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A Verdict on the Palestinians

When a New York jury found the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization liable for knowingly supporting six terrorist attacks in Israel more than a decade ago, the news was greeted with cheers and I-told-you-so’s from Israeli government officials and activists on the right.

From the left, there was silence.

Examine the February 23 verdict, and you can understand why it could cause such discomfort for those who have argued for years that the Palestinian leadership is an appropriate and responsible negotiating partner to end its conflict with Israel.

It’s not just that the jury in Federal District Court in Manhattan ordered the P.A. and the PLO to pay the 10 families who served as plaintiffs a total of $218.5 million in compensation — an amount that, under a special terrorism law, should increase to $655.5 million. The P.A. is just about broke now, its financial crisis exacerbated by the Israeli withholding of $100 million in monthly revenues, punishment for the Palestinian decision in December to join the International Criminal Court. If the Palestinians lose their expected appeal, there is no telling if or how they can come up with this kind of money.

That is worrying enough — much as we wish to see justice fulfilled and terror victims’ families compensated, Israel would be in even graver danger if the P.A. collapsed. But what is more discomforting is what led a neutral American jury to its conclusion: that the supposedly moderate Palestinian government was directly linked to terrorism.

The finding enabled Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to declare a “moral victory” in his quest to prove that terror was “an integral part” of the P.A. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed that claim, accusing the Palestinian leadership of continuing to endanger regional stability by its support of “murderous terrorist attacks.”

Lieberman and Netanyahu have argued this point for years, so routinely that — as terror attacks dwindled and the West Bank remained relatively quiet, and as their own experts praised the Palestinian security forces’ effectiveness — it seemed no more than a convenient excuse for political inaction and continued settlement building on occupied land.

Now a U.S. jury agrees with them.

This poses a serious challenge to anyone (including the Forward) who still stubbornly believes that the current Palestinian leadership is capable of implementing a two-state solution as the only way to lift the stain of occupation while ensuring Israel’s long-term safety and democratic character.

The plaintiffs offered internal records showing that the P.A. continued to pay the salaries of employees who were put behind bars in terror cases and paid benefits to families of suicide bombers and gunmen who died committing the attacks. Some of the convicted terrorists received regular promotions in rank from the P.A. as they sat in jail.

The Palestinians’ lawyer argued that there was no proof the P.A. itself sanctioned the attacks, which together killed 33 people and injured 390 others, and that these acts were committed by rogue employees acting on their own. Why, then, did those rogue employees draw a salary in jail? The defense also argued that financial payments to terrorists’ families did not signal an endorsement of such activities, but were instead a humanitarian gesture of assistance.

This explanation seems as unconvincing to us as it evidently did to the jury.

Speaking to the Ma’an News Agency after the verdict, Palestinian cabinet ministers said that during the period covered by the court case — January 2002 to January 2004 — Israel reoccupied major Palestinian cities, killed hundreds of Palestinians, and arrested hundreds more, creating conditions that do not excuse terrorism, but put it into context. Historical context.

“The [court] decision is a tragic disservice to the millions of Palestinians who have invested in the democratic process and the rule of law in order to seek justice and redress their grievances,” Mahmoud Khalifa, deputy minister of information for the P.A., told Ma’an. “We stand ready to be a partner in peace…”

On that last argument, Khalifa has a point. These attacks took place more than a decade ago, before Mahmoud Abbas became chairman of the PLO and president of the P.A. While Netanyahu and his political compatriots still tar Abbas with the brush of his violent predecessor, Yasser Arafat, many other Israeli leaders — including, most notably, the just-retired, much-revered former President Shimon Peres — have praised Abbas for his commitment to nonviolence, evidenced by the conduct of his security forces and the consistent pronouncements of his government.

He inherited a government that supported terrorists. Should he be held accountable for that?

Well, yes.

What a powerful gesture it would be if Abbas stopped these payments. It would remove one more piece of ammunition from the hands of Israeli leadership uninterested in solving the conflict. It would honor the victims of terror and acknowledge the rule of law. And — here we are probably being unduly optimistic — it would be a bold step to restore trust and prove, again, that this Palestinian leadership is willing to break from its violent past.

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