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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How Israel’s Electoral System Brings the Country’s Fringes Into Its Center

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

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