POMED Notes: Congressional Hearing on U.S. Assistance to the PA
On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on the issue of U.S. financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority and more broadly, to the United Nations.
For full event notes, continue reading. Or, click here for the PDF.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) chaired the committee hearing and opened the hearing with an opening statement. Ros-Lehtinen stated that the purpose of the hearing was to “address the troubling turn of events regarding the PA’s activities.” The Chairwoman also discussed how the upcoming vote on Palestinian statehood at the United Nations “reflects a broader failure by the Palestinian leadership to meet their obligations…. to negotiate directly with Israel, and refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.” The chairwoman questioned just how effective the $2.5 billion dollars in aid over the last five years to the Palestinian Authority has been, and whether the aid has not merely “reinforced their [the PA’s] bad behavior.
Ranking Member Howard L. Berman (D-CA) also echoed the sentiments of the Chairwoman, stating that “Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has apparently chosen to scorn the negotiation table in favor of unilateral action at the U.N.…this step…is likely to have disastrous consequences, and almost certainly it will make the prospect of Palestinian statehood ever more remote.” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) also voiced similar concerns. The Ranking Member questioned what the UN resolution would consist of and what the point of the resolution would be in terms of real change on the ground for the Palestinian people, considering that the resolution will most certainly be vetoed by the United States in the UN Security Council and thus would have to travel through the General Assembly. Berman also pointed out that while the resolution will have no impact on the ground, it could have an impact in terms of international law, which in his opinion would “further poison relations with Israel, making statehood, and peace, further away than ever.” Lastly, the Ranking Members confirmed his belief that the only path to a lasting two-state solution would occur through negotiations between Israel and Palestine.
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), the Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia then made his opening statement. Chabot remarked that on his recent trip to the West Bank he was able to see firsthand “the tremendous gains that have been made on the ground. Indeed, the two most prominent features of the Ramallah landscape are construction cranes and unfinished buildings.” Nonetheless, Chabot admonished the Palestinian leadership for their “path of unilateralism” which he characterized as “rejectionism by another name.” Lastly, Chabot stated “we are rapidly approaching a watershed moment in U.S.-Palestinian relations… rejectionist elements within the Palestinian leadership still refuse to sit and negotiate in good faith even as Israel…time and again…has demonstrated its commitment to a Palestinian state living as its neighbor in peace and security…if the Palestinians continue on their current path, the question before this Congress will not be what portion of our aid will be cut, but rather what portion will remain.”
Congressional members Russ Carnahan (D-MO), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Theodore Deutch (D-FL), Jean Schmidt (R-OH), Gerald Connolly (D-VA), Elton Gallegly (R-CA), Donald Manzullo (R-IL), David Rivera (R-FL), all echoed similar concerns about the upcoming U.N. vote and there was a general consensus that “unilateral action” to push for a Palestinian state was not in the interest of the United States or the region. Some concerns were also raised about potential Palestinian Authority agreements with Hamas. Rep. Gallegly also noted the bipartisan consensus found in the committee regarding this issue.
Following opening statements by the Committee, the witness panel gave their opening statements, starting with Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Abrams stated that while the U.S. aid program to the Palestinian Authority has helped foster many positive achievements, “there are reasons, however, to take another look at the program… obviously one of them is the coming U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood.” Abrams felt the U.N. vote was a signal that the Palestinian leadership was “turning away from both direct negotiations with Israel and from state-building at home…” Abrams then posited four suggestions: 1) wait and see what route exactly the Palestinian leadership intends to use to push their resolution forward as well as the final composition of the resolution itself, as different routes have different implications; 2) After the vote he urges the U.S. Government to close the PLO office in Washington D.C.; 3) Start ending aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency; 4) take a tougher stance on PA and PLO corruption, including an investigation into the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF).
Dr. Jonathon Schanzer, of the Research Foundation for Defense of Democracies, then gave his opening statement in which he lauded the PA for its transparency under Salaam Fayyad, but felt that Mr. Fayyad had been sidelined politically by Mahmoud Abbas who has “consolidated power and is now abusing it.” Dr. Schanzer had seven recommendations for the committee: 1) Conduct an assessment of UNRWA, including the consideration of transferring the Palestinian portfolio over to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; 2) Legislate “stricter oversight of the presidential waiver process that releases Palestinian aid each year.”; 3) A full audit of the PIF; 4) investigate Mahmoud Abbas and his sons’ personal assets and “determine whether U.S. funds have contributed to their personal holdings.”; 5) resolve the matter of the electrical power plant in Gaza; 6) Review the presidential budget of President Mahmoud Abbas; and 7) the U.S. should seek ways to “increase the role of Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad…[as] he appears to be the best hope for transparency and nonviolence among the Palestinian leadership today.”
