A Trump Administration plan to shake up Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking?
Aug 31, 2018 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
Update 08/18 #05
This Update focuses on some new moves by the Trump Administration on the Israeli-Palestinian front which some observers are suggesting amount to an effort to rewrite the rulebook for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Principally these involve a large cut in aid to the Palestinian Authority, plus efforts to get the UN agency UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine) to change its behaviour in terms of recognising descendants of refugees as also refugees and unhelpful backing for a Palestinian “right of return” rather than efforts to resettle Palestinian refugees (see especially recent comments by American UN envoy Nikki Haley plus leaked internal Administration mails in this regard.)
We lead with a news story on the apparent American shift from Benny Avni of the New York Post, who speaks to a number of expert analysts about the new US tactics. Some experts note that these appear to be an effort to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority, something that past Administrations generally avoided doing in the name of trying to treat the two sides as equals. Avni also quotes some analysts, such as former IDF Spokesperson Peter Lerner, who are strongly sceptical of this new approach, arguing it will lead to an uptick in violence, while others see it is as a positive effort to break the Palestinian logjam, especially with respect to the highly problematic claim of a “Palestinian right of return.” For Avni’s complete story, CLICK HERE. Additional general analysis on the new US policy, coupled with varying expert opinion, comes from Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraph Agency, while American columnist Shoshana Bryen makes the case for the new policy.
Next, we offer an argument about the significance of the US moves on UNRWA from Israeli intellectual Adi Schwartz, who just co-authored a book on the problem of the Palestinian right of return demand (co-authored with Einat Wilf, who was quoted in the Avni article above.) Schwartz makes the case that disrupting the status quo with respect to UNRWA is an important step forward because UNRWA is currently harming prospects for peace in important ways. He argues the “right of return” has always been a non-starter, a demand which turns what could be a territorial dispute into an existential one, and that taking it off the table in this way is needed to break through to a two-state peace deal. For his argument in full, CLICK HERE. Making a similar argument about UNRWA – and taking on critics of attempts to change the organisation – is former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor.
Our final article comes from veteran Israeli security affairs journalist Ron Ben Yishai. Ben Yishai argues that the overall idea of pressuring the Palestinians and UNRWA over the right of return is a good one, but adds that it must be handled carefully and gradually to mitigate the risks that it will spark violence. In particular, he calls for the aid cutoffs being discussed to be implemented gradually and be accompanied by supplementary economic moves – a “Marshall plan” for Gaza and the West Bank – that will provide incomes to Palestinians and help build a constituency for peaceful compromise. For all the details of Ben Yishai’s discussion and analysis, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Some comments on what the Trump Administration is trying to do, from former American Mideast mediator Aaron David Miller.
- Comments critical of the US Administration’s apparent plans to pressure the Palestinian Authority from former IDF spokesperson Peter Lerner, and some other security officials cited by American writer Neri Zilber. Plus, an unexpected argument in favour of them from former Israeli peace negotiator and longstanding peace activist Yossi Beilin.
- American Jewish Committee head David Harris offers some additional insightful comments on how the Palestinian refugee problem the US Administration is trying to address has become the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More on the efforts to change this reality from veteran Israeli writer Ben Caspit.
- An historical look at how UNRWA came to be a major part of the “right of return” issue, from Israeli scholar Samantha Gottlieb plus a discussion of why the “right of return” remains incompatible with any resolution from American-Israeli conflict resolution specialist Dr. Alon Ben-Meir.
- Palestinian Affairs expert Yoni Ben Menachem on why the Palestinian “March of Return” campaign ultimately failed.
- The US Administration is also criticising the Palestinian Authority for its efforts to block truce talks over Gaza. However, those talks seem to be stalled for the moment.
- Following on from last week’s Update on changing life for the Arabs of eastern Jerusalem, the Israeli cabinet has now promised to spend unprecedented sums on east Jerusalem’s schools.
- AIJAC comments on the change of Prime Minister and cabinet reshuffle in Canberra, as reported in the Jerusalem Post, and Australian Jewish News.
