Washington Adopts Israel’s Positions: The Refugee Chapter

Since the early days of his administration, President Donald Trump has led US policy toward Palestine/Israel on a steady lurch, from overwhelming support of Israel to full adoption of its positions. Instead of a thoughtful strategy, he seems to pursue a tactical approach to force the Palestinians into submission. Ultimately, the effort is more likely to backfire than succeed.

It was reported that Trump wanted to make recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital one of his first acts as president, on inauguration day. Were it not for an urgent visit from the king of Jordan, this would have likely been the case. Instead, he held off for some time and, though he surrounded himself with right-wing Zionist advisors on the issue, the actual changes in policy he was bringing were unveiled in stages. In each stage, revisions made by the White House brought Washington more in line with Israeli positions, making the two harder to distinguish. The present chapter appears to concern the fate of the Palestinian refugees.

The Transformation in Stages

The first stage of revelations involved the White House’s stance on the end goal of negotiations. For successive administrations before Trump’s, and across party lines, Washington’s ostensible and stated goal for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was two independent states, one Israeli and one Palestinian. The Israeli position, despite occasional official statements supporting “two states for two peoples,” had clearly shifted officially against the establishment of a Palestinian state. In a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February of 2017, Trump moved the US position closer to that of Israel, making clear that the US president no longer viewed an independent Palestinian state as an imperative goal.

The next stage involved the US stand on Israeli settlements. As has been the case since 1967, US administrations have spoken of Israeli settlements as illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace. The George W. Bush Administration road map called for a settlement freeze. In his famous speech in Cairo in 2009, President Obama said “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” Even while making such statements, neither administration acted in any way to back up that view, but an anti-settlement building posture was central to US policy. For their part, the Israelis do not view the settlements as illegal nor do they accept that settlements are proof of their recalcitrance and opposition to peace. The Trump Administration, which came in just after the United States abstained at the UN Security Council on an important resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion, shifted US behavior toward Israel settlements and, in doing so, signaled a shift in policy as well.

Trump’s decision on the status of Jerusalem, which in his own words “took it off the table,” once again aligned American policy with Israel’s negotiating position.

After the issues of Palestinian statehood and Israeli settlements, the next stage in the revelations was on US policy toward Jerusalem, which finally and officially shifted when Trump announced his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. While Israel has long held that an “undivided Jerusalem” is the “eternal capital” of Israel, the American position throughout history had been different. But with Trump’s decision on the status of Jerusalem, which in his own words “took it off the table,” the president once again aligned American policy with Israel’s negotiating position.

The next revelation was the shift in the American position toward Israel’s “Jewish state” demand; in recent years, the Israeli side has demanded that the Palestinians recognize it as such in any agreement. Palestinians oppose this for a variety of reasons. The United States recognizes the State of Israel, of course, just as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) does; but Washington has pushed the Jewish state demand behind the scenes. There were rumors that the United States had been inching in the direction of including the demand in the framework that Secretary of State John Kerry had worked on—though never published. Kerry stated his support for this idea in his final speech on the issue in 2016. But it was also clear that such a demand could only be met as part of a final agreement and thus, in the past, the United States was not supportive of Israeli steps that attempted to prejudge this outcome.

Israel’s recent Nation-State Law, however, did just that. It would be hard to imagine such a law being passed with a different administration in Washington; indeed, the presence of the Trump Administration has been an opportunity for the Israeli right, in particular, to reach new heights that they had only previously dreamed of achieving. So when the law was passed, with the backing and vociferous support of the Israeli prime minister himself (who had worked hard to ram it through the parliamentary process just before the end of the legislative session), much of the world reacted with disdain and rejection. Washington’s silence spoke volumes to Israelis and Palestinians alike. In effect, therefore, Washington had accepted the Israeli right’s insistence on passing this law regardless of its implications for Palestinian citizens of Israel or how it could impact future negotiations.

