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Tillerson in the Dark on Palestinian Payments?

Jacob Kornbluh

Payments to Terrorists Long-Term Capitol Hill Concern

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

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WORD BUZZ Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: “They have changed their policy. At least, I have been informed they’ve changed that policy, and their intent is to cease the payments to the family members of those who have committed murder or violence against others”

L ittle did Rex Tillerson know that he was juggling a political hot potato.

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee last week, the secretary of state announced that the Palestinian Authority had agreed to suspend stipends to terrorists and their families. Palestinian leaders currently distribute payments to 35,000 families in totals estimated at $100 million per year.

“They have changed their policy,” Tillerson said in his first testimony since being appointed secretary of state. “At least, I have been informed they’ve changed that policy, and their intent is to cease the payments to the family members of those who have committed murder or violence against others.”

But Palestinian officials immediately took issue with Tillerson’s characterization, saying they had no plans to change the policy, which funds the families of those who died or are currently serving jail terms for killing or injuring Israeli Jews. The Netanyahu government also rushed to correct Tillerson. Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel had not seen “any indication” of such a change.

The US’s top diplomat clarified his remarks a day later while testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “They indicated to me they were in the process of changing that,” Tillerson said, regarding the conversations he held while visiting Bethlehem last month. “They did say we have to support widows and orphans. I said, ‘Widows and orphans are one thing. Attaching payments as recognition of violence or murders is something the American people could never accept or understand.’ ”

The issue of payments to terrorists and their families has long been a concern on Capitol Hill. In February, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, introduced legislation to cut off US assistance to the Palestinian Authority if it continues the payments. Graham’s legislation, called the Taylor Force Act, is named after a US Army officer who was killed in Tel Aviv by a Palestinian terrorist last year.

The bill, which is awaiting the approval by the Senate Foreign Relations committee, has recently received the backing of top Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. In a speech to members of the Orthodox Union’s National Leadership Mission on Capitol Hill last week, Schumer said he would vote for the act if the Trump administration cannot persuade the Palestinian Authority to end the stipends on its own.

Some lawmakers are concerned the act goes too far, however, and could result in the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Members of Congress are therefore currently deliberating a softer version of the bill. “To the extent that it is a targeted way to remove financial support for the despicable practice of providing bonuses for the families of suicide bombers or terrorists, I will support that,” Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, told the OU group. “To the extent that it is overly broad and cuts off all assistance to all Palestinian entities, I don’t think that’s in the security interest of Israel or the Palestinian Authority.” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the committee, said he intends to advance the legislation by the August recess.

In separate testimony last week, Tillerson was criticized for failing to appoint a new special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism at the State Department. In fact, on April 28, the office ceased operations after receiving a directive from the White House to release all its contractors, including retired officials working in part-time positions.

 

Testifying before the House Appropriations Committee’s foreign operations subcommittee, Tillerson explained the bureau’s reluctance. He said that the post might actually hinder the ability of the State Department to fight global anti-Semitism by spreading expertise too thin and compartmentalizing assignments. “One of the questions I’ve asked is, if we’re really going to affect these special areas, don’t we have to affect it through the delivery on mission [“mission” in this context refers to the State Department staff assigned to an embassy or consulate] at every level at every country? And by having a special envoy, one of my experiences is, mission then says, ‘Oh, we’ve got somebody else that does that,’ and then they stop doing it,” he said. When pressed, Tillerson said he was not ruling out appointing an envoy, but wanted to give the issue careful consideration.

Members of Congress, along with some American Jewish leaders, have urged President Trump and Tillerson to appoint an envoy immediately. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced a bill that would elevate the post to ambassador status. They say such a move is necessary at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise.

Ira Forman, the former leader of the National Jewish Democratic Council and the last political appointee to serve as envoy under President Obama, told Mishpacha that he fears Secretary Tillerson and his staff don’t understand how the office works. “I am confident that if he and his staff actually talk to State Department professionals at our embassies, in our regional bureaus, and even experts outside of government, he will find unanimous support for the special envoy’s work.”

The special envoy position was established by the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004 and signed into law by President George W. Bush. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) produces annual reports on human rights practices and international religious freedom with input on anti-Semitism provided by the office of the special envoy. The position has been vacant since Trump took office on January 20.

Jonathan Greenblatt, a former Obama aide who now heads the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement the special envoy role is critical to the fight against global anti-Semitism. “We are concerned by Secretary Tillerson’s remark and urge him and the president to reconsider and make clear that the State Department will not wane in its efforts to stem anti-Jewish hatred overseas.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 665. Jacob Kornbluh is also the political reporter for JewishInsider.com.)

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