On Israel, Trump Administration Welcomes A New Ally: Chuck Schumer

On Israel, Trump Administration Welcomes A New Ally: Chuck Schumer

The White House insists its hand isn’t being forced by a Schumer-backed Senate bill that would financially batter the Palestinian Authority.

Seeing a rare opportunity for bipartisanship, the White House is welcoming co-sponsorship by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of legislation that would cut funding to the Palestinian Authority until it “has terminated payments for acts of terrorism.” Such a measure was resisted by the Obama administration. And, rather than seeing the move by Schumer and others—including longtime Trump antagonist Sen. Lindsey Graham—as interfering in the administration’s ability to conduct foreign policy, the White House tells the National Interest the legislation is a welcome development.

The move by Schumer is his second major hawkish move on Israel since Donald Trump’s election. The era of Schumer and Trump has proven markedly different on Israel than the era of Harry Reid and Barack Obama. Schumer in December accused lame duck Secretary of State John Kerry of emboldening terrorists, because of his defense of U.S. action at the U.N. that upset Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Kerry had called the Netanyahu team the “most right-wing [government] in Israeli history,” lamented the “one state reality” of the situation and remarked “if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both,” in unusually frank remarks at the State Department. The Taylor Force Act cuts certain funding to the Palestinian Authority until it “has terminated payments for acts of terrorism against U.S. and Israeli citizens to any individual who has been convicted and imprisoned for such acts,” by Israeli courts.

The administration is hopeful that Schumer can bring along Democrats. Indeed, the act passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week—with only four senators voting against. One of them, Cory Booker, a likely presidential candidate, has been attacked in the press for his vote. “The man who ran and was elected on a supposedly pro-Israel platform, who received an unprecedented amount of donations from pro-Israel voters, seems to be missing no opportunity to vote with the growing anti-Israel faction of his party,” Jonathan Feldstein argues in Booker’s hometown paper, noting politics is likely at play. The act is named for Taylor Force, a West Point graduate killed by Palestinian extremists in Israel in March 2016.

The administration says it puts its foot down on rewarding violent extremism in any way, consistent with the president’s message to Middle East allies in May. But there is a “a perceived lack of balance” from Washington on this issue, Khaled Elgindy of Brookings and a former advisor to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, tells me. “You have highways and streets and public squares named after what Palestinians would consider either war criminals or terrorists, including Menachem Begin, who was a wanted terrorist in the British Mandate . . . Obviously, he became prime minister.”

And what of the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace? Unquestionably, Mahmoud Abbas’ contingent in Ramallah has long been a less radical actor than Hamas, the extremist group that governs the brutally impoverished Gaza Strip (and Abbas’ health and domestic political position are constantly in question). Doesn’t so explicitly pressuring the Palestinian Authority led by Abbas that reigns in the West Bank and East Jerusalem risk alienating the only viable negotiating partner in the conflict? Not so, says the White House. The United States is not there to enforce anything on either side, one official told me flatly. But the White House believes allowing the Palestinian Authority to continue pursuing the status quo is no way for a lasting peace. And the United States understands that for any agreement to happen both sides need to assent to it. “What are you going to broker?” complains Elgindy. “It can’t be whatever the two sides agree on because the two sides don’t agree. It begs the question: what is the role of an American mediator?”

The proposed, AIPAC-backed Taylor Force Act, has been somewhat watered down from an earlier form, thus garnering the support of more moderate lawmakers like Schumer. But the bill remains unnuanced, Elgindy argues. “It has this kind-of sledgehammer approach . . . I realize the bill says those convicted of murder or killing in a fair trial. But I’m not sure than any Palestinian would say that they actually get fair trials in the context of an Israeli military occupation.” A White House official would not confirm that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government lobbied the United States on the bill, responding that the bill is a matter of common sense: is it a good idea for persons convicted of terrorism to receive support? On the Palestinian side, Elgindy noted that hope for Trump had considerably waned since May, and it’s hard to see how this bill helps either Trump’s reputation in the Palestinian territories or the prospects for peace.

With Schumer’s backing, and following the overwhelming vote on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Taylor Force Act is likely to become law. The White House has previously made positive noises about the principles of the act. Its latest comments suggest that it is now fully on board.

Curt Mills is a foreign-affairs reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtMills.

Image: Palestinian Hamas militants take part in a protest against Israel's new security measures at the entrance to the al-Aqsa mosque compound, in Gaza City July 21, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem​