On December 6, 2017, when President Donald Trump issued his now infamous declaration recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and reversing decades of American policy on the issue, he sent shockwaves not only through the Middle East but around the world. As the fallout from the announcement continues, it is important to recall the context in which the decision was made as it suggests a developing American strategy vis-à-vis the US relationship with the Palestinians.
Ahead of the Jerusalem decision there were a confluence of events and reports that added pressure on the Palestinians to get them to make concessions. This included threats to close the PLO Delegation office in Washington, DC, the advancement of federal legislation that would further condition American funding to the Palestinian Authority, and the reported pressure put on PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during an unscheduled visit to Riyadh last November. Washington reportedly wanted the Palestinians to accept a return to the negotiating table with the Israelis on the basis of a Trump Administration framework, the so-called “ultimate deal,” the outlines of which were far below the minimum Palestinian demands. Both the White House and the Palestinians made their respective positions clear to each other and, despite knowing the extent of Palestinian objections to an American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the White House went ahead with it anyway.
Taken together, the message sent by the Trump Administration was that saying no to the president would have dire consequences. There is a stream of thought in American Middle East peace process policy circles which holds that the reason the Palestinians have not yet signed an agreement with the Israelis is because they are in too comfortable a position and need to be pressured. Despite the fact that this hypothesis seems drawn from an alternate reality than the one on the ground, where Israel is in fact and overwhelmingly the powerful state that is militarily occupying stateless Palestinians, the mindset still has traction in certain Washington circles. Now it seems that it has been adopted by the White House.
However, instead of responding with capitulation, the Palestinian response to the Trump declaration was defiance. Indeed, the Palestinians used their diplomatic connections in the Arab world and beyond to isolate the United States and Israel before the international community. At the United Nations Security Council, the United States was forced to use its veto power to overcome the opposition of 14 others while at UN General Assembly, a resolutions passed condemning the American decision passed by a wide margin. The embarrassing spectacle left Washington attempting to spin the vote numbers in a positive way. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley counted those who abstained from the vote along with the handful of countries that voted against the resolution. Others pointed out that the vote totals actually show less international solidarity with Palestinians than in previous years when the General Assembly took up resolutions on Palestine. In reality, however, UN General Assembly resolutions on matters dealing with Palestine continue to pass with an overwhelming majority of support. This particular resolution was unlike previous ones because it was not focused simply on affirming the rights of Palestinians under international law or condemning Israeli action; rather, it was about condemning an American action—the American recognition of Jerusalem.
Nikki Haley invited representatives of the various UN member states that voted against or abstained from voting on the Jerusalem resolution to a “Friends of the US” reception she hosted on January 3rd. At a UN press conference the day before, Haley suggested that Washington would apply additional pressure on the Palestinians. A journalist asked her if the United States would continue funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency tasked with providing humanitarian aid for Palestinian refugees living in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem as well as in refugee camps throughout the region. In light of Palestinian efforts at the United Nations to support the votes at the Security Council and General Assembly, Haley replied that it was the president’s view that the United States should not be giving aid to the Palestinians until the Palestinians return “to the negotiations table.” Shortly thereafter, President Trump made a statement via twitter declaring:
It’s not only Pakistan that we pay billions of dollars to for nothing, but also many other countries, and others. As an example, we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED [sic] OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?
With this statement, the president of the United States made clear that the comments by Haley were not just an impromptu response at a press conference but part of a calculated policy to use monetary support for Palestinians to force them into negotiations with the Israelis. Over the years, however, the ways in which the United States has supported the Palestinian Authority (PA) financially have evolved. A very small portion of US funding goes directly to the PA; these disbursements are aimed at supporting its security apparatus and coordination. The remainder of US support for Palestinians is indirect. During the Obama Administration, economic assistance that was previously earmarked to help subsidize the PA’s deficit was changed to direct payments to specific Palestinian Authority creditors. In the 2017 budget, this support was for “East Jerusalem hospitals and private sector fuel suppliers.”
There are two other streams of US monetary support for Palestinians that do not involve subsidizing the PA’s debts. These are USAID programs that fund a variety of projects sponsored by private and nongovernmental organizations and entities on the ground, including US support for UNRWA. The US State Department notified UNRWA that it is “cutting its contribution by more than half, to $60 million, while demanding a ‘fundamental reexamination’ of the social-service agency’s mission and funding.”
