Amid never-ending speculation over the release of President Donald Trump’s much anticipated Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, a major piece of legislation making its way through Congress may have a profound impact on the already strained ties between the United States and the Palestinians.
This legislation, dubbed the Taylor Force Act — named for a 29-year-old former U.S. serviceman murdered in March 2016 while visiting Israel — seeks to cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority over its payments to convicted terrorists and their families. However, after steady momentum late last year, including passage in the House of Representatives, the legislation has hit a snag in the Senate.
“A version of the Taylor Force Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously,” Michael Makovsky, president and CEO of JINSA, a pro-Israel think tank that has been lobbying for the bill, told JNS. “Apparently, Senate Democrats are more favorable to that legislation, but the Senate Republican bill has fewer exemptions.”
At the same time, while some may support the idea of holding the Palestinians accountable for paying terrorists or the families of terrorists killed in an attack, there is some hesitation that cutting off U.S. funding would destabilize the P.A., leading to its possible collapse and replacement in the West Bank with terror groups like Hamas.
Pastor John Hagee, founder and chairman of Christians United for Israel, one of the largest pro-Israel organizations in America with four million members, told JNS that the Palestinian “ ‘pay to slay’ policy must end now.”
Hagee, whose organization has been an early and fierce supporter of the legislation, said “each day that passes without this legislation becoming law is a day the U.S. government is failing to honor the memory of Taylor Force, failing to stand up for our ally Israel and failing to respect the wishes of the American people.”
Staggering amounts of financial incentives
In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee police conference earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that in order to achieve peace, P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas must “stop paying terrorists who murder Jews.”
“You know how much he pays? He pays about $350 million a year to terrorists and their families, each year,” stated Netanyahu. “That’s about a little less than 10 percent of the total Palestinian budget. That’s an incredible number.”
According to Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, in 2017 the P.A. budget for salaries to incarcerated and released terrorists will amount to NIS 552 million ($153.4 million), while the amount “allocated for the families of those killed or wounded in the struggle against Zionism rose by 4 to 8 percent, and is set at 687 million shekels ($194.3 million)” in 2017.
Altogether, he said, “the expenditures for supporting terror in the 2017 Palestinian Authority budget is 1.240 billion shekels ($344 million).”
Payments for terrorists are issued monthly, with those receiving sentences of three to five years being allocated NIS 2,000 ($566) a month, and those receiving 20-year to 35-year sentences earning NIS 10,000 ($2829) per month for life. Married terrorists get a bonus of NIS 300 ($85) per month, with an additional NIS 50 ($14) monthly per child.
Status of the Taylor Force Act
The legislation was introduced in the Senate in 2016 by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and in the House of Representatives in February 2017. A Texas native, West Point graduate and U.S. Army veteran, Force was stabbed and killed by a Palestinian terrorist during a Vanderbilt University graduate-school trip to Israel.
The two competing versions of the Taylor Force Act in Congress, however, have several key differences that have caused concern among advocates of the bill. Passed on Dec. 5 by the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 1164 adds several exemptions and loopholes to the original proposed Senate version.
“The bill that passed the House would limit U.S. funds and grants from the Economic Support Fund [ESF] from going to the P.A., PLO and any successor organization unless they are taking specific actions,” Tyler Stapleton, deputy director of congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.
“The Palestinians also receive non-lethal assistance for the P.A. security forces and fund from the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement. These funds would not be touched by the legislation,” explained Stapleton. “This bill would require a greater degree of transparency from the P.A. or funds will be held up. Much of the ESF funds go to USAID [United States Agency for International development] programs. UNRWA [United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency] also provides services to the Palestinians, which the U.S. also helps to fund. These funds would not be touched by the Taylor Force Act, but we have seen the [Trump] administration begin to withhold funds seeking concessions from the P.A.”
