InterviewHanegbi: Issue never came up, we'll discuss at future meets

Top Abbas aide: Israel hasn’t fulfilled Aqaba promise to transfer withheld PA funds

Hussein al-Sheikh tells ToI Israel made additional unpublicized commitments at Jordan summit, but Netanyahu’s subsequent dismissal of confab puts planned Egypt gathering in doubt

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the PLO Hussein al-Sheikh at his office in Ramallah, June 13, 2022. (AP Photo/ Nasser Nasser)
File: Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the PLO Hussein al-Sheikh gives an interview to The Associated Press at his office Ramallah, June 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

A top Palestinian Authority official said Saturday that Israel committed at a regional summit on Sunday to transfer millions of dollars in tax revenues it has withheld from the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority.

“They promised at Aqaba that they would transfer all of the funds, but as of now we haven’t gotten anything,” PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh told The Times of Israel Saturday in a rare interview with Israeli media. Al-Sheikh also serves as secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee and is one of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s closest advisers.

A commitment to transfer withheld tax revenues was not included in the joint communique that the sides signed and released to the public after Israeli, Palestinian, US, Egyptian and Jordanian officials met in Aqaba, Jordan on February 26 in the first political gathering of its kind in years.

Such a commitment would go against the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline government, which has expanded the amount of money it withholds from the PA due to its payments to those convicted of terror offenses and to the families of slain attackers.

Al-Sheikh lamented that even the commitments that were put in writing in the communique are not being taken seriously by the Israeli government. This, he said, was putting a planned follow-up gathering in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt later this month at risk.

Regarding the tax revenues, the senior PA official said that there are currently “millions of our [dollars] being held by the Israeli side, which promised both before Aqaba and at Aqaba itself to [release them].”

View of the Jordanian city of Aqaba, as seen from the Israeli city of Eilat, November 10, 2019. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Responding to al-Sheikh’s claim, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, who led the Israeli delegation at the Aqaba meeting, said the issue of tax revenues “was not discussed at all at this stage. It will be discussed in the future by the civil committee that was established at the [Aqaba] meeting.”

The PA announced last month that Israel had deducted NIS 267 million ($78 million) from the monthly tax revenues it collects on Ramallah’s behalf, attributing the unusually high deduction to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s decision to double the amount of Palestinian revenue that Israel would seize.

Al-Sheikh called Smotrich a “terrorist,” highlighting his remarks earlier this week in which he called to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara.

“The entire world needs to stand up against these remarks, and I hope that he will not receive a platform in the US,” the senior PA minister said. “If a Palestinian minister, God forbid, called to wipe out a Jewish town, what would the reaction be?”

“How can Prime Minister Netanyahu allow a person like this to remain a partner in his government?” al-Sheikh asked. “This is the finance minister, who is responsible for the Palestinian money that is transferred from Israel to the PA.”

Chairman of the Religious Zionism party MK Bezalel Smotrich and party members visit Netiv Haavot neighborhood in Gush Etzion, West Bank, on October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Al-Sheikh said that “under no circumstances” would the PA work with Smotrich, explaining that he uses a direct “channel” to Netanyahu’s office. The prime minister indeed signed off on Hanegbi opening a line of contact with al-Sheikh when the new Israeli government was established two months ago.

Both al-Sheikh and Hanegbi were in Aqaba for the February 26 summit, after which the sides issued a joint communique that included “an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorization of any outposts for six months.”

Amid fears of the agreement being understood as a commitment to halt settlement construction, Netanyahu issued a statement hours after the communique’s release declaring that Israel had not agreed to a settlement freeze. He stressed that the statement had only referenced a commitment to hold off on approving new settlement projects, rather than moving ahead with any already approved construction — which generally only takes place years after government approval.

Moreover, the Defense Ministry body which authorizes settlement construction only meets on a quarterly basis, so the panel was not slated to meet for a further four months regardless. Israel stressed following the meeting that plans for nearly 10,000 settlement homes and the legalization of nine West Bank outposts that were advanced days before the Aqaba summit would not be rolled back.

The PA, however, viewed the Israeli commitment to temporarily hold off on approving new settlement construction as one that could be extended. Al-Sheikh pointed to the line in the communique that states that the sides “agreed to continue meeting under this formula… and expand this agreement toward a wider political process leading to a just and lasting peace,” which he said means the launching of peace negotiations in the future.

But other Israeli ministers were even more dismissive of the Aqaba summit than Netanyahu. Smotrich tweeted that he “has no clue” what was said at the “superfluous summit” in Jordan, but pledged that there would be no freeze of settlement construction for even one day.

“What happened in Jordan (if it happened), will remain in Jordan,” concurred far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir shortly after the summit.

Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh and PA President Mahmoud Abbas in a photo posted by al-Sheikh on May 12, 2020; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, Israel on December 29, 2019. (Abir Sultan/Pool photo via AP)

The comments angered the Biden administration, which felt that they at the very least “went against the spirit of what was agreed to in Aqaba,” a US official told The Times of Israel earlier this week.

“Immediately after the summit, the Israelis began making public statements that were completely different from what we had agreed to in Aqaba,” al-Sheikh lamented.

While the communique included a commitment by the sides to hold a follow-up gathering in Sharm el-Sheikh, the PA minister said that the Palestinians would only attend the meeting if Israel follows through on what was reached in Aqaba.

“We want commitments from the Americans, Egypt and Jordan [that they’ll hold Israel to account] in order for us to go to Sharm el-Sheikh,” he said.

The communique states that the sides also agreed to “immediately work to end unilateral measures for a period of three to six months.”

Sheikh said he submitted to the Israelis a list of 13 unilateral measures the PA was demanding for it to cease, including settlement expansion, outpost legalizations, IDF raids in Palestinin-controlled areas of the West Bank, home demolitions, evictions, settler violence and violations to the status quo at the Temple Mount.

He said Israel is able to submit its own list, but has yet to do so. Asked how Ramallah would respond to a demand that it cease its stipends to Palestinians convicted of terror and to the families of attackers, al-Sheikh responded: “We will discuss every matter that is brought to the table.”

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