WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday appeared to walk back his 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. He went on to say that US President Donald Trump has only a “certain window of patience” and “a certain window which he will remain engaged and be interested.”
“At some point,” the top US diplomat added, “he’s going to become disinterested. And when we become disinterested, that will certainly alter our level of support.”
“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 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.
Since Trump took office, this issue has been a forefront focus as he’s attempted to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
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.”
In February, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) introduced the Taylor Force Act, which would cut US funding to the Palestinian Authority if it continues to provide monetary support to the families of those who commit acts of terror against Israelis and others.
The legislation is named after former US army officer Taylor Force, who was stabbed to death in Tel Aviv in March 2016 by a Palestinian terrorist. Force was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University and was traveling with other students on a program studying global entrepreneurship.
Since then, Republicans have voiced a strong desire to see that policy changed in Ramallah.
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.