by Hugh Fitzgerald
Say it ain't so.
The Israeli government believes it has a stake in the financial well-being of the Palestinian Authority, and is prepared to ask donors to the PA to restore their previous level of aid. This is not only counterintuitive; it is also wrong. A report on this plan is here: “Israel to ask donor countries to restore payments to Palestinians,” by Tovah Lazaroff, Jerusalem Post, November 14, 2021.
The thinking in Jerusalem is that the PA needs to win back the support of its largely impoverished population, in order to prevent a Hamas takeover of the Palestinian-populated parts of the West Bank. But Mahmoud Abbas has so enraged the Palestinians, 80% of whom now say they want him to quit, that more aid money made available to the Palestinians is unlikely to win them back. More money will not remove the fury over Abbas’ despotic rule – he is now in the seventeenth year of his four-year term as President. It will not assuage the anger over his raising hopes by calling for parliamentary and presidential elections in January, and then dashing those hopes in March by canceling both, when he realized his Fatah faction would lose seats in the Parliament and, even worse, he would lose the presidency in a landslide for his opponent, whoever that might be. And more money distributed to Palestinians will not make them any less enraged over the murder of activist Nizar Banat, a severe critic of Abbas’ corruption, who was taken away from his brother’s home by Abbas’ security services, and beaten to death.
Israel is set to ask donor countries to restore their financial contributions to the Palestinian Authority at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee meeting in Oslo on Wednesday, according to a source in the Ministry for Regional Cooperation.
Those donations have dropped by 85% over the last 13 years, according to a World Bank report published last week in advance of the donor meeting. In 2008, the global community contributed $1.2 billion to the PA, which was an all-time high and this year, donor funds are only expected to amount to $184 million, the World Bank explained.
There are many reasons for the steady decrease in aid to the PA from $1.2 billion in 2008, its highest ever, to $184 million – its lowest ever — in 2021. One is simply donor fatigue. Especially among the Arab states, there has been exasperation with the PA for continually going to the well of Arab support, without making any effort to negotiate with Israel. The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, famously told Mahmoud Abbas in 2018 to “accept whatever deal the Americans offer.” The Saudis are less inclined too, to help the PA, now that they are collaborating on security matters with Israel against their common foe, Iran. The Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the Kingdom’s sworn enemy, is Hamas, which rules Gaza and has a strong presence in the West Bank. The Saudis have no intention of sending aid that might inadvertently end up in the hands of Hamas The United Arab Emirates, having normalized ties with Israel as a member of the Abraham Accords, and already having reaped enormous benefits — $675 million in trade deals with the Jewish state in the first year alone –has concluded that its own national interest benefits from ever closer ties to Israel and, as a consequence, has cut its aid to the PA
As for European donors, they have cut back on aid to both to the PA and to UNRWA because of the continued failure of both to remove antisemitic content from their schoolbooks; the PA leaders, and UNRWA officials, keep promising to revise those books, or to replace them entirely, but never do, and the EU, fed up, earlier this year demanded action, and to back up its demand held back all of its aid to the PA, claiming “technical problems.” The Europeans are also infuriated that the PA has continued with its “Pay-For-Slay” program, not only because this program both rewards past, and incentivizes future, terrorism, but also because it has led the Israelis, quite understandably, to withhold the precise amounts the PA distributes to imprisoned terrorists and to the families of terrorists killed while carrying out their attacks; that sum is deducted by Jerusalem from the customs duties that Israel collects for, and transfers to, the PA. All Abbas has to do in order to unlock several hundred million dollars that Israel has withheld but stands ready to provide, is to halt the Pay-For-Slay program. He still won’t do so, and yet he expects foreign donors to increase their aid and rescue the Palestinians from the consequences of his own obstinacy.
Why should Israel be attempting to persuade former donors to revive their previous support of the PA? How will this money help persuade Palestinians to overlook Abbas’ despotism, his refusal to hold elections even after seventeen years in office, the murder of Nizar Banat by his goons? The only way to improve the situation for the Palestinians in the West Bank, so that they do not turn to Hamas, is to get rid of Abbas himself. And that can be accomplished only by bringing down his government, which requires starving it of funds. The system he has created depends upon providing well-paid sinecures to the relatives and friends of his loyalists; If he has to cut back on their salaries, or even to reduce the number of such jobs available to distribute to his loyalists, his position weakens. He survives only because he can provide extravagant salaries — ten times the average Palestinian wage — to those who, in return, support him. The Israelis want to convince others to provide him with the wherewithal to remain in power. I think he should be forced to cling ever more uneasily to power, his weakness making him ultimately more receptive to a deal with the Jewish state.
Why should any country renew its aid to the PA, while the $400-$600 million fortune that Abbas and his two grasping sons, Tarek and Yasser, have assembled remains untouched?
Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej (Meretz) who is expected to represent Israel at the meeting, will ask donor countries to restore payments and to invest in particular in projects involving water and health, a source told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday….
