Yesterday, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida and a loudly pro-Israel congressperson, froze roughly $200 million in development aid to the Palestinian Authority. “Members believe that the funding cannot be considered in a vacuum, and that the P.A.’s activities at the United Nations, its arrangement with Hamas, and its failure to recognize Israel’s right to exist as Jewish State must all be taken into consideration,” a statement said. The Obama administration strongly opposes the freeze and is intensively lobbying to reverse it. The Arab League has pledged to fill the funding hole, and the P.A. has promised that it will not be deterred from continuing to seek U.N. membership. It is notable that voices ranging from J Street to the Israel Project to Secretary of Defense to Elliott Abrams also oppose cutting aid.
I chatted with Anthony H. Cordesman, a longtime Pentagon hand now of the Center for Strategic International Studies about the pros and cons of cutting U.S. aid. Except for him—and, he said, for the Israeli security establishment—it’s all cons.
Is it wise to cut or condition U.S. military aid to the Palestinian Authority?
I think that whether it is Prime Minister Netanyahu or virtually all the people in the IDF and Israel, they see it as not. This aid has had two real effects. It has done a far better job of providing security within the Palestinian areas in the West Bank, and it has been a counter to the corrupt and uncertain security situation in the Palestinian security services, which played a serious role in what happened in Gaza. So there is no debate over the value about this type of aid, in serving not only Palestinian but Israeli interests.
What about this other aid? The funds that have been frozen were apparently for development projects.
The problem you really have here is that this kind of symbolism doesn’t do Israel any good. All it does is create more potential for some kind of Palestinian rioting or protest and convince more people in the Arab world that they can’t work with Israel, the United States, and the peace process. It’s one thing to talk about aid in the time of Arafat, where you never quite knew where the money went, but the aid today basically maintains a relatively stable West Bank. And when you cut it, you raise the risk of some kind of protest or violence; you lose leverage; and you undermine the P.A., which has enough problems in dealing with groups like Hamas, which still is a threat politically in the West Bank.
This also isn’t the signal you want to send in the middle of the Arab Spring. It is very difficult to see in what way it could serve Israel’s interests.
The truth is there is a very unfortunate tendency as you head toward an election year to have certain American political figures try to be more Israeli than Israel, and to in the process show no regard for Israel’s really existing interests or even for the cautions that come out of Israeli experts. This is an exercise in political opportunism, in which just appearing to be pro-Israeli, as opposed to the reality, is the goal.
Anyone who’s read Article I of the Constitution knows Congress has the power to apportion money. If it were to continue to freeze this aid or even to move ahead with cutting military aid, would the administration find a way around a Congressional directive?
The practical problem there is, you can find ways to deal with things on a short-term, emergency basis, some of the time, but in this case you end up with a very high-profile action. You need to persuade Congress. You can’t get around Congress’ control over the purse strings. Even if you could find a technical mechanism that was arguably legal, it would be politically messy and they would lose.