- AIJAC’s Jamies Hyams corrects some misreporting about Palestinian mail.
Trump is busting the myths that prevent Middle East peace
By Benny Avni
New York Post, August 27, 2018 | 6:55pm
Slowly but surely President Trump is slaying the sacred cows of Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy.
US President Donald Trump and his Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt – The Trump Administration appears to be set on slaying some sacred cows of Middle East peacemaking.
Last week the State Department announced a $200 million cut in annual aid to the Palestinian Authority. Before that, America cut support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a body created in 1949 to tend to some 750,000 Arab refugees from the war Israel’s neighbors launched to erase it off the map.
UNRWA now handles over 5 million refugee-camp residents in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. It exclusively tends to Palestinians, while another UN agency deals with refugees everywhere else on the globe.
Next, Washington reportedly plans to announce a cap of 500,000 refugees UNRWA can handle. Further, they’ll be counted as other refugees are counted instead of the expansive way only Palestinian “refugees” are counted, which includes multi-generational descendants.
Host countries will be asked to pitch in. (Jordan, a majority-Palestinian state, already recognizes camp residents as citizens.)
Most absurdly, Palestinian UNRWA clients living in camps where the Palestinian Authority, or in Gaza where Hamas, has full control, remain “refugees” despite Palestinian rule, hoping they’ll relocate to Tel Aviv or Haifa one day.
Since Jimmy Carter’s days, and more so since the Clinton-era Oslo Accords, Washington saw “refugees” as a “core issue” to be resolved between the parties, with America as referee.
It’s never been resolved. So just as in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (another traditional “core issue”), Trump is changing tack. And as expected, veteran peace processors are screaming bloody murder.
But not only them. Israeli security establishment types are concerned that cash cuts will harm security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.
True, regardless of the $200 million aid cut, America will continue funding Palestinian security bodies. And the other cut, to UNRWA, has little to do with security directly. Yet, funds are fungible and PA President Mahmoud Abbas may well retaliate by diverting funds from security to welfare.
And so, “the ramifications of [Trump’s] abrupt steps will only empower the radicals,” warns a former Israeli army spokesman, Peter Lerner, in Haaretz.
Einat Wilf, the Israeli coauthor of “The War for Return,” a book critical of the demand for a “right” to return, disagrees. A vocal advocate of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, she nevertheless strongly calls for dismantling UNRWA.
“UNRWA encourages radicalism,” she says. “It keeps alive the dream that the pre-1948 status quo will return and that Israel as a Jewish state will be erased from the map. I’m not against aid to Palestinians, just against encouraging that dream.”
Israeli intellectual and author Einat Wilf: “UNWRA encourages radicalism”
Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury Department antiterror official, argues that as Trump’s presentation of his “deal of the century” peace plan nears, Washington is seeking to weaken the Palestinian Authority.
After all, Abbas has rejected Trump’s plan before he saw it, sought to end America’s primacy in peacemaking and continues to denounce the US everywhere. So perhaps Trump thinks aid is simply bad business.
Yet Schanzer guesses that once Trump’s plan is out, America may well renew financial aid, or even add to it in coordination with supportive Arab states.
Now vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Schanzer observes that Trump is sharply veering away from traditional US peacemakers who “brought Israel and the Palestinians to the table as equals, as if the Palestinians have significant power.”
They don’t, and the traditional process is yet to yield peace.
That process took too seriously the Palestinian dream that 5 million “refugees” will one day flood the Jewish state.
“The current dynamic, and Trump’s expected offer, don’t recognize the aspirational, it recognizes reality,” Schanzer says.
Detractors say this is all shortsighted. And indeed, Trump’s new approach may lead to an uptick in violence — in the near term. But ultimately, Gordian knots are there to be cut.
In the long run, peacemaking will succeed if it addresses 21st-century facts, rather than 1948 hopes.
Is a Historic Decision on UNRWA Imminent?
