Congress, through a bill called the Taylor Force Act, is attempting to address a serious problem that has gone unchecked for decades: The Palestinian Authority is using western aid money to pay salaries and benefits to terrorists and their families, including to terrorists who have killed Americans. These are not envelopes of cash slipped to a handful of people – the “pay to slay” program is codified in detail by PA law, is administered by two ministries with hundreds of staff, and pays tens of thousands of people a total of $315 million per year, or nearly 8 percent of the PA’s $4 billion budget. The program contradicts the very purpose for which the Palestinian Authority was founded in the early 1990s: to be the western-supported political entity that would enable the Palestinians to abandon terrorism, transition to statehood, and make peace with Israel.
Today, the Palestinian Authority is so far removed from this mission that PA President Mahmoud Abbas says he would rather lose the presidency than stop the pay-for-slay program. “Even if I will have to leave my position,” he declared this week in response to US and Israeli pressure, “I will not compromise on the salary of a martyr or a prisoner.”
Abbas is probably not bluffing, which underscores the need for US action to prevent our aid money from enabling Palestinian violence. The Taylor Force Act would condition one stream of US aid to the PA on the PA’s cessation of its terrorist payment program. This stream of aid, called the Economic Support Fund (ESF), fluctuates annually but averages around $250 million per year and funds USAID programs and grants, plus payments to PA creditors such as hospitals and Israeli utilities. If the PA stops the terror payments, the aid continues. If the PA continues the payments, the aid is stopped. Two other streams of aid – the UN body UNRWA, to which the US contributes close to $400 million per year, and a security assistance program called INCLE, to which the US contributes $70 million a year – are untouched by the bill.
The problem of PA payments to terrorists has only recently begun making headlines, but US policymakers quietly sought to address the problem in recent years. The payments are the main reason that, starting in 2014, the US stopped giving aid directly to the PA in favor of paying PA creditors. Around the same time, in an effort to deceive western donors that the PA was getting out of the terrorism business, the PA transferred administration of much of the pay-for-slay program to the Palestine Liberation Organization – a distinction without a difference, as the PLO money originates with the PA and Mahmoud Abbas heads both organizations. Starting in fiscal year 2015, the US began reducing, dollar for dollar, ESF aid to the PA based on the PA’s spending on the pay-for-slay program. The State Department calculates the aforementioned amount, but the number is classified, apparently to help the PA save face.
But none of these measures have stopped pay-for-slay or caused the PA to begin reforms. In fact, just the opposite has happened: The payments program has grown as terrorists who carried out stabbing and car-ramming attacks during the 2015-2016 upsurge in violence, plus their families, have been added to the rolls.
Far from being a heavy-handed opening gambit, as some of the bill’s critics charge, the Taylor Force Act is merely the most recent attempt by the US to stop a morally abhorrent PA practice that contradicts basic US interests and threatens the lives of American citizens. As Elliott Abrams, a supporter of the bill and former White House and State Department official said recently, “We have been doing the same thing for decades, and it isn’t working to change Palestinian political culture, and that political culture has to change if we want peace.”
The bipartisan bill has few detractors, but there is a western constituency that opposes cuts to PA aid, and this constituency has begun arguing against the Taylor Force Act. They make two main claims: First, cutting ESF aid would weaken the PA and destabilize the West Bank, and second, cutting aid is unfair to Palestinians who are not involved in terrorism.
In a recent article, Dan Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, and Ilan Goldenberg, an Obama administration State Department official, warn of “a number of unintended consequences” should the bill pass. US aid “keep[s] the West Bank stable, which is in everyone’s interests,” and they add that it is “not the case” that “American aid is going to support terrorism” since aid is no longer paid directly to the PA. Given the fungibility of money, this latter claim is unserious: By paying the PA’s bills the US is obviously freeing up PA money for nefarious projects. The authors propose weakening the Taylor Force Act so that it would merely eliminate payments to Israeli utilities, a strange proposal that would turn a bill intended to stop US support for PA terror into a bill that punishes Israeli companies.
Another critic of the Taylor Force Act, Michael Koplow, warns apocalyptically of violence and chaos should the US cut aid, which he says “prevent[s] the West Bank from turning into a boiling cauldron of seething hate and woeful despair that spits out Palestinians with no higher purpose than attacking Israelis.”
These critics present no evidence other than their own speculation to support their claim that cutting ESF aid would destabilize the West Bank. Sadly, the West Bank under the PA already indoctrinates an unacceptably high number of “Palestinians with no higher purpose than attacking Israelis.” If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t be having this debate and the Taylor Force Act would not be necessary.
Israeli leaders across the political spectrum—including Prime Minister Netanyahu, the head of Israel’s major centrist party Yesh Atid, and some of the country’s most well-regarded former generals and heads of the Shin Bet—do not believe the bill poses a significant danger of West Bank violence. In a recent op-ed, Bogie Yaalon and Amos Yadlin—respectively the former defense minister and IDF chief of staff, and the former head of IDF intelligence—write that “Israel should not refrain from acting against these policies [of payments to terrorists]…in the past the PA’s threats to fold proved empty, and there is no credible indication that the organization will voluntarily give up its hold on power.” It makes no sense that so many prominent Israeli officials, including the political and security leaders of the country, would call for action on this issue if they believed they would be left with a terrorism crisis in the West Bank after the bill’s passage.
