US Congress could be an impediment to an Israeli-Palestinian deal

Sunday 14/05/2017
Spoiler role. Speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan speaks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, last March. (Reuters)

US President Donald Trump seems optimistic that he will be the one to finally broker an Israeli- Palestinian peace deal.
Although many experts say Trump is living in a dream world given the distance between the par­ties, the possibility exists (albeit re­mote) that he may be able to bring a deal to fruition. A wild card in this scenario is the US Congress, which could play a spoiler role.
Congress has always been among the most pro-Israel US institutions, often serving as a check on US presi­dents who have had disagreements with Israel’s policies. In recent years, however, uncritical support for Israel has become a more parti­san endeavour in the United States, as Republicans have emerged as Is­rael’s staunchest allies, particularly for right-wing Israeli governments.
It was the Republican-controlled Congress, without the Obama ad­ministration’s blessing, that invited Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Ne­tanyahu in 2015 to give a major ad­dress (and a scathing indictment) of the then-unfolding Iranian nuclear deal.
Israel still enjoys support among Democrats and it was the Obama administration that negotiated a 10- year, $38 billion aid package with Israel in 2016. Democrats, though, have increasingly become more even-handed in their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
For example, polling data at the end of 2016 conducted by the Uni­versity of Maryland indicated that close to two-thirds of Democrats oppose settlements in the West Bank and more than half support an independent Palestinian state.
During the 2016 US presidential campaign, it was none other than Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who ran as a Democrat and is Jewish, who ex­pressed the most sympathy for the Palestinians. Sanders conveniently skipped the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual meeting in 2016, professing sched­uling conflicts but probably know­ing that his more even-handed views were out of sync with AIPAC’s uncritical positions.
This is a reflection of more di­verse opinions emerging within the American Jewish community in recent years as it faces — and often disagrees with — right-wing gov­ernments in Israel. The emergence of the J Street lobby group, which touts itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace and supports a two-state so­lution, is indicative of this trend.
However, AIPAC remains the pre-eminent lobby on Israeli-Pal­estinian issues on Capitol Hill and, coupled with the strong support of Christian fundamentalist groups to­wards Israel, it is not surprising that legislation reflecting the Netanyahu government’s positions is gaining traction with the Republican major­ity in Congress.
For example, several prominent Republicans, such as Senator Lind­sey Graham of South Carolina, have introduced legislation called the Taylor Force Act named after a US military veteran who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian while on a visit to Israel. The legislation calls for a cut off of all US aid to the Pal­estinian Authority (PA) if it does not stop making payments to families of Palestinians killed in violence against Israel. Interestingly, reflect­ing the partisanship in American politics, none of the bill’s co-spon­sors are Democrats.
Graham and other co-sponsors of the legislation have underscored that the amount of US aid given to the PA — more than $300 million a year — is equivalent to what the PA pays out to such Palestinian fami­lies.
This legislation is supported by the Israeli government, whose am­bassador to the UN recently said: “I think nobody, no Israeli or no Amer­ican, would be happy to know that his taxpayer money is being used to be paid for families of terrorism.”
And Netanyahu himself said: “The payment of money to terror­ists on a sliding scale — the more you kill the more you get — that’s the opposite of peace.”
However, pro-Israel Democratic senators say such legislation could hurt efforts at peace by weakening the PA. Senator Ben Cardin of Mary­land said Congress “should not take steps to jeopardise the security of the West Bank’s economic develop­ment, which is critically important.”
As for the Palestinians, they have said the payments are necessary for the support of widows and orphans but Palestinian official Jibril Rajoub told the New York Times recently that the PA would discuss the issue with an “open mind” as part of a broader Israeli-Palestinian negotia­tion.
The problem for the peace pro­cess is that the Netanyahu govern­ment — if it sees the Trump admin­istration putting too much pressure on it to strike a deal with the Pales­tinians — may activate its support among Republicans in Congress to put a brake on the process, such as pushing for passage of the Taylor Force Act and similar legislation.
Without substantial US aid to the Palestinians, it is hard to envision a peace deal succeeding and it is unclear how much political capital Trump would be willing to use to force Republicans to back down.