Biden’s Mideast point man reportedly urges Israel to assist collapsing PA

The Biden administration’s point person for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reportedly warned Israeli officials during his visit to the region this week that the Palestinian Authority is undergoing one of its worst crises yet and that Jerusalem would be well advised to provide some assistance.

“I have never seen the Palestinian Authority in a worse situation,” US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr told Israeli officials, according to a Thursday Axios report.

The PA’s crisis is multifaceted: At the economic level, it has suffered significantly as a result of the ongoing pandemic. It has also seen Israel withhold hundreds of millions of shekels in tax revenues on an annual basis since 2019 in order to offset funds that Ramallah pays to terrorists and their families.

The PA also faces a legitimacy crisis at the political level after its President Mahmoud Abbas made the decision in April to indefinitely postpone the first parliamentary election in nearly 15 years. The PA leader said the decision was due to Israel’s refusal to allow balloting in East Jerusalem, but most observers charged that Abbas feared an embarrassing loss to his rivals in Hamas and within his own Fatah party.

To make matters worse, the PA became the target of international uproar after a prominent Palestinian activist, Nizar Banat, was killed last month while in PA custody. The death sparked protests throughout the West Bank, against which Abbas’s security forces clamped down harshly, leading to further demands for explanations from the US and other countries around the world.

Amr met with Abbas, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and other senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah as well as Israeli officials in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv while in the region this week.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr lands at Ben Gurion Airport on May 14, 2021 (US Embassy Palestinian Affairs Unit/Twitter)

The deputy assistant secretary told Israeli officials that the PA’s situation “is like a dry forest waiting to catch on fire,” according to Axios, which said that Amr proposed several unspecified measures the Israeli government can take to help the Palestinian economy and strengthen Ramallah’s standing.

A source familiar with the matter confirmed to The Times of Israel that Amr has told both Israeli and Palestinian officials that US policy regarding the conflict will not be to twist arms and that the sides will be expected to take their own initiative.

“If you want the U.S. to help, we will be happy to do it,” Amr said this week, according to Axios.

While ties between Jerusalem and Ramallah have long been precarious, the Israeli security establishment still views PA President Mahmoud Abbas as a crucial partner, with the latter’s security forces regularly coordinating with Israel to combat terror activity in the West Bank. Moreover, it is widely believed that the PA’s collapse would create a vacuum likely to be filled by more radical actors, such as Hamas.

There is already a degree of recognition of Ramallah’s precarious position in Jerusalem, with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz all expressing reservations during a security cabinet discussion over whether to withhold hundreds of millions of shekels from the PA over the latter’s payments.

The three ministers were backed by IDF and Shin Bet officials during the meeting earlier this week. However, they were outvoted by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and others, who said Israeli law requires the government to withhold the funds.

Ramallah has been in talks to reform its existing welfare policy, which includes stipends to security prisoners and families of Palestinians killed while carrying out terror attacks. However, Palestinian officials told ToI that in return, they want the Biden administration to deem as unconstitutional legislation passed by Congress in 1987 that classifies the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its affiliates as terror groups. Doing so would allow Palestinian officials to operate more freely in the US.

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