The Trump administration is squeezing the Palestinians' economy and calling out their support for terrorism in order to force them into making what President Trump calls the "ultimate deal" with Israel.
The decision to close the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) Washington office last month comes on the heels of the administration's move to completely defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) – a prime source of aid to purported refugees resulting from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
In announcing the most recent move, the State Department laid out its concerns with UNRWA starkly. Blasting the agency as a poorly run bureaucracy that has expanded "the community of entitled beneficiaries," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert declared the current situation "unsustainable." As a result, the United States will "no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation." The U.S. decision will cut about $300 million from the agencies $1.24 billion budget.
Critics including Saeb Erakat, a longtime Palestinian diplomat, described this move as a reckless leap into the unknown. He called on other nations to "reject and condemn the American decision and provide all necessary assistance to UNRWA to enable it to continue to shoulder its responsibility towards the Palestinian refugees."
Backers of Israel such as Sarah Stern, president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, praised the move and expressed gratitude to the Trump Administration for recognizing that UNRWA "has actually perpetuated the sense of victimhood of the Palestinians, and has kept the original 1948 conflict alive."
However, even proponents admit there are significant complications to overcome if this is to resolve the question of Palestinian refugees.
UNRWA was created at the end of the Arab-Israeli war nearly 70 years ago to little fanfare, to care for refugees, both Jewish and Arab, from Israel's War of Independence. Today, UNRWA is a bête noire of Israel and its allies, accused of perpetuating the conflict rather than resolving it. Critics say UNRWA does not work to resettle refugees, but holds them in perpetual stasis and because UNRWA has a unique definition of a refugee that includes people generations removed from the conflict as well as individuals who are citizens of new countries. This inflates the number of purported "refugees" which is used to claim an expanded "right of return," thus threatening the Jewish state's existence.
Like the partial cut of US funds for UNRWA in January, this complete cut is intended to coerce Palestinian concessions, which in turn would make a "deal" between Israel and the Palestinians more likely. Critics, such as the Jewish Democratic Council of America claim this tactic as "irresponsible," saying cuts will "imperil the security of Israel and the wellbeing of millions of Palestinians," and that the Administration announced the cuts "without a clear strategy."
However, the Administration seems to be following a plan it solicited from the Middle East Forum that was delivered in early August. In this plan, defunding UNRWA is the first step in a three-step process. The second step, involving direct funding of "hospitals, clinics, schools, municipalities, micro-financing programs, vocational capacity building initiatives, infrastructure managers, social service providers, and others," rather than funding UNRWA, or, as Trump Administration explains seeking out "new models and new approaches," including "direct bilateral assistance."
The third step involves ending "U.S. recognition of the fake Palestine refugees," by treating those not meeting more traditional definitions of a refugee as, instead, "needy people deserving of assistance." This final step can be aided by a still-classified State Department report which details the actual number of refugees not including UNRWA's expanded definition.
If this can be accomplished, it could be a significant step toward resolving the conflict. However, there are potential pitfalls to this strategy. For example, other countries may replace the funds, taking the pressure off UNRWA to reform.
Former UNRWA General Counsel James Lindsay, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes the Administration's calculation hinges on the agency not being able to replace the lost funding. Lindsay said there are "rumors" that Gulf States will make up the difference in funding, but only if UNRWA lessens the number of people it grants refugee status. Achieving a cut in the number of purported refugees is a major goal of the Trump Administration.
Others, however, remain skeptical that even this would solve the refugee issue. "Israelis will never allow large numbers of Palestinians to exercise a 'right of return' to Israel, and for good reason," said Robert Wexler, President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. "However, the refugee issue isn't going away, with or without UNRWA."
Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes worries that Trump's pressure on the Palestinians to reach a deal could rebound, resulting in Israel being pressured into accepting a deal that would "(End) very badly for Israel."
In the short term some worry that the funding cut could reduce essential services. Lindsay worries about "potential schooling provided by alternate donors such as Hamas," or other bad actors, which would be even more dangerous. His remarks were echoed by Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who expressed concern about "ensuring that certain key services like education, health and nutrition continue to ensure relative stability."
However, Lindsey suggests that "UNRWA may be able to make up for the loss of U.S. funding by revising rather than replacing its current educational programs—for instance, by making them means-tested and/or eliminating non-core programs," which itself would be a victory. Lindsay also suggested "quietly" giving money for similar programs to Jordan, a country friendly to the US. Schanzer stressed that "In the end, the goal should be to obviate the need," for such programs and blamed UNRWA for not previously taking "a single step" toward reform.
For now, the Trump Administration's future steps toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain uncertain. But many believe defunding UNRWA allows for the possibility of positive change. Brett Schaefer, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, said, "You are virtually assured of a bad situation if you continue to accept the unacceptable. This Administration is willing to do something to change the unsatisfactory status quo, even when there is risk associated."
Clifford Smith is the Washington Program Director for the Middle East Forum. His writings have been published in the Daily Caller, the American Spectator, PJ Media, and other outlets.