UNRWA and the Palestinian Refugees

The most recent position shift addresses the issue of refugees, which is the oldest and most central. From the earliest days of the newly founded state of Israel, which was erected in Palestine over the rubble of a society sent into exile as refugees, the Israeli position has been that the Palestinian refugee problem is an Arab and not an Israeli one. At the outset, the United States viewed this as unacceptable, maintaining that Israel had to accept repatriation of Palestinian refugees. Israel’s refusal to do so led to an early crisis in US-Israel relations. The May 29, 1949 communication from President Harry Truman with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion stated that Washington was “seriously disturbed by the attitude of Israel with respect to a territorial settlement in Palestine and to the question of Palestinian refugees,” after having urged Israel to accept “the principle of substantial repatriation and the immediate beginnings of repatriation.” Truman’s letter stated that Israel’s continued rejection of these principles would lead the United States “to the conclusion that a revision of its attitude toward Israel has become unavoidable.”

Ultimately, Truman would relent that summer, accepting that the Israelis were not interested in repatriation. While this did not have a major impact on US-Israel relations, as Truman’s letter to the Israeli government threatened, it did lead to US support for a stopgap measure to address the volatile issue of Palestinian refugees. By December of 1949, UN Resolution 302 led to the establishment of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees because “continued assistance for the relief of the Palestine refugees is necessary to prevent conditions of starvation and distress among them.” Importantly, the resolution that gives UNRWA its mandate makes clear that this aid to Palestine refugees is “without prejudice to” the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands as stipulated in UN Resolution 194 from the year before—the very resolution Truman was demanding that Israel implement. In other words, UNRWA was established with the intent of not, in any way, negating Palestinian refugee rights to repatriation because, while relief assistance was considered urgent and necessary, Israeli intransigence was considered unacceptable.

Washington accepted the Israeli right’s insistence on passing the nation-state law regardless of its implications for Palestinian citizens of Israel or how it could impact future negotiations.

The United States became and continued to be the single largest donor of UNRWA. As Israel persisted in refusing Palestinian repatriation, UNRWA continued to provide services to the Palestinian refugee community in line with its mandate. The refusal of repatriation meant that the refugee population grew over time and generations, bringing the total number of UNRWA registered refugees to over five million today. The United States had maintained that the refugee issue remained a final status issue for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and, until such time, would continue to support the relief agency.

The Israeli position toward Palestinian refugees remains unchanged. Israeli officials have often attacked UNRWA for various reasons, accusing it of perpetuating the refugee problem (one that Israel refuses to solve by repatriation). They argue that if the agency were to disappear, other actors beside Israel would be forced to assume responsibility for the refugees. This boils down to the same position Israel has held since 1948: that Palestinian refugees are someone else’s problem.

In recent years, however, attacks on UNRWA have increased, particularly from the Israeli political sphere. At the same time, Israeli security officials reportedly argue quietly against defunding the agency because it provides a stabilizing purpose. In 2012, according to reports in the Israeli media, a right-wing Israeli member of the Knesset, with the support of the Israeli government, worked with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—the pro-Israel lobby group in the United States—to instigate and pass legislation in the US Congress through the efforts of then-Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), aimed ultimately at weakening UNRWA. The legislation calls on the State Department to report to Congress the number of Palestinian refugees still alive today who were present in Palestine prior to expulsion or flight in 1948 and the number of their descendants.

Clearly, the number of Palestinians alive today who had sought refuge during a war 70 years ago has dwindled over time. Perhaps no population is more aware of this fact than the Palestinians themselves, who have had to bury countless refugee kin who had died waiting and dreaming of returning to their homeland. Yet opponents of UNRWA claim the agency is faking the actual number of refugees. In fact, this has become a talking point for the Israeli prime minister, who tweeted on June 11, 2017 that he urged President Trump’s UN ambassador that the “time has come for the UN to reconsider the continued existence of UNRWA,” adding that UNRWA “perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem” and “should be disbanded.”

