WASHINGTON— Top Senate Democrats said they were closer to signing on to a Republican-backed bill that would slash aid to the Palestinian Authority if it does not end its payments to Palestinians jailed for attacks on Israel.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader in the Senate, told attendants at the Orthodox Union’s annual Washington action day on Thursday that he would support the Taylor Force Act or legislation similar to it if the Trump administration is unable to get the Palestinian Authority to stop the payments.
“Abbas has to stop making payments to terrorists and their families, and all elected officials should call them out,” Schumer said.
Also edging closer to endorsing the legislation was Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.
“We’re going to find a way to pass the Taylor Force Act,” Cardin said, suggesting that he wanted changes to the bill before he could fully endorse it. The measure was named for the American killed in a 2016 stabbing attack in Tel Aviv.
Support by Senate Democrats, who mostly balked at the bill when it was introduced earlier this year, would be critical to preventing a filibuster from killing it. Any version passed by the Senate would likely succeed in the US House of Representatives, which also has a Republican majority.
The United States now gives the Palestinian Authority about $500,000 million in annual aid. The bill, which was introduced by Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would only leave the portion for security assistance — about $60 million in 2013. Cruz also attended the Orthodox Union event.
Democrats have been reluctant to cut aid to the Palestinians in part because Israeli governments have argued quietly that support for the Palestinian Authority is critical to keeping the West Bank quiet. However, the Israeli government is itself now advancing legislation to financially punish the PA for its payments to terrorists.
The Trump administration has pushed the issue to the forefront, with President Donald Trump demanding an end to the payments as he attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this week said that the Palestinian Authority was ready to cut the payments, only to be contradicted within a day by Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Notably, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which previously did not have a position on the bill, is also edging closer to embracing it.
“We are encouraged by the efforts in Congress to reach a bipartisan agreement that will ensure passage of the Taylor Force legislation,” AIPAC’s spokesman, Marshall Wittmann, said in an email to JTA. “AIPAC has pressed to end payments to terrorists and their families for many years. Congress and the Administration must increase the pressure on the Palestinian authority to end these abhorrent payments.”
Lobbying for the Taylor Force Act was one of three legislative agendas for the Orthodox Union leaders and activists. The other items were expanding “school choice,” a term conservatives use for diverting some federal funds to private and religious schools, and backing for security funds for nonprofits.
In addition to their congressional meetings, the delegations also met with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; Jason Greenblatt, who is leading Trump’s efforts to create the conditions to restart peace talks; and Sebastian Gorka, a member of Trump’s national security team.
Tillerson on Wednesday appeared to walk back an earlier statement that the Palestinians intend to end the practice of paying the families of terrorists jailed for attacking or killing Israelis.
Instead, he said that there was an “active discussion” between Washington and Ramallah on the matter.
“We will continue this dialogue with them,” Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“We’ve taken the position to the Palestinian Authority in a very unequivocal way: You either take care of this yourself or someone else will take care of it for you,” he went on. “Those are the words that I have used with them.”
On Tuesday, Tillerson had told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Palestinian leadership “intended” to end its practice that has roiled GOP members of Congress in recent months.
“They have changed that policy and their intent is to cease the payments to the families of those who have committed murder or violence against others,” Tillerson said. “We have been very clear with them that this [practice of paying terrorists] is simply not acceptable to us.”
He told the House panel on Wednesday that PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian officials assured him they would follow through on altering the current policy.
“Those were assurances that were given to me in the most recent trip to Bethlehem,” Tillerson said. “They have indicated they would, they have indicated to me they were in the process of changing that.”
A Palestinian official said earlier Wednesday that the Palestine Liberation Organization is still paying wages to convicted terrorists imprisoned in Israel, despite what Tillerson claimed, and intends to keep doing so.
“There will be no end to the payments,” Issa Qaraqe, head of the Palestinian Committee of Prisoners’ Affairs, told The Times of Israel.
When Trump met with Abbas in Washington on May 3, the White House said the US president brought up the issue with the Palestinian leader.
“President Trump raised his concerns about payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who have committed terrorist acts, and to their families, and emphasized the need to resolve this issue,” the White House said at the time.
The payments are technically carried out by the Palestine Liberation Organization — an umbrella group for Palestinian factions — after Abbas earlier transferred the responsibility away from the PA in an attempt to deflect criticism of the payment system. Abbas is the head of both the PA and the PLO.
Many GOP leaders on Capitol Hill urged the US president to push Abbas on the payments before that White House meeting.
Trump met a second time with Abbas, in Bethlehem, on May 23, and told him: “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded or rewarded.”
The Palestinians have paid out some NIS 4 billion — or $1.12 billion — over the past four years to terrorists and their families, a former director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and ex-head of the army’s intelligence and research division told a top Knesset panel late last month.