Israel will ask Congress to stop US aid to Palestinians

Jerusalem to push for enforcement of law stipulating that if PA acts against Israel at ICC, US funding — some $400 million annually — would cease

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a speech in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 4, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a speech in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 4, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Abbas Momani)

Israel is poised to ask Congress to stop funding the Palestinian Authority, a day after the Israeli government froze NIS 500 million ($127 million) in Palestinian tax revenues collected on Ramallah’s behalf, in response to the Palestinian Authority filing a request to join the International Criminal Court earlier this week.

An Israeli official said Sunday that Jerusalem will turn to pro-Israel Congress members to ensure that a law banning funds to the Palestinian Authority should it turn to the ICC be enforced, Haaretz reported. The Palestinians stand to lose some $400 million per year in US aid.

The stop-gap funding bill passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last month contains language that stipulates that no State Department economic support funding may be given to the PA if “the Palestinians initiate an International Criminal Court judicially authorized investigation, or actively support such an investigation, that subjects Israeli nationals to an investigation for alleged crimes against Palestinians.”

Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened a strong response to the Palestinian application to join the ICC, saying the move represented the opening salvo of a further confrontation with Israel.

Speaking to his cabinet hours after Jerusalem announced financial sanctions in response to the Palestinian move, Netanyahu vowed Israel would take action and that the country would not sit back and allow IDF soldiers to be prosecuted abroad.

“The Palestinian Authority has chosen confrontation with Israel and we will not sit idly by,” Netanyahu said at his office in Jerusalem. “We will not allow IDF soldiers and commanders to be hauled before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.”

The Palestinians’ ICC maneuver may tip the scales in Washington, where there is already bipartisan frustration with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to put a Palestinian statehood resolution before the United Nations Security Council last week, and, after the resolution was defeated, to sign on to the ICC the next day.

Even if Abbas’s ICC investigation gambit does not play out — and Palestine’s route ahead at the ICC is strewn with legal obstacles — it is viewed by many leaders of the incoming Republican-controlled Congress as the latest justification to reexamine the PA’s American funding.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have had staffers looking into whether there is any legal basis for penalizing the United Nations and its affiliated institutions, as well as the Palestinian Authority itself, for either the ICC move or the failed UN Security Council resolution. Those checks seemed to come up largely empty-handed, but the PA move to initiate war crimes investigations against Israel may catalyze further efforts.

Since the formation of the Fatah-and Hamas-backed Palestinian national unity government in the spring of 2014, calls in Congress to defund the Palestinian Authority have become increasingly common.

In recent months even before the November congressional elections, Republican and Democrat members of Congress called repeatedly for a reexamination – or even freeze – of funding to the Palestinian Authority.

Washington is a key funder for the Palestinian Authority and budgetary legislation traditionally places a series of conditions on the continuation of funding.

The “continuing resolution” passed in December by Congress in lieu of a budget repeats prior year language that no economic assistance may be provided to the Palestinian Authority if the Palestinians obtain the same standing as member states or full membership as a state in the United Nations or any specialized agency.

If the Palestinians obtain member state status at the UN or any specialized agency, the legislation stipulates that the PLO office in Washington will be closed for at least three months. The office can be re-opened any time after those three months, provided the Palestinians engage in direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.

The ICC is not a UN specialized agency and the ICC-related language is contained in a separate clause. Unlike other defunding provisions included in the funding bill, the ICC clause does not include a waiver by which the defunding can be avoided due to American national security interests (the waiver system requires that the president certify that it is important to the national security interests of the United States to waive the provisions restricting PA funding).

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