According to a Congressional report from Dec. 2016, the U.S. on average has invested $400 a year in the Palestinians, with most of the money going to projects supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The report also stated that the U.S. was due to invest $363 million in the Palestinians in 2017, with the majority of those funds going to USAID programs, and $36 million going to the P.A.’s security forces. The Taylor Force Act seeks to slash the USAID aid, but not target the security force’s funding.
Among the criteria set forth by the House version is a requirement that the U.S. Secretary of State certify in writing that the P.A., PLO and successor organizations meet a number of criteria, including terminating payments for acts of terrorism; revoking laws or decrees that implement a system of compensation to imprisoned terrorists; and certify that the Palestinians publicly condemn terrorism and seek to bring terrorists to justice.
The Senate version, S.1967, which was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last August, differs from the House version in several ways.
“The Senate version only refers the conditions mentioned above as applying to aid benefiting the P.A., and does not include the PLO or successor organizations,” said Stapleton.
“The Senate version also creates a Palestinian Authority Accountability Fund, which would be the home for ESF funds withheld because the Secretary of State was not able to certify [that] the above conditions were being met. After a year, the funds would be reprogrammed by the State Department and not necessarily benefit the Palestinians,” explained Stapleton.
“The House version allows withheld funds to be available for two years. The House version [also] makes exceptions for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, wastewater projects and programs for vaccination of children. The Senate version only provides an exception for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network.”
However, Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, lambasted the current version of the bill, saying that it will only reduce aid to the P.A. by one one-third.
“The original law would of removed almost all of the aid to the Palestinian Authority. It sai that is you don’t abrogate your law that pays Arabs to murder Jews, and then the more Jews you murder, the large amount you receive, then you will not be getting any more money from the U.S.”
“Everyone is promoting a falsehood about this bill that it will end aid to the Palestinian Authority, but it only cuts the aid by a third. It is not what it was originally, and I question why AIPAC did not support the original and stronger version of the bill.”
For its part, the Trump administration, which has threatened to cut aid to the Palestinians and has already slashed funding to UNRWA — the United Nation’s Palestinian refugee agency — declared last September that it backs the Taylor Force Act.
According to a State Department spokesperson, “the Trump administration strongly supports the Taylor Force Act, which is a consequence of Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization’s policy of paying terrorists and their families.”
Political support on both sides of aisle
While the bill does have strong bipartisan support, there appears to be some political squabbling over getting it past its final hurdle in the Senate for a full floor vote.
Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, who now serves as national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told JNS that the entire Republican caucus in the Senate is prepared to support the bill and blamed the Democrats for refusing to allow a full vote.
“Every single Senate Republican is ready to move ahead and vote on the Taylor Force Act,” said Coleman. “Senator Schumer says he is committed to passing the bill, but apparently, one or more Senate Democrats refuse to allow it to be voted on. This is a test of Senator Schumer’s leadership. It’s past time for Senate Democrats to join their Republican colleagues so the Taylor Force Act can be passed and sent to the President, who has said he will sign it into law.”
Yet in a statement provided to JNS by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office, the New York senior senator has said he is a “strong supporter” of the legislation and is working to get it passed.
“I am a strong supporter of the Taylor Force Act — a bill that aims to put an end to the Palestinian Authority’s appalling practice of compensating terrorists and ensure Taylor’s legacy will live on,” said Schumer.
He added that “President Abbas must be held accountable for the Palestinian Authority’s record of incitement and must stop subsidizing terror. It’s abhorrent that they provide payments to terrorists and families of those who have committed violence against Israelis and Americans. As I told the Force family when I met them on Capitol Hill, I will do everything in my power to make sure Congress enacts this bill.”
JINSA’s Makovsky urged both sides to work out a compromise.
“I hope Majority Leader [Sen.] Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer can work out a strong compromise and bring a stand-alone vote on the bill to the Senate floor as soon as possible,” he said. “There can be no real peace between Israel and the Palestinians if the Palestinian Authority is encouraging terror against Israel and those who visit, such as Taylor Force.”