By Adi Schwartz
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 934, August 29, 2018
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The next few weeks could be remembered in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as historic. The US administration is due to decide at the beginning of September whether to stop its funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Such a decision could be as significant as Harry Truman’s decision to recognize the State of Israel just 11 minutes after the Jewish State declared its independence in May 1948.
Preliminary signs suggest that the US administration might be about to cease its funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Two weeks ago, Foreign Policy reported that in internal email correspondence, Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, wrote to his colleagues: “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA. This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and does not help peace. Our goal cannot be to keep things stable and as they are… Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.” Earlier this year, the US slashed its contribution to UNRWA by half, signaling its growing displeasure with the agency.
The US contributes some $350 million annually to UNRWA out of a $1.2 billion budget. A complete American withdrawal from UNRWA would be a significant step, as it would signal that for the first time in decades, Washington is willing to touch upon the core issue of the conflict: the question of Israel’s existence within any borders.
UNRWA was created in 1950 to resettle the 600,000 Palestinians who had been displaced during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. While the Western powers did in fact do everything they could to help the Palestinians rebuild their lives, the Arab world used UNRWA to perpetuate the problem rather than solve it. For the Arab world and the Palestinians themselves, resettling the refugees would have meant making peace with Israel, and that they were not willing to do. To the Arabs, the State of Israel was a grave disruption of the natural order, and the only remedy could be the repatriation of Palestinian refugees – thus turning Israel into an Arab state.
The US supported UNRWA for decades, even though it knew the agency is a disruptive organ that harms the prospects for peace, keeps the Palestinians locked in a trap of dependency, and threatens Israel’s security. UNRWA lists over 5 million Palestinians as “registered refugees” and has long encouraged them to dream that someday they will resettle in Israel. This falsehood – the most significant obstacle to achieving peace – is a euphemism for the Arab desire to completely undo the State of Israel. The US, along with other Western powers, continued to sustain UNRWA all these years as a means of appeasing the Arab world. UNRWA is thus a relic of the Cold War era.
Palestinian students at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency on Aug. 29. But is UNWRA keeping the Palestinians in a state of dependency? (Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images).
For the past few decades, the West has treated the Arab-Israeli conflict as a territorial dispute. Since the June 1967 war, the prevailing motto was “land for peace,” which meant that in return for territory, Israel would receive peace from its neighbours. An American decision to withdraw from UNRWA would signify that the US believes the dispute to be not territorial but existential. By addressing the core ethos of the Palestinians – that the entire land is theirs, and therefore all “registered refugees” should be entitled to “return” – the Trump administration could make an invaluable contribution to Israel’s security as well as to the prospects for future peace. Only by dealing directly with the intransigent worldview of the Palestinians, as epitomized by the “refugee” problem and the Palestinians’ demand for the “right of return,” will peace be possible in the future.
This would be the first time the Palestinians pay a price for their intransigence. Up to now, they have been encouraged to harden their position every time they refuse a peace deal offered to them by Israel. When they said no to Ehud Barak’s peace proposal at Camp David in July 2000, they received a better offer from Bill Clinton a few months later. When they refused that offer, they were offered another, still better deal by Ehud Olmert in 2007-2008. They refused that offer as well. The inner logic of the peace process until now was that the Palestinians might as well keep on saying no, since doing so brings them better offers.
If Trump pulls all US funding from UNRWA, he will break this twisted logic. The message will be: If you are going to turn down peace proposals, do not expect better ones to follow. Intransigence breeds less negotiating power, not more.
By withdrawing from UNRWA, the Trump administration is trying to take the refugee problem off the table – a sensible move, since it has always been a non-starter. There is wide consensus in Israeli society not to allow Palestinian “registered refugees” to “return” to Israel, so the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” – their standard code word for Israel’s destruction through demographic subversion – has blocked every attempt at peace negotiations in the past.
An American decision to stop supporting UNRWA would be an announcement that the US understands that the “refugee problem” is a political disguise for the Palestinians’ real aim, which is to dismantle the State of Israel entirely. Removing this disguise would do a huge service not only to the cause of peace but also to the security and future of the Jewish State.