Mr. James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, gave his opening statement next. Mr. Phillips stressed what he called the troubling development of the Palestinian Authority’s “rapprochement with Hamas, the Islamist extremist organization with a long record of terrorism, which not only is opposed to peace negotiations with Israel, but remains implacably committed to Israel’s destruction.” Phillips also warned that the upcoming U.N. vote, which he characterized as a “diplomatic gambit,” had the potential of derailing “any hope of resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in the future and could destabilize the region by exacerbating the already tense atmosphere…and provoking widespread anti-Israel demonstrations that easily could spin out of control.” Phillips stressed that the only route to a Palestinian state was through bilateral negotiations with Israel and made a number of suggestions: 1) the Obama administration must become proactively engaged in the issue instead of maintaining its low-key approach to the issue; 2) A withholding of voluntary or assessed funds to “any U.N. organization that admits Palestine as a state or grants it nonmember state observer status” should be considered; 3) Congress should “pass legislation prohibiting funding to any U.N. organization that endorses unilateral Palestinian statehood, admits Palestine as a member state or grants it non-member state observer status.”; 4) Congress can cut U.S. economic aid to the Palestinian Authority “if it continues to shun negotiations with Israel and ignore its commitments under previous agreements.”; and 5) U.S. security aid should to Palestinian security forces should remain so long as Israel affirms that Palestinian security forces “continue to play a positive role,” but should the PA ally itself with Hamas, all security aid should be cut.
Lastly, David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and Director at the Project on Middle East Peace Process (WINEP). Makovsky stated that while he did not support the current attempt by the Palestinian leadership to gain statehood for Palestine via the U.N., he stated that he was not convinced that withdrawing funding from the Palestinian Authority was the best option. Makovsky stated that funding to the PA had helped create unprecedented stability in the West Bank and that a cutoff of aid would only primarily benefit Hamas. Furthermore, Israel’s security could be damaged by a withdrawal of PA funding since the IDF and Palestinian Authority security forces do cooperate with one another. Makovsky stated that while the U.N. vote was important, the impact on the ground the day after should be of concern as well and steps to “avoid violence on the ground” should be taken.
Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen opened up the question and answer period by asking how the U.S. can leverage its assistance to the PA to get the kind of concessions the U.S. Government is demanding of the PA. The Chairwoman also mentioned the issue of Abbas’ personal finances, the issue of the PIF, and the issue of Hamas collecting the electrical taxes. Abrams said clearly investigation of Abbas’ finances and the PIF was needed and was very forceful on the issue of closing the PLO office in Washington D.C. if the U.N. vote goes forward. Phillips also reiterated that the U.N. vote gives the U.S. another opportunity to look at whether Congress should truly be funding the PA or not anymore.
Ranking Member Berman asked what was the potential solution for preventing the resolution from going forward and if this was not possible, was it possible to negotiate the language of the resolution itself to make it more amenable to American requests. Lastly, Berman noted that he highly doubted whether closing the PLO office would be enough punishment “for the fundamental breach this resolution would be of the Oslo Accords.” Makovsky replied that again, he is skeptical of whether withdrawing funding from the PA is the best decision, stating that the potential for collapsing the security on the ground in the West Bank would be unwise. Makovsky suggested that suspension of high-level meetings with the PA might be a good way of pressuring Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership.
Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) and Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) both asked questions regarding what kind of return U.S. taxpayers were getting for the money spent on the PA and kind of impact corruption was having on the actual impact of the money spent on the PA. Abrams noted that the Palestinian community has been cursed “for a hundred years” with bad or lacking leadership. Phillips noted that the purpose of the resolution “looks like a two-step disemboweling of Israel, not a two-state solution.” Schanzer echoed similar sentiments by noting that Palestinian nationalism has been about the destruction of Israel, not about the building of Palestine. He also noted that if a vote goes through and Palestinians see nothing has changed, “we could see an intra-fade like the Arab Spring [in the West Bank].” Makovsky said he respectfully disagreed and pointed to what he saw as a vast improvement on the ground and within the PA itself since Arafat passed away and Abbas came to power stating: “Let’s not pretend things are the same.” He noted that even the Israelis agree with this statement and that under Abbas the PA’s finances were better audited and accounted for.
Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) both questioned what could have been done ahead of time to avoid this vote from occurring. Schanzer responded that the Obama administration handled the situation poorly and may have encouraged Abbas’ plans through the way in which the administration criticized Israel and went after Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Rep. Ted Duetch (D-FL) asked Makovsky to respond to Schanzer’s assertion regarding the Obama administration. Makovsky responded that the Obama administration had “boxed in Abbas” with some of the speeches and comments the administration had made. Makovsky emphasized two mistakes: overemphasis by the administration on settlements instead of actually working on the problem itself and, 2: not properly using U.S. leverage with the Europeans.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) both asked questions regarding funding to the U.N. and whether or not withholding funding from specific U.N. departments that recognize Palestine or give it a higher status would be an option worth pursuing. Phillips stated that withholding of funds or any other leverage that ensures this vote does not go through “would help preserve the future peace process.” Schanzer stated that the U.S. should withdraw all aid from the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), which he beliefs “sees Palestinians as clients” and is a corrupt organization that should be shut down. Makovsky stated that if Israelis were asked whether they want UNRWA shut down they would say no. He also stated that while there are many problems with UNRWA, but phasing it out and fixing it in the short-term would be preferable to just shutting the department down.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) also requested that panelists forecast what the ground would look like in Palestine the day after the UN vote. Makovsky stated that he was worried about a potential If UNSC vote on Palestine, which “would provoke a negative response from the Arab world towards the U.S.”