Senate panel okays bill cutting PA funding over terrorist salaries

WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill Thursday to cut US funding to the Palestinian Authority if it does not stop paying salaries to terrorists and their families.

The Taylor Force Act, named after a former US army officer who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian assailant while visiting Tel Aviv in March 2016, will now advance to the entire Senate for review.

Passed by a vote of 17-4, the legislation received bipartisan support. Every Republican member of the committee supported the measure, as well as several Democrats, including Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the panel’s ranking member, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a J Street darling.

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.

One amendment was added during the markup session that helped attract the former vice presidential candidate’s backing, which was to establish an escrow fund for the aid that would be cut. The language requires that this escrow period last one year.

Democrats who voted against the motion included Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., speaks in New York, November 9, 2016 before Hillary Clinton's concession speech (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

On Tuesday, the panel unveiled a revised version of the bill to garner wider support. The text included provisions that call on “all donor countries” to “cease direct budgetary support until the Palestinian Authority stops all payments incentivizing terror” and requires the PA to revoke any laws that result in terrorists being compensated.

The State Department would also be mandated to put out an annual, declassified report detailing the PA’s practices regarding cash payments that reward terrorism.

Responding to concerns that were voiced during the bill’s negotiations, the updates included allowing for continued funding for humanitarian efforts and security cooperation. It does not, however, include a waiver that would grant the US president the ability to disregard the law on national security grounds.

Said Sen. Cardin after Thursday’s vote: “This bill is not intended to undermine or stop much-needed humanitarian aid that is delivered through vetted U.S. non-governmental organizations to Palestinians in need.”

One day before the markup session — in which the committee would ultimate decide whether to advance this legislation to the full chamber — the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington came out to champion the legislation.

“We are hopeful that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee markup will produce a strong, bipartisan bill that will send a very clear message to the Palestinian Authority: Stop these payments to terrorists and their families or your assistance will be cut,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) said in a letter sent to senators, urging them to vote yes.

Since South Carolina Gov. Lindsey Graham (R) introduced the bill in February, the group had wavered on the legislation, saying only that it supported its principle objective.

That is a position similar to what US President Donald Trump has taken up to this point. He announced last month that he supported the bill’s goals but did not unequivocally endorse it. That was, however, before the latest version was released.

US President Donald Trump , left, and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas stand for their national anthems during an arrival ceremony ahead of their meeting in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 23, 2017. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

“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 White House official told The Times of Israel last month.

Initially, the administration was quiet on the bill, leaving some on Capitol Hill questioning whether Trump and his team feared it would disrupt their attempts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, a “top priority” for the White House.

Trump did reportedly confront PA President Mahmoud Abbas about Palestinian terror payments during their May meetings in Washington and Bethlehem.

There had also been speculation that the Israeli government did not actually support the measure. Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer tried to quell those suspicions during his address to the annual conference of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) two weeks ago.

“Israel believes that the United States should end economic assistance to any government that pays people to kill Jews,” Ambassador Dermer told the CUFI crowd in Washington. “Period.”

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

Israel's Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer addresses the Christian's United for Israel's annual convention at the Washington Convention Center on July 17, 2017 (screen capture)

Some Jewish community leaders who backed the bill argued that this measure wouldn’t hurt ordinary Palestinians if their leadership heeded the American warnings.

“The bottom line here for people who are concerned for what is this going to do to the Palestinian people and worthwhile humanitarian projects and things like that is that, at the end of the day, it’s in the hands of the Palestinians of whether this money gets cut off or not,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center.

“Not one dollar of American support will get cut off if they do the right thing and end this terrorist stipend program,” he told The Times of Israel Thursday, moments after the bill passed committee.

According to a recently published Israeli report, the Palestinian Authority’s 2017 budget for payments to inmates in Israeli prisons and so-called “families of martyrs” is equal in sum to about half of the foreign budgetary aid Ramallah expects to receive this year.

Moreover, the PA Finance Ministry’s 2017 budget, published on its website earlier in July, said that salaries to incarcerated and released Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are convicted for terrorism, will amount to NIS 552 million ($153.4 million) this calendar year.


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