Before restoring any payments, the donor countries should demand an accounting from Mahmoud Abbas: how exactly did he and his sons amass that fortune recently estimated at $600 million, and how much of that money will be returned to the PA treasury? Not a dime more from donors should be forthcoming, until that information is made available, and until Abbas has disgorged most of his ill-gotten gains — say, a half-billion dollars — to the PA, leaving him with the still considerable sum of $100 million. The donor countries have a right to look at the PA books, to see who holds those sinecures, what their jobs supposedly entail, how much they are paid, and who they are related to, so as to unravel the systematic corruption that keeps Abbas in power.
The meeting comes as the PA faces an acute financial crisis, with both the World Bank and the United Nations warning that it has a looming $1.36 billion deficit and may not be able to pay its civil servants at the end of this year.
If the PA is not able to pay its civil servants, that weakens Abbas’ hold on them, which is purely a result of the money he allows his sinecure-holding loyalists to be given. The less money Abbas has, the more pressure he will be under to end the “Pay-For-Slay” program so as to unlock the hundreds of millions of dollars in customs duties that Israel refuses to release as long as that program continues. Unlike Abbas, the PA’s civil servants — who don’t have his huge fortune to fall back on — are more willing to give up “Pay-For-Slay” if it means their paychecks won’t be interrupted.
Frej is expected to urge the Palestinian Authority to take advantage of economic benefits offered it through the Abraham Accords, an initiative it has rejected. This could include tourists initiative between the PA and Arab countries that have normalized ties with Israel, such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.
In other words, Israel’s Regional Cooperation Minister, Essawi Frej, himself an Arab, will urge the PA to encourage Arab tourists from the Abraham Accords countries – the U.A.E., Bahrain, Morocco – when they are visiting Israel, to also visit the PA territories in the West Bank.
Israel also plans to present a number of initiatives that could add money into the PA coffers, including an electronic VAT system, that would ease custom collections. It is estimated that this could save the PA NIS 100,000 million shekels a year….
The introduction of an electronic system for calculating and collecting VAT would save the PA roughly $30 million a year. That amount is insufficient to make much of a difference to the PA’s wellbeing.
In a report it published last week, the Office for the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process called for the Paris Protocol to be updated….
Without any details having been offered, it’s hard to be certain as to what “updating” the Paris Protocol between Israel and the PA would mean. I assume it means that the PA should be wiling to engage in economic partnerships with Israeli businesses and individuals, instead of treating the possibilities of collaborating with Israelis with great distrust.
Here is a suggestion. Instead of attempting to persuade donor countries to again open their purse-strings to the PA yet again, Israel should insist on two things.
First, the Jewish state should insist that the “Pay-For-Slay” program be shut down, so that Israel can immediately pay the customs duties that it has been withholding from transfer to the PA; these hundreds of millions of dollars will relieve the sense of urgency at the PA, and at the same time, force it at long last to end the morally intolerable system whereby it rewards past, and incentivizes future, terrorism, even if it does not itself send terrorists out on missions. Israel should not be encouraging donor nations to renew their aid to the PA, but instead, be urging them to demand, with a single voice, the end of “Pay-For-Slay.” And if it won’t do so, then those donors should deny the PA even the small amount of aid it is currently providing.
Second, Israel should raise the one issue that sends Mahmoud Abbas into a frenzy – the continuing massive corruption that has been responsible for more than a half-billion dollars in donor aid to the PA being diverted to Mahmoud Abbas, his sons, his other relatives, and his thousands of loyalists and their relatives and friends. Israel should raise the forbidden subject — the need for most of that money to be disgorged, and put to use for the ordinary Palestinians whom Abbas claims to care so much about. Abbas’ continued ability to cling to power, with the PA in a permanently precarious condition financially, is not something Israel should try to prevent. It’s a good thing. It will ultimately force Abbas to put a stop to “Pay-For-Slay,” which should severely undermine the recruiting of terrorists. With less aid money coming in, the PA leaders will also have a decreased ability to divert funds to themselves, which would be felt more keenly than in times of plenty. Israel should raise at the donors’ conference the need to demand the disgorgement to the PA, by Mahmoud Abbas and his equally corrupt sons, of more than half a billion dollars in aid money that they have long diverted to their own accounts and businesses. And one more demand ought to be made to the PA — an end to the government sinecures, many paying ten times the average Palestinian wage, that Abbas has distributed to his most loyal followers, their relatives, and friends.
With Israel now willing to transfer the full amount of the customs duties it collects for the PA, and with the half-billion dollars recovered from Mahmoud Abbas and his sons, the PA ought to be able to right its listing ship of state. That should be enough to keep it on an even keel, and possibly convince a handful of donors to revive a portion of their previous aid, but not by so much that the PA can again try to ignore its donors’ demands. It cannot risk reviving the “Pay-For-Slay” program, nor an attempt by Abbas to revert to his highly creative and crooked bookkeeping. And the Gulf Arabs will want to remind Abbas that their patience is limited; they expect him now to engage in good-faith negotiations with the Jewish state. And Abbas will have to do as those who control his purse strings insist.