USAID funding, along with US financial support for UNRWA, not only do not go to the Palestinian Authority but they predate the existence of the PA altogether. These funds are aimed at supporting Palestinian society and alleviating the needs of stateless Palestinian refugees in several countries. In Gaza in particular, where refugees comprise 80 percent of the population, UNRWA’s support is crucial to the vast majority of the population. Clearly, this represents a shift in American policy which previously had not tied humanitarian assistance to Palestinians to the PA’s behavior. Now, Washington is saying that unless the Palestinian Authority does as Washington pleases, the United States will cut aid to Palestinian refugees and hospitals. This is, of course, extremely dangerous, first and foremost for the civilian populations who will be directly and negatively impacted by the lack of services and who are already living in dire circumstances, particularly in Gaza. In addition to the humanitarian impact, the economic impact will increase the prospects of political instability as well. But this approach also suggests that the United States is grasping for indirect leverage over the Palestinian Authority because direct leverage is either unavailable or unworkable.
Determining Outcomes, and the Blame Game
While the president’s tweet made clear Washington would be taking further steps toward cutting aid to Palestinians, it also did two other things that speak to where American policy now stands. Trump stated plainly that he took Jerusalem “off the table.” This clarified any remaining confusing messaging around the intent of the Jerusalem declaration. In the days after the announcement, US officials stated that the decisions did not apply to the “boundaries of sovereignty” and that those matters would be for “permanent status or final status negotiations,” suggesting that Jerusalem was still very much an issue on the table—though Trump’s tweet clearly stated otherwise.
This amounted not just to a reversal of long-standing US policy but also to Washington actually determining the outcome of a final status issue by adopting the Israeli position. As the United States announced cuts to UNRWA funding, officials were quoted demanding that UNRWA’s operations and funding be “fundamentally reevaluated.” This language could be a hint that the United States is taking the same approach to the issue of refugees as it did with Jerusalem by predetermining an outcome and taking the Israeli position. While the Israelis have been wary of the destabilizing impact of cutting funds to URNWA, particularly in Gaza, the Israeli prime minister has used the opportunity to hammer political points assailing the Palestinian position on refugees. Recently, he has also advocated to the United States to cut funds to UNRWA based on the premise that the agency’s services to the descendants of Palestinians forced from their homes in 1948 are supporting “fictitious refugees.”
With a White House clearly disinterested in serious negotiations, the Israelis are exploiting the opportunity to push for altering US positions so that they are in line with their demands on a variety of issues—positions that they hope will carry over to future administrations. First it was Jerusalem, and now it seems the refugee issue is next.
The last and perhaps most important part of the message tweeted out by President Trump had to do with pointing the finger at the Palestinians for the lack of progress on peace talks. Usually, officials wait until peace talks start to engage in a blame game for why they failed; Trump is getting ahead of the game. In response to all these threats, PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas responded by saying “Damn your money!” Further, in a lengthy speech on January 14, Abbas declared the Palestinians would no longer accept US mediation. Thus far, therefore, the ultimate deal has been an ultimate disaster.
What Is Next for US Policy?
In the year since taking the helm of the US government, President Trump has found new and creative ways to make the Israeli-Palestinian morass he inherited exponentially worse. Instability is greater, US credibility has decreased, and the prospects for restarting a peace process remain at close to zero. There is a chance Washington policymakers might realize that the approach they have taken thus far—aiming to squeeze the Palestinians into submission—is not going to yield results. However, the United States may yet squeeze them further. Washington may also try to reinvigorate one of the peace processes’ dinosaurs, the Middle East Quartet (the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union), which may be necessary to get the Palestinians reengaged in any sort of conversation.
Although Donald Trump has tried to bring radical change to many policies, his efforts to do so with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking have only made things radically more difficult if not impossible to surmount. To be sure, US policy needed serious reevaluation at the end of the Obama Administration. Trump and his cohorts seem to have done that but decided to keep going in the wrong direction, and at a much more accelerated speed. The questions that remain are when, if at all, Trump and his circle are going to realize the folly of their policies and the tremendous damage they will inflict on the lives of innocent people.