BY ISHAAN THAROOR* – The Washington Post
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, has tended to the needs of Palestinian refugees for nearly seven decades. But if President Trump has his way, it will soon be out of business.
On Friday, his administration said it would cease funding the U.N. agency, which was launched in 1949 to provide for more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes in what is now Israel. Relying on volunteer donors — of which Washington has been the largest — UNRWA has had its mandate renewed repeatedly by the U.N. General Assembly as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dragged on. Over the decades, the population of Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories and now-semi-permanent camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon has ballooned to around 5 million, encompassing the descendants of the original exiles.
The White House, along with Israel’s right wing, argues that the rolls of recognized refugees should be limited to those alive in 1949 — a move at odds with other U.N. operations that also confer refugee status upon the descendants of the displaced. At a conference in Washington last week, Nikki Haley, Trump’s envoy to the United Nations, bemoaned the “endless number of refugees that continue to get assistance” and how “the Palestinians continue to bash America.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many other leading Israeli politicians cheered Trump’s decision. Meanwhile, UNRWA officials are scrambling to raise funds from the European Union and Arab countries, adamant that their mission is necessary until a meaningful peace is achieved.
“There is only one thing that perpetuates the situation of refugees, including Palestinian refugees, and that is the extraordinary failure of the international community to bring about a just and fair and inclusive solution to the conflict,” Pierre Krähenbühl, UNRWA’s commissioner general, said to The Washington Post’s Ruth Eglash.
The move against UNRWA is only the latest blow to Palestinians delivered by Trump. It follows cuts in U.S. development aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well the administration’s decision last year to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, widely seen as a dismissal of Palestinians’ claims to East Jerusalem as their future seat of government.
The Trump administration’s approach has alienated the already enfeebled Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, who is the key interlocutor in any peace deal with Israel. While Trump’s lieutenants insist they are blazing a path toward a new grand bargain, it has become abundantly clear that the White House is in ideological lockstep with Netanyahu and his government, which includes ministers who openly claim the Palestinians will never have their own state.
According to reports, Abbas claimed that Trump envoys have even floated the prospect of a joint Palestinian-Jordanian confederation rather than Palestinian independence.
“His negotiations have put me in a position where I have nothing to lose. Why should I talk to them?” Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said to The Post. “They have disqualified themselves from any role in the peace process and destroyed all prospects of peace.”
Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, told the Intercept: “Past U.S. administrations were also slanted toward the Israelis, but what’s different today is that the usual mitigating factors in decision-making, such as American national security interests and the desire to at least appear evenhanded, no longer seem to be present. Instead we have domestic politics and ideology in their purest form dictating U.S. policy on this issue.”
This may have disastrous short-term consequences for Palestinians dependent on UNRWA assistance. Trump’s move surprised Israel’s security establishment, which fears a humanitarian crisis. Those concerns are shared by many in Washington.
But there are long-term dangers for Israel as well. Netanyahu has embraced an ever more strident nationalism, pushing through a controversial national-identity law that undercuts minority rights. Abroad, he flirts with authoritarian leaders willing to back Israel in international forums — even if they have track records of anti-Semitism. He has, moreover, assiduously sought to shift focus away from peace with the Palestinians to the threat of Iran. In that project, he has presided over a warming in relations with Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“Publicly, Arab dictators say full peace with Israel will only be possible when the Palestinian issue is solved, but in private, they are continuously drawing closer to Israel,” wrote Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer. “Indeed, their joint interests in confronting Iran and the Islamic State easily trump any true Arab solidarity with the Palestinians.”
All of this has made Netanyahu dominant in Israeli politics, but it has fueled growing anger abroad. As Trump and Netanyahu seemingly pile more dirt on the coffin of the two-state solution, comparisons to apartheid-era South Africa have become more common. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which urges foreign governments and corporations to boycott Israel as long as it maintains its occupation over Palestinians, has become an increasingly important factor in the politics of peace. And as bipartisan support for Israel fades in the United States, Netanyahu’s right-wing stances leave Israel more vulnerable to censure.
“The alliance between Israel’s allies and ultra-nationalists in Europe and the US has become a central theme of the BDS campaign’s messages. In this respect, the Trump era has been good for the movement,” Nathan Thrall, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian politics, wrote in the Guardian. “So has the Netanyahu government, whose attacks on BDS have been among the greatest drivers of publicity and recruitment for the campaign.”
If this worries the Israeli prime minister, he isn’t showing it. In a speech last week, Netanyahu eschewed his country’s ostensibly liberal values and offered a chilling argument that might makes right. In the Middle East, he said, “there is no place for the weak.” And the Palestinians, it can be inferred, ought to know their place.
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.