Aid to PA Supported By…Elliott Abrams?

Yesterday, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on the future of aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Aid to the PA is under bi-partisan attack in Congress due to the Palestinians’ campaign to somehow upgrade their standing in the United Nations. The campaign against the Palestinians, and also against the United Nations, has already gained enough momentum that yesterday’s hearing, initially to have been held in session of the Subcommittee on the Near East and South Asia, was upgraded to a hearing of the full Foreign Affairs committee.

Leading the charge, unsurprisingly, is Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who has introduced a bill threatening UN funding mainly, though not exclusively, over the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. But her predecessor as Chair, Howard Berman (D-CA) was absolutely blunt in saying: “I believe it is appropriate to point out that should the Palestinians pursue their unilateralist course, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual assistance that we have given them in recent years, will likely be terminated.”

Four leading Democrats, Steve Israel (D-NY), Robert Brady (D-PA), Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Steven Rothman (D-NJ) have sent a bill to the Foreign Affairs Committee which would

… prohibit Foreign Military Financing program assistance to countries that vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state in the absence of a negotiated border agreement between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

With all this, you’d think aid to the PA was doomed, would you not?

But hold on. At the hearing, there were four witnesses, with David Makovsky of the AIPAC-created Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) being the most moderate. The other speakers were James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation, Dr. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (which, along with Heritage, are neo-conservative think-tanks, with more info available here) and neocon all-star Elliott Abrams.

Makovsky was predictably dubious about cutting off aid to the Palestinians, and the entire panel was more or less united around the idea that Congress must at least keep funding PA security forces that are working with Israel to prevent attacks on Israelis.

Abrams, somewhat surprisingly, joined not only Makovsky but also the dovish “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group J Street in cautioning against cutting other aid to the PA. He said,

I would say the best response is not to zero out all aid to the PA. Some programs are very much in our own interest and Israel’s, such as the security programs. Defunding them right now would make life harder for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Nor do I favor generally cutting off the PA, for several reasons. The entire PA (as opposed to the Fatah and PLO leadership) is not to blame for what the PLO/Fatah crew is planning in New York. A collapse of the PA would not be in our interest nor in Israel’s or for that matter Jordan’s. In fact it might benefit only Hamas and other extremist and terrorist groups.

Makovsky added:

Thanks to American and European financial support, Palestinian security cooperation  with Israel has gone hand-in-hand with Prime Minister Salam Fayad‘s success in institution building. There is no doubt that improved law and order in the West Bank, along with Israel‘s lifting of most of its major manned checkpoints, has been a key contribution to what the World Bank has cited as the 9.3 percent growth enjoyed by the West Bank in 2010, at a time of worldwide recession. However, without U.S. aid, which could also play a role in ensuring that Israel continues its monthly transfer of 380 million shekels (around $107 million dollars) in customs clearances to the PA, the odds are greater that PM Fayad will resign, imperiling both security cooperation and the institution building effort. As many of us know, PM Fayad has been the greatest obstacle to Fatah-Hamas reconciliation efforts. If an unintended consequence of a U.S. cutoff of aid is Fayad‘s resignation, we remove that obstacle. In other words, withholding of U.S. aid will undermine the people we want to help, and help the people that we want to undermine.

There’s a lot here that bears close scrutiny, as the picture Makovsky paints is pretty far removed from reality. But the important point is this wide agreement, spanning the center-left to the far right, that cutting off aid to the PA is against the interests not only of the PA but of Israel and the US as well.

This leads to an obvious question: is continuing aid to the PA in the interests of the Palestinians?

While there has been little visible Palestinian opposition to the UN campaign, or, in recent months, to the PA in general, there has also been remarkably little enthusiasm about it from any sector of the Palestinian public or civil society.

So while it’s virtually certain that, even among those opposed to the UN bid, Palestinians will collectively be furious, again, at the US for its opposition to any initiative they ever take, it’s not clear that a sizeable portion of the Palestinian public is impressed with Mahmoud Abbas campaign here.

And yet, this may produce a renewed opportunity for the PA leadership.

With unity between the PA and Hamas still nothing more than idealistic words, the future of the Palestinian national movement, and the identities of any potential interlocutors with Israel and the US, is completely in doubt. One reason is, indeed the continuing insistence of Fatah that PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have a prominent role in a unity government. But really, that is just the public face of the real concern, which is loss of US funding.

But if arguments such as those put forward by Makovsky and Abrams win the day on Capitol Hill, the PA leadership will have new options. The US will have demonstrated a reluctance to cut Palestinian aid and, while this is not likely to extend to maintaining aid to a PA that includes Hamas, it may well allow for more boldness in Palestinian diplomacy, and further actions to try to internationalize the issue and take it out of exclusively US hands.

But taking advantage of such an opportunity will require bold and clever leadership, which the PA/PLO/Fatah have not demonstrated any hint of.

One last curiosity in all of this talk of suspending aid to the PA. That came from the inimitable Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. He said: “I certainly understand the anger in Congress. You ignore us and then you want us to continue giving you aid?”

Foxman says this as a man who staunchly defends an Israeli government that has repeatedly thumbed its nose at the United States and embarrassed the President, despite the fact that aid to Israel, in both dollars and on the ground military coordination is greater and deeper than at any time in history.

One can only imagine the color of Abe’s face if the obvious irony was pointed out to him.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.


One Comment

  1. They want to protect foreign aid as a concept, to protect the largest perennial recipient of US foreign aid. And, to have a consequence to pull on Abbas when he declares statehood for Palestine next week. By these moderate calls, may we know how reasonable they are.

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