Additional Domestic Influences

It was right around the time of these tweets that Jay Sekulow increasingly became the face of Donald Trump’s legal defense team. A self-described “messianic Jew,” Sekulow is the chief counsel for an organization that does business under the name American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). It was founded by evangelical televangelist Pat Robertson to conduct legal services that advance the interests and beliefs of Evangelical Christians. As the walls continue to close in on Donald Trump at present, due to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which has thus far led to several indictments and guilty pleas, including Trump’s former campaign manager and personal lawyer, Sekulow and the rest of his legal team may now be among those closest to the president.

After Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem in December of 2017 and the United Nations’ reaction to it, the president angrily tweeted on January 2, 2018 that he did not see why the United States should pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinians who are “no longer willing to talk peace.” Soon after, United States Representative at the United Nations Nikki Haley made clear that UNRWA funding could be on the chopping block. At the time, the soon-to-be unceremoniously fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reported to be the internal voice preventing harsher action.

The message has been clearly sent that on the refugee issue, Trump’s White House is more in line with the Israeli position than any previous American administration.

Mere days after Trump’s tweets and Haley’s comments, Netanyahu proclaimed that he agrees “completely with US President Trump’s sharp criticism of UNRWA.” Netanyahu said he proposed to the Trump Administration that “UNRWA support funds need to be gradually shifted to the UNHCR” and that “this is how to rid the world of UNRWA.”

Emails from Jared Kushner, Trump’s envoy for Middle East peace and long-time Netanyahu family friend, that were sent that same week and recently leaked to the press showed that Kushner instructed his staff, including Jason Greenblatt, that “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA.” On January 18, Victoria Coates, an aide to Greenblatt, informed the White House National Security Council staff that the team was considering plans to do away with UNRWA, stating that “UNRWA should come up with a plan to unwind itself and become part of the UNHCR by the time its charter comes up again in 2019.”

By February 5, 2018, Sekulow’s ACLJ filed a freedom of information act request to receive the State Department report mandated by the Mark Kirk/AIPAC legislation from 2012. The ACLJ announced it received a redacted report in response to that request one month prior. In a statement about the report it states: “UNRWA has consistently been an impediment to peace. By propagating a false narrative that millions of Palestinians are ‘refugees’ when they are in fact not, UNRWA does nothing more than serve an anti-Israel agenda and should be disbanded.”

Sekulow’s outfit, Kushner and his White House team, and Netanyahu are sounding the same notes in perfect concert. These positions all lead to the most recent news reports that the Trump Administration “is expected to announce that it will not accept UNRWA’s definition of a Palestinian refugee, which states that refugee status is passed from one generation to the next.”

Should this happen, and given what appears to be a concerted effort to bring about such a change, there will be yet another major shift in US policy on a core issue in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Even without a formal announcement, the message has been clearly sent that on the refugee issue, Trump’s White House is more in line with the Israeli position than any previous American administration.

An Unbecoming Transformation

The United States has never been a fair broker between the Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, it has always been an enabler of Israel’s worst policies toward Palestine. In the past, however, Washington cared about the optics of neutrality more than it does today. At present, the tactical approach seems to be to adopt Israel’s positions in an effort to send a message to the Palestinians that their negotiating positions are being delegitimized as a consequence of their refusal to accept Israel’s terms.

In the end, however, by continually making US positions synonymous with Israel’s, the Trump Administration is delegitimizing itself. Palestinians are further vindicated for their refusal to accept American mediation and few around the world can blame them for it.

For years, there has been a bizarre view in Washington policy circles on Palestinian-Israeli issues that if one of the two parties needed to be pressured for peace to be more possible, it was the Palestinians, a stateless people already living under foreign military occupation. More than any president before him Donald Trump has adopted this approach, and no president has failed more spectacularly in advancing peace. The results of this transformation should finally put to rest any ideas about the utility of pressuring the far weaker party and expose the proclaimed American commitment to a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.