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Report: US officials call for imposing sanctions on Israel minister

June 21, 2024 at 11:31 am

Bezalel Smotrich, Israels finance minister, speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem, Israel on 11 January 2023 [Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

US officials of the President Joe Biden administration have called for the imposition of sanctions on Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich over “disturbing peace and stability in the West Bank”, Israeli media outlets reported on Wednesday.

During a Tuesday hearing on Capitol Hill, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen read aloud a passage from the executive order signed by Biden in February targeting individuals or entities engaged in: “Actions… that threaten the peace, security or stability of the West Bank,” The Times of Israel disclosed.

Senator Van Hollen later pointed to Smotrich’s efforts to block enforcement against illegal settlement construction and his withholding of hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority (PA). Van Hollen asked Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf whether those constitute actions destabilising the West Bank.

According to The Times of Israel, Leaf agreed that they did, leading Van Hollen to ask why the US hasn’t sanctioned Smotrich. Leaf responded that the administration does not publicly discuss who it is considering sanctions against, ending the line of questioning.

The Times of Israel cited a US official stating that senior Biden aides have, in recent weeks, raised the idea of imposing sanctions on Smotrich as alarm and frustration in Washington increased over the potentially imminent collapse of the PA, noting that Ramallah cannot continue to pay its employees without the tax revenues being withheld by Smotrich.

Another US official said the Biden administration fears that the PA’s collapse will lead to chaos in the West Bank, which Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad could exploit to start a new front for the war in Gaza.

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The newspaper pointed out: “The United States is not only seeking to pressure Israel to release the revenues, but is relying on Arab allies to donate to Ramallah as well.”

It added that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue during recent meetings with his Arab counterparts.

Israel collects most of the Palestinian tax revenues on behalf of the PA and is obligated under the Oslo Accords to transfer them to Ramallah every month. The revenues constitute about 70 per cent of the PA annual revenues.

Since his appointment in December 2022, Smotrich moved to further limit the amount of revenues Tel Aviv transfers to the PA, which refused for months to accept any of the revenues in protest against the move.

In February, the US convinced the PA to accept a new “framework” deal under which Norway would retain the Gaza portion of the tax revenues instead of the Israeli occupation, until Smotrich agreed to release them.

However, Smotrich announced the end of this framework in May after Norway joined Spain and Ireland in recognising the State of Palestine.

Since then, the US has been seeking a new country to serve as a guarantor of Israel’s continued transfer of tax revenues to the PA.

Meanwhile, Smotrich pledged to: “Withhold all Palestinian revenues until his government adopts a series of punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority against the backdrop of the moves taken by Norway, Spain, and Ireland.”

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