June 16, 2017
This article was written by Col. (Ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman
For years, the Palestinian Authority has made payments to those who carry out terrorist attacks on Israelis and to their families. After an apparently tense meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, President Trump made it very clear that the Palestinians must put an end to the practice.More recently, Secretary of State Tillerson, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,asserted that the necessary change in Palestinian policy has already taken place, but when Palestinian and Israeli sources alike adamantly denied this obviously inaccurate reading of what he heard in Bethlehem, Secretary Tillerson explained that the Palestinians are actively engaged in changing the existing procedure, and that the U.S. – specifically, the President– is willing to wait and see, but not indefinitely.
The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, is considering the Taylor Force Act, named after a U.S. serviceman murdered in Tel Aviv while on vacation, whose assassin's family is among the beneficiaries of the PA's payments. All this comes amidst an ongoing effort, managed at the operational level by presidential special envoy Jason Greenblatt, to find a path back to the negotiating table for Israel and the Palestinians, as well as indications of a firm and even fierce position taken by key players in the Arab world against terrorists and their supporters and funders (such as Qatar, which is now under siege by much of the Arab world).
How will this issue play out, and what will be its effect on what Prime Minister Netanyahu has described – in his speech at the Israel Museum, side-by-side with President Trump – as an opportunity for peace unprecedented in his lifetime?
There are no easy answers, because it is almost certain that the practice of rewarding the families of "martyrs" and prisoners (the Palestinians speak of their "asra," more accurately translated as POWs, rather than "sujana," prisoners in the criminal sense) is too deeply ingrained in the Palestinian political culture to be entirely abandoned. At the same time, all players have an interest in moving toward talks – including Israel (provided it is true, as some reports assert, that Abbas is now willing to come to the table without preconditions). Can this circle be squared?
To begin with, the PA will have to come up with "something" that could be described as a change of policy – or else they may face a U.S. President and an administration, not to mention Congress, who would lose what little patience remains with its posturing.
Palestinian duplicity on terrorism has a long history. Back in December 1988, basing itself on promises given to Israel and constrained by explicit congressional legislation, the Reagan Administration (in its last days before the handover to Bush 41) demanded an unambiguous abandonment of terrorist practices by the PLO as a condition for U.S. dialogue. On December 13, speaking before the UN General Assembly (which moved from New York to Geneva just to hear him!), Yasser Arafat was willing to "denounce" terrorism: not good enough, came the immediate answer from Reagan, Bush, and Schultz. A day later, after what must have been a long and sleepless night for him, Arafat called a press conference and "renounced" terror (a term that properly implies that he had practiced it in the past), and then muttered angrily "enough is enough, enough is enough, enough is enough." But it was not enough: by May 1990, one Iraqi-backed terror organization within the PLO structure attempted to carry out an attack on Israel's shores, and the dialogue was cut off.
Later, in the run-up to the Oslo agreements, Arafat again gave his word that the conflict would from now on be managed through negotiations, not violence: but by 1995, it was clear to the Israeli defense establishment that he was not honoring his promise, and was instead pursuing a dual game with both Israel and Hamas. In late 2000, he led his people into the large-scale violence of the wave of terror mistakenly called "the second intifada" (in fact, it was not an "uprising" from the ground level up). In short, Palestinian promises on "renouncing" terror practices need to be taken with a grain of salt.
At the same time, it should be said that Abbas is not Arafat, and the security forces under Majid Faraj are much more reliable partners in preventing terror attacks than they had been under Rajoub and Dahlan. The IDF and the Shin Bet work closely with them, and have no wish to see their credibility destroyed within their own communities. As plans are being made by the relevant Israeli authorities to substantially improve economic and housing conditions for the Palestinians, including Arab construction in parts of Israeli-controlled area C, the Israelis do not want to see all this derailed by the payments issue.
The solution could be some new mechanism that does not leave the Palestinian families without financial support, but abandons the preferential treatment accorded to convicted (or dead) murderers, and with it the educational message that these payments send. This must be coordinated with a systemic effort to reduce, if not eliminate, the glorification of "martyrs" in the schools and the public domain. The work of organizations such as MEMRI and PMW should be welcomed and acted upon at the highest levels of the U.S. government if the message is to be consistent and effective.
Moreover, the present moment – with the Qatar crisis coinciding with the payments issue, and with the increasingly sharp reactions by European governments and parliaments (in Norway, Denmark and now Switzerland, all of them historically sympathetic to the Palestinian people) to the abuse of their aid money for naming schools after terrorist murderers – can be used to bring the Palestinians, collectively, to their senses on this question. In today's world, post-9/11, post-Bataclan, post-Manchester, the norm is zero tolerance.
The Qataris are learning it the hard way; hopefully, Hamas – with less Qatari money to use and with the PA no longer willing to carry the burden of paying for electricity in Gaza – will not try once again to see where the red lines lie. Even Iran, now victim of Islamic State horrors, tries to style itself an anti-terrorist force, without even a hint of ironic self-awareness.
The message that was loud and clear in Riyadh should remain so at the level of first principles: the Palestinians can no longer claim any legitimacy for acts of murder, and doing so would cost them highly in terms of their standing both in Washington and in Europe.
One more effect, beyond the moral dimension, has to be (or will have to be, if talks resume) a better understanding for Israel's legitimate security needs. Faced with a society where acts of terror have been respected and rewarded for so long, Israel is more than justified in asking – to use the language President Obama chose in 2011 – for "robust" security measures that will ensure that any future progress toward a solution does not deteriorate into another blood bath, as in the post-Oslo era. Even in the context of a two-state solution, a "long-term military presence" in the West Bank – Netanyahu's phrase, notable also for what it does not say (permanent, civilian, sovereignty) must be part of any workable proposition, whether a permanent status agreement (not likely) or an interim one (more plausible).
Eran Lerman is the former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Prior to that, he served as director of AJC Jerusalem.