Threats to cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) came in fast and furious last week after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas signed the treaty to join the International Criminal Court.
On December 31, the day Abbas made his surprise announcement, a leading pro-Israel member of Congress called on the Obama administration to suspend aid to the PA. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican and the head of the House’s Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, said that Congress should “block funds to the PA and to any UN entity that recognizes a non-existent State of Palestine to make it clear to Abu Mazen that there will be consequences to his schemes at the United Nations and other international organizations like the International Criminal Court.” Senator Charles Schumer said “the P.A. should be reminded that the recent appropriations bill signed into law will restrict U.S. funding if they attempt to initiate an investigation through the ICC.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on January 5 that the ICC bid could have “implications” for U.S. assistance, and that “Congress has a great deal of power in that regard.”
The statements are part of what promises to be a months-long dance between the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the move to sign the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court. If the ICC accepts the PA’s application, Abbas would have the opportunity to file a war crimes case against Israel over settlement building or over the assault on Gaza. That would intensify the ongoing showdown between Israel and the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority. Israel has seized about $127 million in taxes that are normally remitted to the PA.
The Republican takeover of Congress will lead to more threats to the PA. But for now, it’s unlikely that the Obama administration will heed Ros-Lehtinen’s call for an immediate cut-off in U.S. aid over the application to join the ICC. An aid-cut off would be a blow to the PA’s economic standing and could destabilize the authority’s rule–a risky gambit since the PA’s cooperation with Israel helps Israel by transferring the key duties of an occupying power to the PA. The PA also cracks down on militant groups trying to attack Israel. The PA’s security coordination with Israel is crucial in efforts to stop unrest in the West Bank that could affect Israeli life.
Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian analyst based in Washington, D.C., told me that the threats to strike a blow at the PA is more bluster than anything else.
“The Israelis and the Americans are going to act really upset with this move. But the reality is that it’s really not that big of a deal to them,” he said. “At the end of the day, the Israelis need the PA, and the PA needs the Israelis, and the Americans need them both to find a way to stick around with the negotiations paradigm that they have.” He added that the PA made the move to mollify critics at home and that it gives the authority a bargaining chip in negotiations with Israel.
The situation could change if the PA decides to file a war crimes case against Israel in the coming months. U.S. law states that economic aid to the PA must be cut off in the event of a war crimes case against Israel at the ICC. The law contains no option for a waiver authorizing the release of funds to the PA, an option that usually accompanies similar decisions. Israel has asked pro-Israel members of Congress to make sure aid is cut off to the PA if a war crimes case is filed, according to Haaretz’s Barak Ravid.
Munayyer said that it’s unlikely Abbas will follow through with his threats, which would largely take the threat of U.S. aid cuts off the table.
Since the creation of the PA in the 1990s, the U.S. has given the authority about $5 billion in aid, according to a Congressional Research Service report (pdf). Annually, that amounts to an average of $500 million, with $400 million being a part of what is called the Economic Support Fund, the pool of money that Congressional members are threatening to reduce. U.S. funding makes up about about a quarter of overall international support for the PA.
Similar threats to cut off aid to the PA have accompanied the Palestinian leadership’s moves in the past to turn to the United Nations. U.S. funding was temporarily delayed in 2011 and 2012 in response to PA moves to obtain statehood recognition at the UN.
“They may cut off aid for some period of time, but they cannot risk the Palestinian Authority disappearing,” said Munayyer. “They simply can’t do it because the Israelis won’t allow it.”