Adi Schwartz is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University and co-author of a recently published book on the Palestinian refugee problem, The War of Return (Hebrew).
Let the Palestinians make lemonade of Trump’s lemons
Op-ed: US cutting its aid to the Palestinians and funding to UNRWA are welcomed steps, but they must be done gradually and alongside supplementary economic moves to help end Palestinian dependency on donations
Ynet.com, Aug. 28, 2018
Cutting aid to the Palestinians, cutting funding to UNRWA, and the Trump administration’s declaration that it does not recognize the Palestinian “right of return,” are all welcomed steps, because they will force the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and other factions in the PLO to adopt a more practical view on a permanent resolution to the conflict. Perhaps these moves could even cause the Palestinians to recalculate their own steps and come back to the negotiating table with a paradigm that would be closer to something Israel would consider acceptable.But alongside the possibilities in these moves by Washington, we must first recognize the risks. The economic pressure, which is the result of cutting UNRWA’s funding, will almost certainly cause a very serious and very real humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and to a lesser degree in Judea and Samaria as well.
In addition, the Palestinian leadership’s response to Trump’s declaration, which pulls the rug out from under the international legitimacy for the Palestinian “right of return” demand, will almost certainly spark violence on Gaza and West Bank streets, mostly on the backdrop of the battle over the PA leadership in the wake of Abbas’s departure.
US President Donald Trump; Palestinian President Abbas (צילום: AFP)
Therefore, if the US, Israel—and perhaps also the Quartet—want to leverage the funding cuts and the ccancelling the recognition for the Palestinian “right of return” in order to achieve a groundbreaking positive result, this process must be done gradually and be accompanied by supplementary economic moves. Washington needs to gradually cut the funds the Palestinians receive either directly or through UNRWA over 3-4 years in a way that allows the supplementary economic moves to be implemented on the ground, giving the Palestinians in Gaza and in Judea and Samaria alternative sources of income and employment. Otherwise, cutting the funding will, in short order, bring to a humanitarian crisis in the strip that Israel has a supreme political and security interest in preventing. Such a crisis will lead to security tensions that Hamas would either initiate or be dragged into—and the rest is known.
A similar conflict could develop in Judea and Samaria as well. There won’t be a humanitarian crisis, but the worsening unemployment situation will serve as another incentive for unrest, which has been bubbling under the surface anyway. It will start with street protests—and the rest is known here as well. It could end with another mini-intifada, or perhaps even a full-blown intifada. All of this could be avoided if the Trump administration announces a gradual reduction of funding, which will be done in tandem with a plan for economic investments and projects to establish electricity, water, health and education infrastructures in the strip and in Judea and Samaria, in order to replace the donations the Palestinians receive through UNRWA and other international bodies.
Indirectly, such a “Marshall Plan” for Gaza and the West Bank could increase Palestinian motivation to reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and create internal processes within Palestinian society to allow this. On such a backdrop, the US withdrawing its recognition of the Palestinian “right of return” won’t lead to such serious unrest.
The Gaza donor countries convened in Brussels Tuesday. This is an excellent opportunity to establish an international consortium—including Arab states—that would also supervise and ensure the economic investments are not funneled by Hamas to its military wing and that the Palestinian education system doesn’t teach incitement.
Israel would be an active partner in such a consortium, but not as a regular member, rather a “facilitator.” Meaning, the Israeli government won’t fund or directly carry out the moves, but will do everything in its power to ensure the implementation of these moves will be done quickly through our ports and the border crossings under our control. Professional, engineering and mostly security consultation to the international consortium is necessary not just for effective implementation, but also to maintain our vital national security interests.
We can talk and bargain over everything else after there’s a calm in the Gaza Strip (a return to the post-Protective Edge understandings), which will allow this process to begin. Calm currently prevails in the West Bank, where this process can start immediately. Then, when this process is already underway, serious negotiations could start over the captives and the bodies of the soldiers that need to be returned home, as well as all kinds of “arrangements.”