In J Street speech, Abbas urges Biden to scrap US law deeming PLO a terror group

PA president calls 1987 Anti-Terrorism Act the main obstacle to developing US-Palestinian ties, hints Ramallah will take own steps to improve relations

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Then-US vice president Joseph Biden, left, walks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, ahead of their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 10, 2010. (AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill/File)
Then-US vice president Joseph Biden, left, walks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, ahead of their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 10, 2010. (AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill/File)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday urged the Biden administration to revoke a US law that deems the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its affiliates a terror group.

In a video address to the national conference of the left-wing, pro-Israel J Street lobby, Abbas said he looked forward to “develop[ing] and strengthen[ing]” ties with Washington, which Ramallah severed in 2017 after the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

However, he noted that doing so would require “the elimination of some obstacles, most important of which” was addressing the 1987 Anti-Terrorism Act.

Abbas maintained that the law’s relevance had elapsed, as the PLO and Israel both recognized one another as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples in the 1993 Oslo Accords, with Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Washington subsequently signing agreements to fight terrorism together.

The Times of Israel reported in December that the PA is prepared to alter the way it pays stipends to Palestinian security prisoners, as well as the families of terrorists and others killed by Israelis, in an effort to convince the Biden administration to scrap the law.

Abbas appeared to hint at such plans during his J Street address. The PA president first called for the dovish lobby’s “assistance with the US administration and Congress to repeal all laws that block the road toward enhancing Palestinian-US relations.

“On our part, we will remove all obstacles to achieve this goal,” he added, not specifying which steps the PA plans to take.

Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel last year that the altered policy the PA is currently weighing would base the stipends on prisoners’ financial need rather than the length of their sentence, potentially marking a shift away from what has long been a sticking point for Ramallah’s detractors.

The practice of paying allowances to those convicted of carrying out terror attacks and to the families of those killed while carrying out attacks — often referred to by some Israeli officials as a pay-to-slay policy — has been pilloried by critics as incentivizing terror.

Palestinian leaders have long defended the payments, describing them as a form of social welfare and necessary compensation for victims of Israel’s callous military justice system in the West Bank.

The change may also usher Ramallah into compliance with the 2018 Taylor Force Act, which suspended US aid to the PA as long as it continued to implement the existing prisoner payment policy.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) listens as then-US president Donald Trump speaks to the press before a meeting at New York’s Palace Hotel during the 72nd UN General Assembly on September 21, 2017. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Biden has two methods at his disposal to revoke the 1987 legislation. One would be through its termination clause, which the president could activate by officially determining that the PLO and its affiliates are no longer a terror group — a likely difficult task given the membership of the State Department-blacklisted Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the PLO — or by deeming the legislation unconstitutional due to its handcuffing of the executive branch’s ability to conduct foreign policy.

Palestinian officials have been lobbying the Biden administration to take the latter approach, sources in Ramallah said last year.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has expressed its interest in restoring ties with the Palestinians, though it has not said anything about removing the PLO’s terror group status. Earlier this month, Washington announced that it was formally resuming $150 million in economic aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN body tasked with supporting Palestinian refugees, amidst a broader push to restore its aid to the Palestinians. The US announced an additional $75 million in economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza, $10 million for peace-building programs through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and $40 million in security assistance.

The Biden administration has also said it intends to reopen shuttered diplomatic missions in Jerusalem and Washington. The Trump administration merged the US consulate in Jerusalem, which had served as the de facto representative to the Palestinians, into its new embassy in the capital, making the Palestinian portfolio a subset of the broader US-Israel relationship.

Trump also shuttered the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington in 2018 against the backdrop of Ramallah’s refusal to engage with his administration’s peace initiative. Reopening the mission would be legally trying due to existing US laws — referenced on Sunday by Abbas — that target the PA so long as it continues to pursue charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court, in addition to its prisoner payment policy.

Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Joe Biden, after their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 10, 2010. (AP/Bernat Armangue/File)

A source familiar with the matter said that while the administration would like to see both missions reopened, the one in Washington will be a particular challenge. The US will also need Israel’s approval to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem, and expects to face some opposition, though not an outright veto, the source said.

Abbas also took the opportunity in his first-ever address to J Street to lambaste successive Israeli governments for entrenching the Jewish state’s presence in the West Bank, thereby making a two-state solution more difficult to achieve.

He reiterated his support for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

“We are ready to resume peace negotiations with our Israeli counterpart on the basis of international legitimacy resolution, the signed agreements, and under the auspices of the international Quartet,” he said.

“We believe that dialogue and negotiations are the sole path to achieving peace,” Abbas added.

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