Since the “Middle East Peace Process” began in 1993 with the Oslo Accords, the United States has permitted the two key Palestinian organizations — the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) — to get away with murder. Well, let’s not exaggerate: Not precisely to get away with murder, but to get away with fostering, celebrating, and honoring murder. It’s time to end this scandalous American policy and insist that the Palestinians meet standards we would apply to any other aid recipients anywhere else in the world.
In what sense are they getting away with “fostering, celebrating, and honoring murder”? Two ways. First, Palestinian official bodies celebrate those who kill Israelis by naming streets, schools, and parks after them. The message to young Palestinians is clear: This is the behavior we honor and these are the models you should follow. The best, in other words the worst, example is Dalal Mughrabi, the terrorist who led the 1978 “Coastal Road massacre,” which killed 38 Israelis, including 13 children. Two girls’ high schools, a computer center, a soccer championship, two summer camps, and a public square are named after her.
Meanwhile, Palestinian official media continue what is now known as “incitement,” in other words, the teaching of hatred and the provision of a vast flow of lies to Palestinians about their situation and that of Israel. To take one minor and very recent example, in the first week of March, the official PA daily, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, carried an op-ed by one of its regular columnists stating that the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon had murdered Yasser Arafat by having him poisoned. PA television carries program after program, speech after speech, calling Jews “apes,” “pigs,” and “barbaric monkeys.” None of this can be defended as a matter of simply allowing speech: Official PA television and radio stations carry such programming, and PA publications print such language, so this is clearly a matter of official policy. Groups such as Palestine Media Watch keep careful records of these PA and PLO practices.
Second, the PA and PLO foster, honor, and celebrate terror by actually paying money to those who commit crimes of violence against Israelis — and the greater the crime, the more you get paid. There is a sliding scale, and the longer your sentence, the higher the stipend. Murderers can get up to $3,500 a month. Those convicted of lesser crimes and sentenced to five years in prison or less receive a base stipend of $350 per month. Two examples of those getting the maximum: Issa Abed Rabbo, who shot to death two Hebrew University students he found hiking, and Abu-Musa Atia, who used an axe to murder Isaac Rotenberg, an elderly Holocaust survivor. The excuse that these payments are meant only to help prisoners’ families survive does not wash, because if that were the goal, the stipend would depend on family size. Instead, the worse your crime, the more money you get.
And who is paying for all this? In part, the United States. While president after president has since the 1990s demanded an end to “incitement,” little has been done to change Palestinian political culture. So generation after generation is raised to view terrorists as their society’s most honored members. U.S. aid to Palestinians now runs at about $400 million a year. To some extent, all aid funds are fungible, and Congress has noticed — so the Palestinians took action to protect their flow of funds. The Congressional Research Service noted that “in 2014, the Palestinians reportedly shifted the responsibility for making these payments [to terrorists] from the PA to the PLO budget.” Why? Because foreign aid, including American aid, goes to the PA; the shift was an effort to isolate the PA from these terrorist payments. But that change from the PA to the PLO was essentially meaningless, because the distinction between the PA and the PLO is, for these purposes, nonexistent; Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas heads both.
Well, it is meaningless except in one regard: There is a PLO office in Washington. Under a 1987 law, the PLO is not permitted to have an office in Washington unless the president signs a waiver, every six months, stating that it is in the national-security interests of the United States to allow the office to remain. The PLO requires such a waiver because of its support for and engagement in terrorism, but every president over the past several decades has signed a waiver. Today, the waiver is indefensible: The PLO is now making direct payments to terrorists, rewarding them for their violence. How can it be in the interests of the United States — with a new president who has campaigned on stopping “radical Islamic terrorism” — to permit the PLO to have a diplomatic office here?
In 2015, the State Department defended the waiver this way: “We believe the PLO is an important partner in advancing the two-state solution. We believe closing the PLO office would be detrimental to our ongoing efforts to calm current tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, advance a two-state solution, and strengthen the U.S.–Palestinian partnership.” So a group that now pays millions of dollars to reward terrorism is cast as a key element of making peace. It makes no sense.
