OFAC this week issued a general license redefining the term “Palestinian Authority” as that term is used in three sets of U.S. sanctions regulations relating to terrorism. The change was only to add a phrase to account for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s resignation. You may be asking yourself how we got to the point where OFAC issues licenses to redefine a regulatory term because of the resignation of a foreign political leader. The answer is, not surprisingly, not so simple.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is not, and never has been, on the SDN List. But back in 2006, OFAC announced, by virtue of the Hamas victory in the PA legislative elections, it determined that Hamas “has a property interest in the transactions of” the PA and, therefore, “U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in transactions with” the PA. The strained logic that an entity has a property interest in the transactions of a government because individuals affiliated with the entity won a plurality of a legislative election vote was implemented into the terrorism regulations as interpretive provisions, which still exist. This was a harbinger for things to come.

In 2007, as a result of Prime Minister Fayyad’s appointment, OFAC issued a general license authorizing U.S. persons to engage in all transactions with the PA that were otherwise prohibited by defining the PA to be the government of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. OFAC could have, instead, at that point explained the situation and removed the interpretive provisions from the terrorism regulations. It did not, and we commented here on the oddity of this situation over five years ago. The new general license this week perpetuates the situation further. Now the regulations include the interpretive provisions, the 2007 general license and the new general license clarifying the other general license.

It should not be this complicated. If OFAC’s goal is to hedge its bets that the PA may at any time fall back under control of Hamas, which the Gaza Strip effectively has been since 2007, there are more direct ways to make the PA subject to sanctions that are easier for U.S. persons to follow and understand. The most obvious candidate, if the United States believed there was a Hamas-related terrorism threat with the PA, would be adding the PA to the SDN List or some form of direct sanctions. If not direct, then an interpretive provision is second-best, but one that provides a more realistic justification than the current “property interest” logic. Of course, a new interpretive provision would put the onus on OFAC to explain further notions of ownership and control that have thus far not received enough attention.

Until then, we will wait for the next general license when the new prime minister is determined.