Diplomats back softened bill slashing PA funding over terror payouts

Diplomats back softened bill slashing PA funding over terror payouts

Ministry says inserting flexibility into law will make it easier sell abroad, but head of powerful Knesset committee warns he could press ahead with tougher version instead

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (R) and head of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Avi Dichter in the Knesset on June 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (R) and head of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Avi Dichter in the Knesset on June 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The head of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday objected to the Defense Ministry’s softened version of a bill to slash funds to the Palestinian Authority over salaries paid out by Ramallah to convicted terrorists and their families, as diplomats backed the government legislation.

The Foreign Ministry said the revisions requested by the Defense Ministry — which allow the high-level security cabinet to make exceptions, or hand over part of the funds to the PA — will make it easier for Israeli diplomats to “justify” the measure to the international community.

The legislation, if passed, would deduct welfare payments paid out by the Palestinian Authority to Palestinian prisoners and their families from the tax revenues Israel transfers annually to the PA. Under an economic agreement signed in 1994, Israel transfers to the PA tens of millions of dollars each year in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports.

The Knesset panel convened on Monday to debate Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern’s private-member proposal on the payments, alongside the government-sponsored bill that is meant to supplant it.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas poses with prisoners released on October 30, 2013 as part of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

The Defense Ministry version of the legislation, as presented to the panel, would allow the government to either deduct the funds, which would be irreversible, or “freeze” the payments, leaving the security cabinet with the final say.

The funds seized under the former procedure would then be distributed to terror victims who cannot sue their attackers for compensation and used in “the war against terror,” according to a statement from the committee.

But Likud MK Avi Dichter, the committee chairman and a former Shin Bet security agency chief, railed against the government proposal, saying it renders the bill toothless, as the final decision will always be left to the security cabinet, based on diplomatic or national security considerations.

“The government proposal says the government has the authority not to cut a single shekel,” said Dichter. “When you put a man on trial for murder, the law doesn’t allow for diplomatic concerns to decide whether or not he’s convicted. Why, in the situation of money transfers, is the government asking for all-or-nothing flexibility, from 0 to 100?”

“The law cannot be so tolerant as to allow the government to decide whether to cut everything or not,” added Dicther. “You cannot create deterrence without sending a message.”

The Likud MK was threatening to advance Stern’s private bill instead of the government legislation unless changes were made.

The government proposal was set to be brought to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the body that guarantees coalition support for bills, next Sunday.

Also speaking at the panel, a Foreign Ministry representative expressed support for the Defense Ministry’s bill rather than Stern’s alternative.

“We support the government proposal,” said Chaim Regev. “It’s not so simple to justify the issue of cuts from an international perspective… The government proposal allows for more flexibility in justifying it from an international perspective.”

Regev signaled the “flexibility” was necessary as a bargaining chip in the future. “It could be [peace] negotiations, it could be international pressure. Therefore, we must allow the [security] cabinet this flexibility.”

Critics of the bill have warned it could bankrupt the PA, leading to its collapse.

The Palestine Liberation Organization gives monthly payments to all Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel, no matter the reason for their incarceration, and also to families of so-called “martyrs” — a term used by the PLO to refer to anyone killed by an Israeli, whether the person was killed attacking Israelis or an innocent bystander.

A recent report published by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli Defense Ministry agency responsible for administering civilian affairs in the West Bank and the crossings with Gaza, said that around one-third of the Palestinian prisoners are “directly responsible for the murder of Israelis.”

According to the Defense Ministry, the Palestinian Authority in 2017 paid NIS 687 million ($198 million) to the so-called “martyrs’ families fund” and NIS 550 million ($160 million) to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club — some 7 percent of its overall budget.

Palestinian prisoners serving 20-30 year sentences for carrying out terror attacks are eligible for a lifetime NIS 10,000 ($1,900) monthly stipend, the Defense Ministry said, citing PA figures. Those prisoners who receive a 3-5 year sentence get a monthly wage of NIS 2,000 ($580). Palestinian prisoners who are married, have children, live in Jerusalem, or hold Israeli citizenship receive additional payments.

US President Donald Trump in January threatened aid cuts to the PA, asking why Washington should make “any of these massive future payments” when the Palestinians were “no longer willing to talk peace.” The United States recently froze some $100 million in aid to the UN agency that deals with Palestinian refugees, calling for reforms to the international body.

US lawmakers have also been advancing the Taylor Force Act — named for a US national killed in a Tel Aviv stabbing terror attack — which would cut US funding to the PA unless it discontinued its practice of paying monthly stipends to the families of terrorists who kill Israelis.

Taylor Force, murdered in Israel by a Palestinian terrorist in March 2016, gave his name to the Taylor Force Act, legislation proposing to halt US aid to the Palestinian Authority until the latter stops paying stipends to terrorists and their families. (Facebook)

The PA has refused to cease the payments to Palestinian prisoners.

In June, Abbas, in a speech read by his foreign affairs adviser Nabil Shaath, argued that “payments to support the families are a social responsibility to look after innocent people affected by the incarceration or killing of their loved ones.

“It’s quite frankly racist rhetoric to call all our political prisoners terrorists. They are, in effect, the victims of the occupation, not the creators of the occupation,” Abbas said.

Dov Lieber and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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