JERUSALEM—While the caretaker government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was busy banning the entry into Israel and Palestine of two members of the United States Congress, a much more serious and enduring danger to the Holy Land looms on the near horizon.
The controversy over the visit by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn) is fraught with the kind of short-term tag-team political grandstanding that has characterized the ties between Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Tlaib, of Palestinian descent, and Omar, born in Somalia, are both Muslims. They are also two of the four members of Congress—not coincidentally, all of them women of color—that Trump said should “go back” to the countries they came from and make things better there rather than complain about his version of America.
Now Netanyahu, fighting for reelection in the face of corruption indictments, has stopped these two from entering the country because they support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, seeing it as a pressure tool in favor of the Palestinians. And apparently because that's what Trump demanded in a peremptory tweet, calling any such visit “weakness” on the part of his close friend the Israeli premier.
But there is, in fact, a much greater and deeply practical problem facing Israel than the visit of Tlaib and Omar, and a developing crisis that is directly the fault of Trump and the U.S. Congress.
A few weeks ago, amid scorching temperatures and a typically rainless summer, fires broke out across Israel and the West Bank. Local firefighting crews successfully battled to contain the blazes, including, as they’ve done repeatedly in the past, a small detachment from the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Working side-by-side with their Israeli counterparts, the Palestinian Civil Defense crews were later lauded publicly for their assistance: social media videos showed the Israeli and Palestinian firefighters smiling, shaking hands, and posing for pictures. This drew the attention of Trump’s peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, who on Twitter called the “ongoing cooperation and coordination” between the two sides an “example of what could be when neighbors live in peace. There is so much to gain!”
Yet under the Trump administration U.S. funding for those very same PA Security Forces (PASF) has, since the start of this year, been completely halted. The American-led security mission in Jerusalem that advises, trains, and equips those forces is, according to several sources familiar with the matter, out of money. Programs have been shuttered and personnel sent home. Worse still, efforts in Congress to amend the anti-terrorism bill that initially led to the cut off in aid have stalled amid political jostling between the House and Senate, per two additional sources.
All this, despite widespread recognition that PA security personnel, operating in coordination with Israel, are a boon for stability in the region and Israeli security in particular. The Trump administration, though, seems fixated on unveiling its long-delayed peace plan. Congress endlessly debates the true meaning of being “pro-Israel,” including undue focus on a handful of leftwing representatives like Ohmar and Tlaib who support boycotting Israel (and these days whether they’ll be allowed entry to visit Israel). While the most positive and tangible aspect of the entire Israeli-Palestinian relationship is being left to languish.
The law in question, called the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA), took effect at the start of February. The bill foisted an impossible choice on the PA: accept any U.S. aid and you automatically trigger acceptance of the U.S. court system’s jurisdiction in various terrorism-related civil suits—potentially opening up the PA and its affiliated organizations to hundreds of millions of dollars in liabilities and, effectively, bankruptcy. The Palestinians not surprisingly chose to forgo all American money.
The problem with the law became evident once it was clear the PA wouldn’t budge and that the prime loser would in fact be the PASF. “We’re already not helping the victims [who sued the Palestinian Authority for terrorism damages],” one congressional source said back in January. “Why would we now hurt ourselves and our national interest” by potentially creating a security crisis in Israel?
Despite talk in recent months on Capitol Hill about a readiness to find a “fix” for ATCA, acrimony continued between the bill’s primary sponsor, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, and the State Department, which oversees security assistance to the Palestinians. “Both sides were stuck without a move that can advance them,” says one source familiar with Grassley’s thinking. According to some reports Israeli officials were even lobbying Congress behind-the-scenes to amend the legislation and get funding back on track. Only in June did relations apparently improve enough to begin work on a real solution—which is where partisan infighting took over.
As part of a massive Israel security assistance package passed last month in the Democrat-controlled House, a reworked ATCA provision was also included. Gone were the financial triggers in the original bill. In their place, jurisdiction in U.S. courts would be activated if the PA moved to attain member-state status at the United Nations and other affiliated bodies, as well as if it reopened an office in the U.S. (the Trump administration shuttered the de facto Palestinian embassy in Washington last fall).
The Republican-controlled Senate, meanwhile, was working on its own version of a remedied ATCA bill, which was introduced last month as well. This version was, as one source put it, “more robust” than the House bill: if the PA didn’t actually withdraw from the various U.N. agencies it had previously attained member-state status in, then that in itself would be a form of consent for U.S. jurisdiction.
In touting the draft bill, one Republican senator stated that it would “provide justice for U.S. victims of international terrorism while promoting the important security cooperation among U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian security forces”—nearly identical language to that used by the Democratic House sponsors.
Yet the gaps between the two versions, and the two sides, are still extremely wide, according to the sources who spoke to The Daily Beast. One source lamented the fact that the Senate hadn’t actually put forward a genuine compromise version, while another blasted the House bill as a “political statement, and not an effort to get something enacted.”
While talks between House and Senate staffers on this issue are known to be taking place, it all might be for naught. Yes, both versions do in theory allow U.S. security aid to resume flowing to the PA without the fear of lawsuits. But the new conditions—tied to the highly symbolic issue of international recognition of Palestinian statehood—are likely a non-starter as far as the PA is concerned.
One senior Palestinian official close to President Mahmoud Abbas blasted even the new ATCA triggers as a “blackmail tool” against the PA that would “irreversibly kill the idea of a two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I’ve never seen a parliament issue legislation regarding a second party that’s all contingent on the relationship with a third party…it’s absurd,” he added, alluding to some of the revised ATCA provisions being contingent on Israel’s agreement. “Congress should relocate from Capitol Hill to Bet El,” he said, referring to an Israeli army base, home to the military body tasked with administering the West Bank.
“They are mistaken if they think these steps [regarding UN membership and a U.S. office] will create leverage over the Palestinians.”
The impact of all these Washington machinations on the ground in Israel-Palestine has been significant.
The American-led security detail based in Jerusalem, officially called the U.S. Security Coordinator (USSC) mission, has seen its $60 million budget frozen due to the PA’s refusal to accept any more U.S. aid. While American military officers, led by a three-star general, are still present working out of the old U.S. consulate compound, the training programs and equipment they used to provide for the PA Security Forces have been stopped, per multiple sources familiar with the matter. Government contractors and other non-essential personnel have, for their part, returned home.
“It used to be an advise and assist mission [to the PASF] so now it’s more advise,” one former European official told The Daily Beast. “But you need money to support your advice.”
This official rattled off examples of the corrosion this lack of funding could have on the PASF’s long-term effectiveness: the lack of new equipment and vehicles, maintenance programs, logistical system upgrades and facility refurbishment. All this, even before the impact on the overall training programs for actual Palestinian personnel that used to be funded in large part by the U.S.
Compounding matters, the American commander of the USSC, Lt. Gen. Eric Wendt, an imposing special forces veteran, is concluding his two-year term in the coming months. A new general helming a mission with no funding and unclear future isn’t a likely recipe for success. The U.S. embassy in Jerusalem declined to say whether Wendt would be finishing his tour early.
Despite its name, the USSC is in fact a multinational mission. Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey contribute military officers and other law enforcement specialists to the cause. These contributions, however, are usually limited to paying the salary and deployments of their personnel or, alternatively, indirectly funding discrete initiatives.
While no conversations have taken place among European states regarding the possibility of stopping their contribution to the USSC, no real decision has been made, either, about increasing their support to the PASF via this mechanism, The Daily Beast has learned. European officials are also loathe to expand the mandate of the USSC’s sister organization that solely trains the PA Civil Police (called the EU Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support) so that, like the USSC, it encompasses multiple other Palestinian security organs.
As with most things relating to the Middle East Peace Process, American leadership is crucial—as is, by extension, Israeli trust and buy-in. The prospects of there ever being an EU Security Coordinator for Israel-Palestine is faint to non-existent.
Tellingly, in the middle of this tumult, the United Kingdom signed a memorandum of understanding late last month directly with the PA in support of its Interior Ministry and security forces. The MOU calls for technical expertise and training, rather than equipment and funding, to be provided through a third-party civilian NGO. The announcement went on to say that the U.K. “continues to believe in, and to support, the two state solution”—a vision that both the Trump administration and government of Netanyahu government have attempted to bury.
As Palestinian officials never tire of explaining, they view the PASF and security coordination with Israel as a means to an end: the end being statehood. The USSC has, since its establishment in 2005, helped underpin the most stable period in the West Bank in three decades.
Despite the U.S. aid cutoff and a major financial crisis stemming from a separate Israeli anti-terror law, the PASF in recent months has somehow persevered, retaining their cohesion and professionalism.
A multi-city and multi-service training exercise (thought to be the first of its kind) was held in the West Bank last month. The PASF also recently undertook an ambitious operation to root out illegal weapons and other pockets of crime in the restive city of Hebron. (At least some observers maintain that both maneuvers were intended as a show of continued PASF strength, not least to its remaining international backers.)
Amid a political process that’s actually regressing, Abbas has yet to sever ties with Israel despite repeated threats to do so. For now security coordination endures.
That’s the good news. The question, however, is how long the PASF can continue under such political, financial and material duress. For over a decade under American auspices, the Israeli-Palestinian security relationship has been dramatically reformed. Israeli officials, Congress, and even the Trump administration admit as much in their more candid moments.
Properly supported and nurtured, there is, as Trump envoy Greenblatt put it, “much to gain” from these ties; there is also much that can be lost. Israeli and Palestinian firefighters working together to put out a blaze may be a common sight these days, but it has also come to be taken for granted.
With the tinder splayed out purposefully by the Trump administration underneath the existing framework of an Israeli-Palestinian peace, a real conflagration would threaten much more than just the parched fields of the Holy Land.
Research for this article was made possible with the support of the Transatlantic Media Fellowship of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Washington D.C.