On January 6, less than a week after Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas signed the treaty to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon announced the PA will become a member of the international tribunal on April 1. As a member, the PA would be able to prosecute Israel for allegedly committing “war crimes”, such as Israel’s actions in Gaza this past summer.
Ban’s announcement drew heat from Congress. Kentucky senator Rand Paul introduced the “Defend Israel by Defunding Palestinian Foreign Aid Act of 2015,” which would halt aid to the Palestinian Authority until it withdraws its attempt at becoming a member of the court.
South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, during a visit to Israel last month as part of a seven-member delegation of senators, called the PA maneuver “incredibly offensive,” adding that United States law demands an end to funding if the PA brings a case against Israel. The Appropriations Act of 2015, after all, states that funding the PA must be suspended if “the Palestinians initiate an International Criminal Court judicially authorized investigation, or actively support such an investigation, that subjects Israeli nationals to an investigation for alleged crimes against Palestinians.”
Though the aid must be suspended in that circumstance, Secretary of State John Kerry may waive that restriction if he attests to the Committee on Appropriations that he is doing so “in the national security interest of the United States.” Whether or not Kerry will exercise that course of action is unknown. “As we have said, we continually evaluate our assistance to ensure that it supports our policy, and will make adjustments as necessary. We will also of course continue to comply with U.S. legislation on assistance, and remain in close touch with Congress on this,” says a State Department official.
If the restriction is waived, it would not be the first time the Obama administration has taken such action. In 2012, President Obama bypassed a Congressional prohibition on aid and signed a waiver declaring that aid to the PA is “important to the security interests of the United States.” This move was supported by the State Department, which expressed concerns that not enough aid was provided to address the dire economic and humanitarian hardship facing the Palestinians.
A letter to Kerry composed by Florida senator Marco Rubio and New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, dated January 29, calls for a suspension of aid to the PA. The letter refers to the prohibition of aid to the PA if it initiates an ICC investigation and states, “Although we believe it is in the interest of the United States for urgent humanitarian assistance to continue to be provided to the Palestinian people, we will not support assistance to the Palestinian Authority while you undertake a review of this matter.” The letter was signed by 51 Republican and 24 Democratic senators, representing 94 percent and 52 percent of each caucus, respectively.
California senator Barbara Boxer, who did not sign the Rubio-Gillibrand letter, sent her own missive to Secretary Kerry on February 10. Though Boxer condemns the PA for joining the ICC, the letter does not explicitly call for suspending aid, rather urging Kerry to “make it clear to President Abbas that pursuing these initiatives will have consequences– including potential long-term implications for U.S. assistance.”
The three Republicans who did not sign the letter were Arizona senator John McCain, Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander, and Senator Paul. According to Senator Paul’s office, Senator Paul did not sign the letter because of the bill he introduced that “goes further than existing restrictions.”
Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is the head of the House’s Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, said Congress should “block funds to the PA and to any UN entity that recognizes a non-existent State of Palestine to make it clear to [Abbas] that there will be consequences to his schemes at the United Nations and other international organizations like the International Criminal Court.” Ros-Lehtinen, along with twelve fellow members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, signed a letter to Kerry, urging the same response as the Rubio-Gillibrand letter emphasizing, “The actions of the PA have greatly aggravated the already fragile political environment in the region. The United States must make it clear that the only path to a Palestinian state is through direct negotiations.”