White House says bill cutting PA funding must not harm peace efforts

Administration official offers cautious support for marked up Taylor Force Act, says it will work with Congress as legislation proceeds

US President Donald Trump walks to Marine One prior to departure from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 4, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB)
US President Donald Trump walks to Marine One prior to departure from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 4, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB)

WASHINGTON — The White House offered some support for a bill that would slash Palestinian Authority funding over terrorist salaries Monday, but said the administration would work with Congress to ensure the legislation does not interfere with attempts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Taylor Force Act after marking up the bill to guarantee funding for security cooperation with Israel and humanitarian aid would not be touched, attempting to calm worries that the effort could harm ties with Ramallah.

“President Trump has made it clear that he believes the Palestinian program that provides financial support to Palestinians convicted of acts of terror or their families incentivizes terrorism and must end,” a White House official told The Times of Israel on Monday, and that “American taxpayer dollars should not be used in a way that even indirectly supports terror.”

“As for this specific act, we will continue to work with Congress as it proceeds to ensure it both encourages the Palestinian Authority to end the payments and supports all of our efforts to advance peace,” the official added.

The act, named for a US army veteran killed in a Jaffa terror attack last year, would cut US funding to the Palestinian Authority if it doesn’t stop paying terrorists and their families, advanced through the Senate foreign affairs panel on a 17-4 vote.

The bill targets monthly stipends paid by Ramallah to terrorists serving time in Israeli prisons as well as their families and the families of assailants killed during the course of attacks.

The payments have been a constant source of derision from Israel, which says they encourage terror. A similar bill cutting tax transfers to the Palestinians is working its way through the Knesset.

The thrust of the Taylor Force Act calls on “all donor countries” to “cease direct budgetary support until the Palestinian Authority stops all payments incentivizing terror” and would require the PA to revoke any laws that result in terrorists being compensated.

Furthermore, the State Department would be charged with putting out an annual, declassified report detailing the PA’s practices regarding cash payments that reward terrorism.

Every Republican member of the panel supported the measure, as well as most Democrats, many of whom backed the bill after a revised version was introduced earlier in the week and several amendments were added during the markup session.

Vanderbilt University held a campus memorial service for Taylor Force, above, on March 18, 2016. (Facebook)
Vanderbilt University held a campus memorial service for Taylor Force, above, on March 18, 2016. (Facebook)

Those provisions ensured that funding for humanitarian efforts and security cooperation would not be interrupted and that an escrow account would be established for the aid that would be slashed. That escrow period would last one year.

The bill would not, however, include a waiver that would grant the US president the ability to disregard the law on national security grounds.

On Friday, the top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, announced he would co-sponsor the bill, increasing the likelihood it would pass the full Senate chamber.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) introduced the legislation in February.

In the lead-up to Thursday’s committee vote — and after the revised version was released — the bill started to gain more organizational support, including from the most influential pro-Israel group in Washington.

“We are hopeful that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee markup will produce a strong, bipartisan bill that will send a very clear message to the Palestinian Authority: Stop these payments to terrorists and their families or your assistance will be cut,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a letter sent to senators Wednesday, urging them to vote yes.

Critics of the bill have expressed consternation over the prospect of a destabilizing effect stemming from cutting aid to the PA.

Corey Booker, one of four senators to vote against the bill in committee, said he was concerned the bill could harm efforts to reduce tensions in the region.

“There have long been mixed signals and conflicting recommendations coming from both US and Israeli national security officials about whether the bill would achieve its desired ends without worsening the security situation,” he told Jewish Insider in a statement.

In June, hundreds of former high-level Israeli military officials sent a letter warning the bill would spur a security crisis.

The missive, which was orchestrated by Commanders for Israeli Security, said the legislation would “undermine PA stability; expand the circle of frustration and hostility; erode the security coordination; and thus hurt Israeli security.”

A source close to the group has since told The Times of Israel that its opposition was to the bill’s “original language” and that it would “support the amended draft.”

US President Donald Trump has not yet signaled that he would sign the bill into law, though a White House official told The Times of Israel last month he supports its principle objective.

Trump did reportedly confront PA President Mahmoud Abbas about Palestinian terror payments during their May meetings in Washington and Bethlehem.

“While the administration agrees with the high-level goals of the Taylor Force Act, it is currently in Congress’s hands and we will continue to closely monitor the specifics of the legislation,” the official said in June.

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