A visiting congressional delegation expressed their disapproval over payments to terrorists and their families during a meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week, several members of Congress told The Times of Israel Tuesday.
One congressperson described last week’s closed-door meeting with 10 visiting members of Congress as “tense at times, as it was clear that we didn’t see eye to eye on a number of issues.” The source spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ramallah’s policy of paying stipends to Palestinians jailed for security offenses and the families of deceased attackers has long been a point of contention with Washington. While Israel argues that the payments encourage terror activity, Abbas has vowed to maintain the stipends, which the Palestinians view as a form of welfare and a national responsibility.
Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC) said there was a “great deal of discussion” on the Taylor Force Act, which was passed by Congress in 2018 and suspended US aid to the PA as long as it continued to implement the existing welfare policy, which awards stipends to prisoners based on the length of their sentence.
“We emphasized that such payments are completely and totally unacceptable,” said Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL).
The congress members said Abbas defended the policy as a necessary form of welfare, without which the families of attackers would be left penniless. When pressed whether the PA offers similar stipends to families after a parent dies of cancer, the Palestinian officials present said they were working to establish such a support system and were in the process of reforming their existing policy.
The sides also failed to come together on the Abraham Accords, which Abbas urged the 10-member bipartisan delegation not to advance until after the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was solved, Schneider told The Times of Israel.
Schneider has introduced legislation in the House to place US financial support behind efforts to strengthen the existing normalization agreements Israel has signed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco and expand the Abraham Accords to include additional countries in the region.
“We were clear that normalization is good for the region, including the Palestinians,” Schneider recalled. “We said it would continue, that the Palestinians should take the opportunity to move it forward, rather than resist and hold it back.”
He was unaware of any additional countries on the brink of normalizing with Israel, but noted that some of the previous agreements came about at the last minute with little warning.
Abbas opened the Thursday meeting by emphasizing his support for a two-state solution, which the Biden administration backs.
Abbas “stressed the need to take practical steps to give the Palestinian people hope for achieving peace through the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and based on the pre-1967 borders,” according to the official PA Wafa news agency.
The US lawmakers appeared to have been unimpressed with the Palestinian leader, with Schneider noting that “Abbas is considered out of touch with the Palestinian people and has demonstrated over the years an unwillingness to make the hard choices.”
Manning appeared to place the blame for the impasse in peace talks on Abbas, rejecting his claim that Israel had never made a serious offer for a deal.
Sitting alongside Abbas at the meeting was PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh and Intelligence Chief Majed Faraj.
The meeting at the PA presidential headquarters was one of three the congressional delegation held in Ramallah, also meeting with high school students in a US Agency for International Development funded program aimed at improving their English skills, as well as a group of Palestinian business leaders.
Manning said the latter meeting was the most productive of the three, with the Palestinians presenting the specific hurdles they face in growing their businesses and stimulating the economy. They lamented the difficulty in getting potential investors into the West Bank and requested American assistance with the matter, the lawmaker said.
“They seemed like suggestions we ought to be discussing and considering,” Manning said, noting that they “go hand in hand” with the Biden administration’s efforts to “strengthen the PA.”
The White House has sought to re-establish ties with Ramallah after they were severed during the Donald Trump administration. US President Joe Biden has reinstalled millions of dollars in aid for the West Bank and Gaza and announced plans to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem that served as a de facto mission to the Palestinians.
However, Washington is limited in the degree to which it can embrace the PA, given existing Congressional legislation.
Ramallah is hoping that Biden will render as unconstitutional 1987 legislation that deems the Palestine Liberation Organization and its affiliates as a terror organization, which would allow its officials to operate more freely in the US, but the White House has not given any indication that it plans to make such a gesture.
The delegation spent most of its week-long trip in Israel, meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and chairman of the Ra’am Islamist coalition party Mansour Abbas.
Manning said Mansour Abbas, whose heads the first-ever independent Arab party to be part of a governing coalition in Israel, had taken a “courageous step” by joining the government.
Highlighting the diverse nature of the new Israeli government, which includes eight parties from across the political spectrum, Schneider said that meeting with its leaders gave him “hope for prospects of finding some success in the coming years and that [it would] inspire the rest of the world as well.”
Schneider said he was particularly “impressed” by Bennett’s willingness to “think outside the box.”
“Bennett’s the type of person who has his country’s interests first and foremost, joining a coalition from left to right and trying things that were formerly not possible,” the Democratic lawmaker said.
Schneider called the Israel visit “historic,” adding that there “there was a mutual commitment to the US-Israel relationship, a commitment to ensure Israel’s security… and a commitment to do everything we can to ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.”
Both countries indeed share that goal, but are divided over how to achieve it, with the US seeking to reenter the Iranian nuclear deal that offers Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. Bennett’s government has already spoken out vehemently against the accord, vowing to continue to act against the Islamic Republic, regardless of whether the nuclear deal is back in place.