That is why there is growing support for S. 474, a bill — introduced by Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and supported by Senators Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), Ted Cruz (R., Texas), Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), and others — that would restrict funds “available for assistance for the West Bank and Gaza” unless the president certified that the PA was “taking credible steps to end acts of violence against Israeli citizens” and that it had “terminated payments for acts of terrorism against Israeli citizens.” (The bill does need one amendment: Given the overlap between the PA and the PLO, the PA should not be eligible for funding merely because it assigns the job of paying terrorists to the PLO.)
Is this legislation wise? The usual defenses for maintaining aid to the Palestinians are two: protecting the “peace process” and preventing the PA’s collapse. As to the former, what “peace process”? The eight Obama years saw no serious Israeli–Palestinian negotiations. Palestinian politics are frozen today, with the 82-year-old President Abbas hanging on to power and completely unwilling to take the risks and make the compromises that serious peace negotiations would entail. The notion that fear of damaging the “peace process” should lead us to continue to support payments to terrorists and their families is both completely unpersuasive and a formula for permanent inaction. We would find ourselves paying yet another generation of terrorists for their crimes decade after decade.
The notion of preventing the PA’s collapse is also a weak defense for the status quo. The fear is that the PA’s collapse would force Israel to take up greater responsibilities and bear greater costs in the West Bank (though not in Hamas-controlled Gaza). In fact, S. 474 would, if passed, not collapse the PA. It is, first, restricted to limiting or stopping the “Economic Support Fund,” just one aid account. Assistance to Palestinian security forces that work with Israel against Hamas and other terrorist groups could continue. Aid to the Palestinians through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian “refugees” — now running about $250 million a year — could also continue. (UNRWA should itself be eliminated and folded into UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency for every group in the world except Palestinians, but that’s another story.)
What would be limited or stopped are two forms of aid: project assistance undertaken by the U.S. Agency for International Development and direct payments to PA creditors. Prior to 2014, in the Bush and Obama years, there was some direct budget support (in other words, cash) for the PA, but that has been discontinued — and rightly so. Now, payments are directed to PA creditors such as the Israeli electric company or suppliers of medical care. Recently the United Kingdom, which had been making cash grants to the PA, moved to paying teachers and suppliers of medical care directly after it concluded that PA cash was being used to pay salaries of terrorists.
Why stop such assistance? Money is fungible, and when the United States pays a bill for the PA, it frees up funds that can then be directed to payments to prisoners and their families. These payments now total about 6 percent (and there are higher estimates, up to 10 percent) of the PA budget and reach somewhere between $200 and $300 million, perhaps more, each year.
S. 474 is known as the Taylor Force Act, in honor of the young American student and U.S. Army veteran Taylor Force, who was murdered last year by a Palestinian terrorist. In a grotesque example of glorification of terror, official PA television covered the murderer’s funeral and referred to him as a “shahid” (an Arabic word clearly meaning “martyr” in this context) eleven times; the official PA newspaper also said he “died as a martyr.” In fact, he was killed by Israeli police after he killed Taylor Force and wounded eleven others.
Isn’t it still true that if we cut aid, some innocent Palestinians will be deprived of good projects that benefit them, and that some real creditors, including Israeli companies, won’t get paid? That is true, and many people, including some Israeli officials, will say that practical considerations argue for continuing our aid.
But principle argues against it. There will never be peace if generation after generation of Palestinian youth are reared to honor terrorists. The greatest barrier to peace is a Palestinian political culture that elevates violence against Israelis above any positive achievements, including even democracy, national sovereignty, and economic development. There will never be an end to such glorification of murder unless there is a heavy price to be paid for it. We’ve tried lecturing the PLO and PA leaders, and we’ve tried changing our aid from cash to targeted grants — and we’ve failed. It’s entirely plausible that the Taylor Force Act will also fail: Perhaps Palestinian leaders will find other donors to make up the shortfall, or perhaps they and a majority of Palestinians would rather forgo the assistance than stop honoring terrorists like Taylor Force’s killer as “martyrs.” But we will have taken a stand; we will have made it clear that we find such conduct intolerable.
The Taylor Force Act will show that we do not find glorification of terrorism to be unfortunate or distasteful — we find it unacceptable and will impose a punishment if it continues. That is the right policy for the United States everywhere, including the case of the Palestinians. In a world where we are fighting the scourge of terrorism, we cannot allow the West Bank to become a small bubble in which terrorism is honored at American taxpayers’ expense.
– Mr. Abrams, a deputy national-security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict.