Why Cutting U.S. Aid to Abbas Could Hurt Israel More Than it Hurts Palestinians

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Palestinian security officers, loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, participate in a training session in Jenin, September 4, 2011. (Photo: Mohammed Ballas / AP)

“This is going to hurt me a lot more than it’s going to hurt you” may be a cliche once tossed out by parents about to spank their children, but it could well prove to be the case if Congress proceeds with plans to punish the Palestinians for seeking U.N. recognition by cutting off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Listening to the U.S. Congress discussing the Palestinians brings to mind the scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, in which the main character’s attempt to join the Judean People’s Front depends on his answer to the question, “How much do you hate the Romans?” Public displays of affection for Israel have become the sine qua non of winning national political office in the United States, and in the current pre-election  season, politicians are seeking to outdo one another in public expressions of outrage at the Palestinians daring to seek recognition at the U.N. GOP presidential hopefuls tumble over one another to denounce President Obama for “throwing Israel under a bus” — a claim that would come as news to both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who suggested Obama deserved a medal for his recent U.N. speech; and to the Palestinians, who saw it as confirmation that the U.S. has given up even a pretense at even-handedness. 

And this week says a renewed push in Congress to block the transfer of some $200 million in humanitarian support and $150 million in security assistance to the Palestinian Authority, to punish the Palestinians for their insubordination in defying U.S. tutelage. 

“Our contributions are our strongest leverage at the U.N., and should be used to stand up for our interests and allies and stop this dangerous Palestinian scheme,” says House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, the Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. And a number of top Democrats have backed her call for an aid cutoff.

But those with a tad more understanding of Middle East realities — even from Israel’s point of view — are urging the likes of Ros-Lehtinen to curb their enthusiasm, lest they do Israel some real damage in their haste to express their support. Israeli officials have discreetly cautioned against hobbling the PA, and former Bush Administration Mideast point-man Elliott Abrahams, a strong backer of Israel’s current government, bluntly told a congressional hearing that starving the Palestinian Authority (PA) of funds is not in Israel’s interests, which are actually served by the day-to-day functioning of the PA. It’s security forces, for example, do more to protect Israel from attacks by Palestinian militants — or mass protests — than they do to protect Palestinians from attacks by Israeli settlers or security forces. “If they were to cut off the Palestinian Authority,” Abrahams told the Financial Times (subscription required), “Israel would have to pick up a lot of its responsibilities. So who would they be helping and who would they be hurting?”

Former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy takes the argument further, saying that a congressional aid cutoff would be doing the Palestinians a favor by removing some of the incentives for sticking to the U.S. script in the deluded belief that this will win them their rights.  “Almost 20 years [after Oslo], it’s now a lot more difficult to honestly entertain a belief in America’s ability to midwife Palestinian freedom,” Levy writes. Domestic political constraints preclude U.S. administrations of either party from pressing the Israelis to take steps they’re unwilling to take, and the steps Israel has been willing to take are far from the bottom line required to end the conflict.

Should Washington cut off the aid drip, Levy suggests, it will inadvertently free the Palestinians from the sedative effect of a U.S. policy that essentially sustains a status quo in which the PA has been turned into an adjunct of occupation rather than a vehicle for the achievement of Palestinian rights. He writes:

 “The likelihood that popular mobilization against the occupation could gain strength will also be significantly enhanced, as will the prospect of Palestinians seeking international redress. In any case, the PA and its security organs must be asking themselves how to better serve Palestinian, as opposed to Israeli, needs. Without making light of the challenges all this would pose for the Palestinians, a popular nonviolent struggle would certainly present a far greater challenge to Israel and its continuing denial of Palestinian freedom. A first step to that would require acknowledging that the U.S. is not the friend of Palestine that it perhaps once had aspirations to be.”

Needless to say, there are many Palestinians who would concur that they’re far better off without U.S. financial aid and the limits it imposes on their freedom of action. The Saudis, for one, have certainly vowed to make up for any shortfall caused by a U.S. aid cutoff. And in a wider sense, the Palestinian leadership appears to be weaning itself from an unhealthy dependence on U.S. support. Some might even call that going  cold Turkey.