There’s an interesting passage in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury about Donald Trump’s “thinking” on the Middle East which the author depicts as follows: “There are basically four players…: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. The first three can be united against the fourth. And Egypt and Saudi Arabia, given what they want with respect to Iran…will pressure the Palestinians to make a deal. Voilà.” As Wolff has it, this is in line with a wider Trump foreign policy doctrine, which, apart from doing the opposite of whatever Obama did, is “to reduce the board to three elements: powers we can work with, powers we cannot work with, and those without enough power whom we can functionally disregard or sacrifice.”
Nobody knows how far the Trump administration’s plan (which his UN Ambassador Nikki Haley suggested last week was nearing completion) for what the President calls “the ultimate deal” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will fit Wolff’s stark summary. But the two big steps which Washington has so far taken seem all too consistent with a White House view that the Palestinians can be “functionally disregarded or sacrificed.”
The first was Trump’s decision to break an international consensus by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And the second, potentially at least as destabilising, was for a cut of up to $300m in the annual $360m donation Washington makes to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), providing education, primary health care, and other services to 5.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. These are the families of over 700,000 refugees who fled or were driven out of their homes in the 1947-8 war which gave birth to the state of Israel. And never allowed to return.
To describe the forfeited funds as mission-critical is a laughable understatement. Assuming that the shortfall isn’t made up – and there is so far little sign it will be – almost a million Palestinians by the end of next month will be without food aid in Gaza, where the economic and humanitarian crisis is already so dire that senior figures in the Israeli military have repeatedly warned it significantly increases the already mounting risks of a new war. In Syria, emergency aid – including cash – is likely to run out soon afterwards. Then there is every chance that the UNRWA’s 700 schools will not open in September. In Gaza alone, that would add 10,000 teachers to the already record unemployment total. And leave 270,000 children without education, perhaps the only benefit which offers any sense of a future to its imprisoned people.
Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA’s Commissioner General is on an international tour to drum up alternative donations – as well he might be given that a $500m appeal he launched in response to Trump’s decision has raised precisely $1.1m. And so far no western governments – perhaps in deference to the US decision – have offered new money to close the funding gap.
Krahenbuhl said last week that he had been repeatedly asked at the Munich Security Conference if he was “concerned about the further risk of radicalisation” in the region.
“Of course were are concerned,” he had replied wearily. “That’s exactly why we are investing in UNRWA [which] stands for hope, opportunity and a measure of regional stability.” The kind of mass migration which engulfed Europe in 2015 is what happens when that hope is lost; and it’s estimated to cost seven times as much to provide for a refugee family in the West as it does for UNRWA to make their life bearable at home. “We’ve allowed them the choice to stay in the region,” Krahenbuhl told me.
Whatever Washington’s reasons, it can’t be that UNRWA was under-performing. UNRWA’s management and plans were warmly approved when Krahenbuhl visited Washington last November. Understandably. A 2014 World Bank study estimated that UNRWA students were a year ahead of those in Palestinian Authority and Jordanian government schools.
Its immunisation programme is judged by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as above the average for middle income countries. Some UNRWA work is heroic – notably in Syria where 45 staff are either dead or missing after keeping schools and clinics going through the worst of the war in Aleppo alone. Some leading politicians in Israel and the US heartily dislike UNRWA because they claim it perpetuates the 1948 refugee narrative. But, at least until now, Israel has not wanted to see it collapse, “leaving” as Peter Lerner, a former senior officer in the Israeli military has put it: “Hundreds of thousands of people without basic needs. That could potentially lead to more violence…”
So why has Trump done this? The decision was taken in the aftermath of his angry threats to countries that opposed his Jerusalem announcement. But the explanations from Administration officials have only confused. And in terms of the US budget the sums are trifling. So could slicing away at UNRWA instead be part of his plans for the “ultimate deal” ?
Until now the US, EU including Britain, the Palestinian authority and, since 2002, almost all Arab leaders including Saudi Arabia have been officially united on the basis for an end to the conflict. This would be a Palestinian state on the territories Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six Day War: Gaza and the West Bank with a capital in East Jerusalem; and a negotiated package of measures for Palestinian refugees.
Borders, Jerusalem, and refugees, in other words, have long been the cornerstone of any negotiations between Palestinians and Israel. Nobody believed that millions of refugees would return to their old homes of 70 years ago in what is now Israel in a two-state solution rather than perhaps a token return of a small minority, coupled with ample compensation for the rest. But the refugees’ rights and status, underpinned by successive UN resolutions, was one of the few bargaining cards the Palestinians held.
Does Trump now believe he can end that status? And that by making a financial offer that, say, the Jordanian government cannot refuse, he can make a start by persuading it to take over responsibility from the UN for the two million refugees there? And that just as he boasted he had taken Jerusalem “off the table” – to the unalloyed delight of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – he can now also take the refugees’ long standing “right of return” off the table?
If so, it’s a strategy with some questionable assumptions, including that dissolving UNRWA can somehow dissolve the refugee problem. And that anyone apart from UNRWA – the Jordanian government and the Palestinian Authority included – has the resources, let alone the desire, to take responsibility for the refugees ahead of an agreed peace deal.
For even if a Saudi or Egyptian government, desperate to cosy up to Israel because of their hostility to Iran, were to sanction such a plan, it’s doubtful that any Palestinian leader could accept an imposed rather than a negotiated solution of the refugee issue. Nikki Haley said last week that the Israelis and the Palestinians would neither “like” nor “hate” the now imminent Trump plan. But for the Palestinians not to hate it, it will need a lot of pleasant surprises for them. So far the surprises have all been unpleasant ones.