Analysis from Israel

Note: After this article was published, Israel announced that it would in fact start deducting salaries paid to terrorists from its tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority

The brutal terror attack in which a teenaged Palestinian murdered a 13-year-old Israeli in her own bed early this morning—an Israeli who was also an American citizen—is a perfect example of why a piece of legislation now moving through Congress is essential. The bill won’t end the Palestinian Authority’s abhorrent practice of paying generous salaries to the perpetrators of such murders. But it will at least stop it from doing so on the U.S. taxpayer’s dime.

A brief recap: The PA has for years paid above-market salaries to the perpetrators of anti-Israel terror attacks. The salaries range from 2,400 to 12,000 shekels a month and are paid for the duration of the perpetrator’s jail sentence in Israel (people killed while committing attacks get other benefits). The lower figure is roughly equivalent to the average–not minimum–wage for people who actually hold jobs in the West Bank, and about 40 percent higher than the average wage in Gaza; figures at the higher end of the range are the kind of salaries most Palestinians can’t even dream of. In short, the PA has made terror far more lucrative than productive work.

No less repulsive is the fact that the size of the monthly salary is tied to the length of the jail sentence. The highest payments go to those serving life sentences, meaning those who managed to murder at least one Israeli, while the lowest go to those serving the shortest sentences–i.e. failed terrorists who didn’t manage to kill or wound anyone. Thus, not only does the PA incentivize committing terror over getting a job, but it also incentivizes mass murder over minor offenses.

After discovering this in 2011, the organization Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) began hounding the PA’s Western donors over whether they really wanted to be spending taxpayers’ money to pay salaries to suicide bombers. The answer, it turned out, was yes: Virtually without exception, Western governments refused to cut donations to the PA over this issue. But under pressure from a few lawmakers and journalists who found this reprehensible, they eventually decided they needed a face-saving way to pretend their aid wasn’t being used to pay killers. So the PA obligingly provided one. In 2014, it announced that it would no longer pay these salaries; instead, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) would do it. And since Western donors give money to the PA, not the PLO, they would no longer be involved.

This was always a transparent fiction. Both organizations are headed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and controlled by his Fatah faction, and money flows freely between them. But the indefatigable PMW soon provided hard evidence of this. In January 2015, for instance, the PA Finance Ministry announced that its annual budget included money for these salaries. Moreover, when Israel halted tax transfers to the PA in early 2015 over an unrelated dispute, the PA announced that due to its cash shortage, prisoners’ salaries would be cut. That would not have been unnecessary had the PLO actually been paying those salaries out of its own funds since the PLO doesn’t get any money from Israel to begin with.

None of this bothered Western governments. They continued pretending that the PA really had stopped paying these salaries, and the Obama Administration was no exception. But it did bother U.S. lawmakers.

Earlier this week, the Senate Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs approved a change in next year’s State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill. The change requires aid to the PA to be cut “by an amount the secretary [of state] determines is equivalent to the amount expended by the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization and any successor or affiliated organizations, as payments for acts of terrorism by individuals who are imprisoned after being fairly tried and convicted for acts of terrorism, and by individuals who died committing acts of terrorism during the previous calendar year.”

The House approved a slightly different version, which also mentions the PLO but doesn’t include the phrase “and any successor or affiliated organizations.” Senator Dan Coats (R-Indiana), who introduced that phrase in the Senate, told the Jerusalem Post he would try to persuade the House to adopt it, too, and his colleagues should listen. As he correctly said, absent language to preempt the possibility, the PA will simply create another face-saving dodge, and the State Department will surely accept it just like it accepted the PLO fiction.

Coats said he understands concerns that cutting aid to the PA could destabilize it, but believes “there’s a moral issue here that transcends that concern.” And he’s right: It’s simply immoral for America to be financing terror.

Moreover, adding insult to injury, the U.S. has always deducted the cost of settlement construction from loan guarantees to Israel. So essentially, U.S. government policy, as it stands now, is that building houses is a much worse crime than committing mass murder. Regardless of what you think of the settlements, that’s a moral outrage.

Coats was also right to call out Israel on this issue. “I don’t understand how Israelis can accept this practice, on the argument of maintaining stability in that government [the PA],” he said, presumably referring to the fact that Israel doesn’t deduct the cost of these salaries from its tax transfers to the PA.

Granted, the Israeli case is more complicated because, unlike U.S. aid, those tax transfers aren’t gifts; they’re Palestinian taxes on Palestinian activity Israel collects on the PA’s behalf. Nevertheless, by transferring this money, Israel is complicit in incentivizing the murder of its own citizens, and thereby most likely violating its own laws against financing terror. It’s long past time for that to stop; Israel should simply deduct a monthly amount equivalent to those salaries and use it to pay long-overdue Palestinian debts to Israeli companies (like the 1.7 billion shekels owed the Israel Electric Corporation).

Finally, both American and Israeli officials should press European governments on this issue. A good place to start might be Britain, where just this month, an independent report commissioned by the Department for International Development concluded that by enabling the PA to pay salaries to terrorists, British aid to the PA had made anti-Israel terror “more likely.” DFID predictably dismissed the report, but it caused a storm in Parliament.

By encouraging terror attacks, such funding also contradicts the West’s stated goal of promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace, since Palestinian terror merely convinces most Israelis that ceding the West Bank would be a bad idea. But even if this weren’t the case, it’s long past time for the West to stop incentivizing the murder of Israelis through its foreign aid. As Coats said, some things are simply too immoral to be tolerated.

Originally published in Commentary on June 30, 2016

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Why equality doesn’t belong in the nation-state law

Ever since Israel’s nation-state law was enacted in July, one constant refrain has sounded: The law should have included a provision guaranteeing equality to all Israelis. It’s not only the law’s opponents who say this; so do many of its supporters, liberals and conservatives alike. But they are wrong.

Adding a provision about equality to the nation-state law sounds innocuous because civic and political equality is already implicitly guaranteed through the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Basic Laws are Israel’s closest approximation to constitutional legislation, and the 1992 law, which protects the “dignity of any person as such,” has been consistently interpreted by the courts as enshrining equality on the grounds that discrimination violates a person’s dignity. So what harm could it do to offer an explicit guarantee in the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People?

The answer is that doing so would elevate Israel’s democratic character above its Jewish one. And that would negate the entire purpose of the nation-state law, which was to restore Israel’s Jewish character to parity with its democratic one—not superiority, but merely parity.

To understand why this is so, it’s first necessary to understand why adding an equality provision would violate basic constitutional logic. This argument was cogently made from the liberal side of the political spectrum by Haim Ramon, a former senior Labor Party Knesset member and former justice minister. Writing in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition last month, Ramon argued that if anyone thinks equality isn’t sufficiently protected by the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, they should work to amend that law rather than the nation-state law, as the former is where any provision on equality belongs.

This isn’t mere semantic quibbling. A constitution, being a country’s supreme instrument of governance, isn’t supposed to be a jumble of random provisions thrown together with no more thought than a monkey sitting at a keyboard might provide; it’s supposed to be a carefully crafted document. That’s why constitutions typically group all provisions relating to a given topic into a single article or chapter. Each article has equal status; none is more or less important than the others. And together, they create a comprehensive document that addresses all the basic questions of governance.

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