A piece of anti-terror legislation in Congress has turned into a test for pro-Israel policy in the Trump era.
The Taylor Force Act, a bill named after a U.S. citizen murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in Jaffa, would cut all American funding to the Palestinian Authority because of its longstanding practice of providing financial stipends to families of prisoners who carried out attacks against Israelis.
But the seemingly simple measure, meant to ensure U.S. taxpayer dollars do not go to supporting terrorists, has put the traditional mainstream pro-Israel community in a bind and has highlighted the growing power of Christian evangelical supporters of Israel, who have taken the lead on this issue.
“We came out early and we were the most dedicated,” said David Brog , director of Christians United for Israel, the largest pro-Israel evangelical organization. Describing his conversation with Stuart Force, Taylor’s father before mobilizing the group in favor of the bill, Brog said Force “finds it hard to understand a mentality that says it is okay to go out and kill people to advance your cause, and that someone who gets American foreign aid will do something like that.”
Taylor force, a former U.S. Army officer, was visiting Israel with a group from Vanderbilt University, where he was a first-year graduate student. While touring the beachfront promenade in Jaffa, a Palestinian terrorist attacked the group with a knife, killing Force, who was 28.
The bill, first presented in the previous congress and recently reintroduced by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, would cut all American aid to the Palestinian Authority, estimated at $300 million last year, if it does not demonstrate that it had stopped the practice of providing financial assistance to families of terrorists either killed or imprisoned by Israel.
Through its grassroots presence in Bible Belt states and with direct lobbying on Capitol Hill, CUFI has been working to push forward the legislation in recent months. The group, founded by evangelical pastor John Hagee and financially backed by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has a hawkish stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue: hence the drive to pass a law which could essentially cripple the Palestinian Authority.
“If they are paying for terrorists, this calls into question the whole idea that they are partners for peace,” Brog said of the Palestinian Authority.
But this battle has found evangelical pro-Israel advocates alone at the forefront. Israel and many of its supporters in Congress have long held reservations about the bill, fearing that it could lead to the toppling of the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas, thus creating a political vacuum which will invite extremist players such as Hamas to take over the West Bank.
“The government of Israel can decide to look the other way,” Brog said in response, “but we, as Americans, have a right to say where our foreign aid goes.”
AIPAC, the main pro-Israel lobby, has remained on the sidelines, choosing not to advocate for the Taylor Force Act, at least for now. “We strongly support the legislation’s goal to end these abhorrent payments, and we are committed to work with Congress to build the bipartisan support necessary for a bill to pass,” said AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann.
As of now, the bill does not enjoy bipartisan support and is led by Republicans only, although New Jersey Democrat Bob Melendez recently signaled his openness to consider supporting the bill.
This piece of legislation has placed AIPAC in an unusual situation, adopting positions closer to those of its rivals from left in the pro-Israel camp.
J Street, which is lobbying against the bill, said that while it opposes the idea of using U.S. aid to support families of Palestinian terrorists, it believes that existing laws requiring a dollar-for-dollar deducting from U.S. assistance for any money the Palestinians spend on supporting terrorists’ families, are sufficient. “We oppose the Taylor Force Act because it would, in effect, zero out aid to the Palestinian Authority — a move which many in the Israeli security establishment have warned would have dire consequences for Israel’s own security,” said J Street spokeswoman Jessica Rosenblum.
Americans for Peace Now held a similar position. “While the Palestinian Authority’s financial support for families of Palestinians convicted of terrorist attacks definitely sends the wrong message to Palestinians,” said APN director of communications Ori Nir, “cutting US financial aid to the PA would send the wrong message to Palestinians, Israelis and Americans who have a strong national security interest in bolstering the PA as a stable, viable governing body that closely cooperates with Israel in fighting terrorism.”
The issue of Palestinian support for families of terrorists has been festering for years and has already led to American legislation requiring a deduction in aid equal to that spent by the Palestinian Authority on the families. Currently, Palestinians provide stipends to support families of those held in Israeli prisons or killed by Israelis, regardless of their involvement in terrorism. And while Israelis view the payments as an incentive for terror, Palestinians argue that by providing these stipends, Palestinian families stay financially afloat instead of being driven to extremism.
The bill is now at a critical juncture as supporters work to gain backing of key members in the Senate Foreign Relations committee and to a obtain a clear message of support for the bill from the Trump administration.
For pro-Israel Christian evangelicals, the Taylor Force Act could serve as a test for their political clout in the Trump era. The oversized role played by evangelicals in delivering Trump’s victory has opened doors in the White House and provided greater access than before. As of now, it is yet to be seen whether this access can also shift policy, in the White House and in Congress, on issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman