Punishing Blow?

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in March.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in March.

Having failed in the past to harness Congressional ire with the Palestinians and hold U.S. aid in the balance, the newest effort by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to defund the Palestinian Authority is generating positive reactions on both sides of the aisle. His bill, introduced on the first day of the 114th Congress, would prohibit federal money from flowing to the P.A. until “it withdraws its request to join the International Criminal Court.”

Many members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has jurisdiction of the bill, have yet to read through its provisions, but Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee’s ranking member and until this month its chairman, signaled that Congress is frustrated with what he described as Palestinian intransigence.

“I haven’t seen what he does as the trigger exactly, but I do think there is a growing view that the Palestinian Authority cannot expect to continue to receive money and take these types of actions,” he said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed the paperwork to join the ICC, an international body that has the authority to prosecute war crimes among its members, on Dec. 31, saying the strategy is to seek prosecution of Israel for alleged war crimes during its war against Hamas in Gaza last summer. On Monday, President Barack Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States views Abbas’ attempt as improper as the Palestinians are not a sovereign state.

Nevertheless, a desire to punish the Palestinians for moves seen as undermining the peace process has been gaining steam on Capitol Hill for quite some time.

­­Current U.S. law hinges Palestinian- directed aid on a number of conditions, one of which is to not support terrorists or any group involved in terrorist activities, with the White House determining whether or not the P.A. violated the conditions. Paul introduced a bill last year after the formation of a unity government between Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas — which America considers a terrorist organization — that would have bypassed a State Department review and cut U.S. aid to the P.A. until it severed its Hamas ties.

Though most lawmakers, pro-Israel organizations and the Israeli government were critical of the Palestinian unity government — Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said that the unity government had “suits in the front office and terrorists in the back office” — they did not support Paul’s bill. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest and still the most influential pro-Israel advocacy organization in the United States, quietly opposed the bill, favoring other methods.

Today, AIPAC is noncommittal on Paul’s recent effort. “We believe that U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority should be immediately suspended,” one AIPAC official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “Right now, we are evaluating several ideas that are circulating to achieve that objective. [That mechanism] may or may not be a bill.

This time around, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are expressing more outrage, including a bipartisan group of senators known for being outspoken on foreign policy issues: Menendez, as well as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). They released a joint statement calling Abbas’ actions “deplorable,” “counterproductive” and promising that Congress will respond.

“Today there is no viable Palestinian state, and nothing will bring about that goal other than direct negotiations. Rather than committing to direct negotiations with Israel for a sustainable, realistic two-state compromise, President Abbas seeks to launch unilateral, politicized investigations of Israel citizens,” the senators wrote. “Israel, like the United States, is not a member of the ICC and therefore is not subject to its jurisdiction. Further, existing U.S. law makes clear that if the Palestinians initiate an ICC judicially authorized investigation, or actively support such an investigation, all economic assistance to the P.A. must end.”

Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of the foreign affairs committee’s new members, expressed no qualms about cutting aid, although he also had not seen Paul’s bill.

“There are already existing laws about reductions in funding to the P.A. based on actions like this, and if existing law doesn’t cover it, I’d be open to reducing that funding further,” said Cotton, “because any time the P.A. tries to take these unilateral steps it only further undermines the prospects for a two-state solution, which is what the government of Israel has been working toward for years.”

Still, the fear that cutting aid to the P.A. would lead to a quick descent into chaos in the West Bank, especially as radical Islamist terror groups gain strength in the surrounding regions, worries some lawmakers.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that although he believes that there needs to be a response — he called the P.A.’s actions “disgraceful” — such a kneejerk reaction would be counterproductive.

“I think it’s something that needs to be considered, but I think that we should hold off and decide what the best course of action is,” said Engel. “We don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face. I think there has to be a penalty or punishment for the P.A., but if you defund the P.A., what are you left with, Hamas?

“Everything has to be balanced,” he continued. “I’m obviously very opposed to Hamas, and I’m opposed to what the P.A. is doing, but I think that it has to be a carefully calibrated response. I have been holding up some projects of the P.A. I put a hold on them because I just think that the P.A. has to understand that they pay a price for their nonsense.”

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