World News

Trump’s Threat to Cut Palestinian Aid Worries Many in Israel

Posted January 3, 2018 2:52 p.m. EST
Updated January 3, 2018 2:54 p.m. EST

JERUSALEM — If President Donald Trump’s goal with a pair of tweets threatening to cut their funding was to compel Palestinians, one way or another, to return to peace negotiations, they appear to have had the opposite effect — and left many Israelis confused and worried as well.

“We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” Trump wrote on Twitter, while most of the Middle East was sleeping Wednesday. “With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace,” he added, “why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month, upending decades of U.S. policy that had long avoided prejudging future negotiations over the city and prompting the Palestinians to declare that the administration no longer had a role to play in the peace talks.

The tweets, on a day Trump also took jabs at Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, echoed remarks made hours earlier by Nikki Haley, his ambassador to the United Nations. Haley threatened that the United States would stop providing financial support to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees throughout the region, unless the Palestinians return to the negotiating table.

As the largest donor to the relief agency, the United States provided more than $355 million in support for its 2016 operations, including $95 million for a West Bank and Gaza emergency appeal. Washington also provided about $290 million last year to the Palestinians through the U.S. Agency for International Development and has provided about $5.2 billion in total since 1994.

“We will not be blackmailed,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said in a statement Wednesday. “President Trump has sabotaged our search for peace, freedom and justice. Now he dares to blame the Palestinians for the consequences of his own irresponsible actions!”

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, was also angry. “Jerusalem and its holy places are not for sale,” he said, “not with gold nor with silver.”

For Israelis, too, Trump’s tweets were left open to some feverish interpretation. Trump was unclear about what funding he would cut and said that his administration had “taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table.”

The statement appeared to contradict his own assurances, and those of other U.S. officials, that the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty within Jerusalem were still up for discussion. He also said that the Israelis “would have had to pay more” for the recognition of their capital, suggesting that the country would have had to reciprocate with significant concessions to the Palestinians.

The relationship between Israel and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency is complicated. Israel has accused the agency of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, while at the same time valuing the education, health care and food assistance it provides to more than 2 million Palestinians registered as refugees in the West Bank and Gaza.

Without the agency’s assistance, Israelis worry they would have to shoulder the cost. Any drastic cut in funding, either to the agency or to the Palestinian Authority and its security forces, would most likely destabilize these areas, according to experts. Even some Israelis who are generally critical of the Palestinians, and would eventually like to see the U.N. Relief and Works Agency disappear, expressed reservations about any sudden cut in donations.

“Instead of being refugees forever they could build their present and their future,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, a conservative think tank. “But to stop all the money that is going to UNRWA overnight would be devastating. It should be a process during which the Palestinians take on responsibility and slowly, slowly UNRWA ceases to exist.”

The Trump administration had anticipated an outburst of Palestinian anger over its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but it had also expected the Palestinians to resume work on the peace process after what U.S. officials called a “cooling off” period.

Left to parse Trump’s tweet about Jerusalem now being off the table, Israeli analysts said they assumed he was referring only to recognition of Israel’s capital in western Jerusalem, not the eastern part that the Palestinians claim as their capital of a future state, and that much of the world considers occupied territory.

“It’s not my responsibility to be the Rashi of President Trump,” Amidror said, referring to a medieval French rabbi and Talmudic commentator. “What is clear is that the issue of all of Jerusalem is not off the table. It’s on the table and it should be negotiated.”

Michael Herzog, an Israel-based fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has participated in most of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, said that many Israelis supported some cuts in external funding to the Palestinian Authority, given that part of its budget goes to supporting the families of Palestinians who carried out terrorist attacks against Israelis. But the Israeli government would not want to see the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, he said.

Herzog said he believes that Abbas was afraid of receiving a U.S. proposal or peace plan that he could not accept, but also did not want to have to say no to it. “The issue of the recognition of Jerusalem provided him with the perfect excuse and an escape from this process,” Herzog said. “Basically, Trump was responding to this.”

Trump’s comments were met with silence from the Israeli prime minister’s office and Foreign Ministry.

Some Israeli politicians on the right welcomed the fact that Trump had clearly blamed the Palestinians for the stalled peace process, and they even praised the idea of reducing financial support.

“President Trump is not afraid to say the truth, even if it’s not popular,” said Naftali Bennett, education minister and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party. “The truth is the U.S. has no interest in funding those who act against its interest. The truth is the Palestinian leadership continues to fund terrorists, using U.S. tax money.”

But other Israelis focused on the risks that cuts could bring. “A serious and responsible government would stop mixing politics with Israeli security and would sit quietly and discreetly with the American president and explain to him what the real Israeli interest is,” Tzipi Livni, a former foreign and justice minister, who now sits in the opposition, wrote on Twitter. That, she added, includes “avoiding a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and continuing cooperation with the Palestinian security forces.”