Indeed, many former Israeli security officials support a new bill in the Knesset that would deduct, dollar for dollar, from Israeli tax transfers to the PA based on PA payments to terrorists. Israeli elected officials across the board support reducing aid to the PA over its terror payments. None of them believe the PA will collapse or that the West Bank will descend into chaos. Do the American opponents of the bill know something these Israelis, whose children serve in the military, and who must stand before Israeli voters for re-election, do not?
There is, however, one Israeli group that opposes the Taylor Force Act. It is called Commanders for Israel’s Security. It is comprised of a seemingly intimidating list of former generals, colonels, and national security officials. Yet the group was established by liberal American donors precisely to create a false appearance of Israeli opposition to what are in fact popular, consensus policies. A large number of the group’s members served in positions that give them no special authority on this particular issue; many are well-known activists on the Israeli left; and several members of the group, including Gen. Elazar Stern, a member of the Knesset who sponsored the Israeli counterpart to the Taylor Force Act, resigned rather than lend their names to the group’s apologia for the PA. Former defense minister and IDF chief of staff Bogie Yaalon denounced the group’s statement as “choosing to be blackmailed” and “a clear surrender to terror.”
The truth is that the wisdom of reducing aid to the PA is far less a technical question best left to experts than it is a moral, political, and strategic question accessible to anyone with a basic understanding of the issues. Should the United States and Israel fund an entity that rewards terrorism in the hope that allowing a little murder will prevent a larger amount of it? Or should we take a firm stand against the acceptability of any killing as the best way to protect our people and prevent a worse problem? You don’t have to be a general, diplomat, or “security expert” to answer these simple questions.
The bill’s opponents tend to be drawn from a narrow elite of peace-process careerists in the United States and Israel for whom defending the status quo has become a matter not just of professional self-interest, but of personal vanity. Their response to virtually any attempt at correcting obvious problems is to insist that any meaningful deviation from the last 25 years of no-consequences aid to the PA is dangerous and doomed to failure.
It is telling that in warning of the dangers of trying to stop US aid from being used to reward terrorism, they say nothing about the danger of neglecting to reform bad policies, a danger that hundreds of Israeli and American victims of Palestinian terrorism have paid for with their lives.
As to the argument that cutting aid programs is unfair to Palestinians who are not involved in terrorism, the bill’s critics misunderstand the purpose of aid to the PA in the first place. US aid is supposed to further US interests – in this case, the US interest in promoting peace. If the goal of US aid was charity, there are numerous regions of the world far more deserving than the West Bank, which is already so awash in aid programs and NGO’s that there has likely never been a population the recipient of more foreign aid per capita in world history. And it is telling that critics of the bill never entertain the possibility that the PA does not have to suffer an aid reduction in the first place if it simply stops funding terrorism. The Taylor Force Act intentionally poses a simple choice to the PA: Work toward peace, or continue promoting terror.
Since the inauguration of the peace process in the early 1990s, with one exception—President Bush’s sidelining of Yasser Arafat in 2002—the US response to most Palestinian bad conduct has been to provide more aid. When Hamas has started wars with Israel, the United States has stepped in afterward with emergency funding for the cleanup and rebuilding of Gaza, quite literally rewarding a terrorist organization for going to war against a US ally. The PA’s promotion of hate in schools and in official media has been condemned with words but rewarded with increased aid. UNRWA’s intertwining with Hamas and indoctrination of Palestinians that they will “return” to Israel has been punished with increased US funding for UNRWA. The astounding corruption of Palestinian leaders has never triggered an aid reduction, nor has their ongoing refusal to negotiate with Israel or their rejection of statehood offers. US aid policy has at best insulated Palestinians from the consequences of their political choices, and at worst has rewarded them for hate, violence, and rejectionism.
America is the greatest force for good in the world, but there are times when our efforts become misguided and we must acknowledge that we have lost the plot. As a matter of basic morality, the United States cannot provide unchecked aid to an entity that is rewarding the murderers of our citizens with cash payments and celebrating them with street parades. As a matter of realpolitik, the United States should not provide aid that undermines our interest in peace and stability in the Middle East and that sends mixed signals to the world about our tolerance for terror. The Taylor Force Act should earn broad bipartisan support because it will begin the process of restoring clarity to our foreign policy.
As for the Palestinian Authority, if it is to ever be accepted as Israel’s genuine partner for peace—and if a Palestinian entity is ever to be accepted in the community of nations—the PA laws specifying payments and benefits for terrorism must be repealed, and the ministries that administer the program must be dismantled. Western nations that seek peace in the region must insist on nothing less.
Sander Gerber is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former vice chairman of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. He heads Hudson Bay Capital Management LP, a multi-strategy investment firm. Noah Pollak is a political consultant active on the Taylor Force Act.