Did Trump’s One-Two Punch Just Kill Chance For Deal?

Debate over whether cuts in aid to UNRWA and PA are a help or a harm.

An UNRWA school in the Gaza Strip. Flickr

Tel Aviv — Just a few months into his presidency, Donald Trump promised Israelis and Palestinians he could use his negotiating skills and business acumen to facilitate the “deal of the century” to bring peace to the Middle East.

But at the end of last month, the Trump administration seemed to drive a nail in the coffin of mediating a peace deal, cutting about $350 million in U.S. aid to UNRWA, the much-criticized United Nations agency that provides social services and education to Palestinians.

The move, just days after Washington cut aid to the Palestinian Authority, outraged Palestinians and ignored years of Israeli security policy that favored the continued support, despite the anti-Israel messages propagated through UNRWA relief efforts.

Supporters of the move hailed the aid cut as a step to replacing UNRWA’s aid mission with a different, less bloated, and political institution. The bigger benefit, they say, is a political one: Replacing UNRWA with a different institution will weaken the legitimacy of Palestinian demands to a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees displaced in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. By removing a major Palestinian negotiating card, it will be easier to come to a peace deal.

“UNRWA is the main reason for the Palestinian claim to the right of return, the rejectionism, and the refusal to negotiate — it’s all a result of UNRWA campaigns,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, and the founder of NGO Monitor.

“It is one of the main obstacles to a compromise on peace,” he continued. “The core belief is that the results of the 1948 war will be reversed, and these 5 million who claim refugees status will come back into Israel. The UNRWA has kept that myth alive for 70 years.”

Born in the aftermath of Israel’s War of Independence, UNRWA was established to take care of displaced Palestinians. In the following decades, the organization administered refugee camps, established schools, health clinics and food distribution operations in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

UNRWA counts more than 5.3 million registered Palestinian refugees worldwide, counting the offspring of the original refugees. In the West Bank and Gaza it runs about 370 schools and 65 health clinics. It has doled out about $325 million in micro-finance loans.

Dore Gold, a former foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said that the curriculum in UNRWA schools radicalizes Palestinian kids and noted that Hamas used one of the school buildings to store missiles in 2014.

However, critics of the Trump move say ending funding in such an abrupt and immediate way actually damages the peace process. To start, it undermines the U.S. standing as a mediator that could be trusted to midwife a deal.

“There were already low odds that the Trump administration would persuade the Palestinians to engage in U.S.-mediated talks,” wrote Nathan Thrall, an analyst at the International Crisis Group and an author on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“But the decision to alienate refugees, who constitute the largest group of Palestinians worldwide and have been the central cause of the Palestinian national movement since its inception, guarantees that Palestinians will regard the Trump administration not merely as a biased mediator but as a hostile entity.”

Indeed, calling the policy decision “cruel,” Palestinian Liberation Organization Executive Council member Hanan Ashrawi alleged that the U.S. is doing Israel’s bidding and destroying the very foundations of peace and stability by taking all permanent-status issues off the table,” including the right of return for refugees.

Critics of the move argue that turning off the U.S. funding tap to UNRWA is a recipe for the destabilization of the Palestinian territories, hurting the economy and creating a social service vacuum that will allow other, potentially more radical groups, to fill the vacuum.

Ironically, Israel’s security establishment has long opposed efforts to cut funding to UNRWA. However, in recent months, Netanyahu reportedly vetoed the long-standing policy and gave a green light for the Trump cutoff. The move was criticized in an opinion piece published in Haaretz by Peter Lerner, the former IDF spokesman to the foreign press.

While reform of UNRWA and merging it with the other UN refugee agencies is a “noble” goal, the sudden aid cut is not wise, said Shlomo Brom, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former head of strategic planning for the army. 

“It was kind of an arbitrary step, taken unilaterally, with no preparation, and it is being implemented immediately with no ability to adjust,” he said. “It will cause an economic and humanitarian crisis on top of the existing crisis, and in the West Bank. it will make the situation of the Palestinian Authority worse than it was already.”

Brom speculated that an aid cut to UNRWA wouldn’t prompt the world or the international community to change the demands on compensation and “return” for Palestinian refugees. He also surmised that the international community would find a way to keep UNRWA going.

Observers say Gaza, which is already struggling with a humanitarian crisis, is more at risk than the West Bank, where the economy is relatively stronger and there’s more stability.

“The U.N. role in Gaza is much greater and the vacuum is more likely to be filled by Islamists. I would predict that without backfill by donors (which may materialize), the negative impacts seem most likely and most likely to ripple quickly in Gaza,” wrote Scott Lasensky, a U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Obama. “In the West Bank, the PA can fill in part of the vacuum, and the U.S.-supported security cooperation [between Israel and the PA] continues despite pressures.”

Over the last 15 years or so, Gaza’s economy has been obliterated by repeated war and Israel’s security blockade. About 80,000 Gazans were getting food aid from UNRWA in 2000; today the figure is close to 1 million.

“If the U.S. were seen as an honest broker, now it’s turned its back and reduced its legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians,’’ said Tania Hary, the executive director of Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit that lobbies to free up restrictions on Palestinian movement. She said the aid cut is pushing Palestinians toward despair and a lack of hope. “There’s the immediate concern about feeding your family, and how to make ends meet, she said. “But there’s the longer-term question where people say, ‘We have no future here.’”

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