panel. The two discussed “many topics including Taylor Force,” Greenblatt tweeted.

The administration official said it was a listening session for Greenblatt, orchestrated for him to learn more about the measure.

“Jason went to hear about the Taylor Force Act not to share the WH opinion about it,” the administration official said. “They also discussed Israeli/Palestinian peace.”

Before their meeting, a Capitol Hill source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel the Senate panel will “probably” approve the Taylor Force Act, but that negotiating was still needed to reach a passable version, particularly between Corker and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), who authored the legislation.

“If Corker and Graham work out the issues I know they continue to discuss,” the bill will advance through the committee before the recess that starts August 11, the source said.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 5, 2016. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

At a hearing last week,Corker questioned what he called an “all or nothing” approach reflected in Graham’s text and expressed concern that pulling PA funding could disrupt Israel’s security cooperation with the Palestinians and lead to instability in the West Bank.

Several revisions have been recommended to address those issues, including giving the president waiver authority over the law if he finds it necessary to fund the PA for security purposes.

On Tuesday night, Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron Dermer sent a strong signal that Israel wants the bill to pass, despite reports the government fears that policy would cause increased Palestinian volatility.

Dermer dismissed those reports as “fake news.”

“Israel believes that the United States should end economic assistance to any government that pays people to kill Jews,” he told a crowd at the Christians United for Israel’s annual conference in Washington. “Period.”

“I can assure you that Israel is not the slightest bit concerned that the Taylor Force Act will pass,” Dermer added. “Israel would be concerned if the Taylor Force Act didn’t pass.”

Impressions of Israeli consternation over the bill have stemmed, in part, from a June letter signed by hundreds of high-level Israeli military officials warning the bill would spur a security crisis.

The letter, which was orchestrated by Commanders for Israeli Security, said the legislation in its present form, at the time, would “undermine PA stability; expand the circle of frustration and hostility; erode the security coordination; and thus hurt Israeli security.”

But a source close to the group told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that their letter of opposition was to the bill’s “original language,” and that they would “support the amended draft.”

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