World News

Trump Threatens to Cut Off Aid Over U.N.’s Jerusalem Resolution

Posted December 20, 2017 8:53 p.m. EST
Updated December 20, 2017 9:04 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump issued a threat on Wednesday to cut off U.S. aid to any country that votes for a resolution at the United Nations condemning his recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Trump’s statement, delivered at a Cabinet meeting in which he exulted over the passage of a tax overhaul, followed a letter to General Assembly members from the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, in which she warned that the United States would take note of countries that voted in favor of the measure.

“All of these nations that take our money and then they vote against us at the Security Council or they vote against us, potentially, at the Assembly, they take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars and then they vote against us,” Trump said.

“Well, we’re watching those votes,” he added. “Let them vote against us; we’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”

It is difficult to see how Trump can make good on that threat because it could involve cutting off financial assistance to the country’s most strategic allies in the Middle East. Some of those programs, like Egypt’s, are congressionally mandated. While the president can hold up aid unilaterally as a form of leverage, canceling it would require new legislation.

Still, the bitter confrontation at the U.N. shows the lingering repercussions of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem, which defied world opinion and upended decades of U.S. policy. While the decision has not unleashed the violence in the Arab capitals that some had feared, it has left the U.S. diplomatically isolated.

The General Assembly is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution that would express “deep regret at recent decisions concerning the status of Jerusalem,” according to a draft text. It would urge other countries not to move their embassies there from Tel Aviv.

Trump announced this month that the U.S. would relocate its embassy to Jerusalem, though State Department officials said a move was several years away because of the logistics of constructing a new embassy complex.

In Haley’s letter, a copy of which was seen by The New York Times, she said, “As you consider your vote, I want you to know that the president and U.S. take this vote personally.”

“To be clear,” she wrote, “we are not asking that other countries move their embassies to Jerusalem, though we think it would be appropriate. We are simply asking that you acknowledge the historical friendship, partnership and support we have extended and respect our decision about our own embassy.”

In a Twitter post on Tuesday, Haley said of the vote in the General Assembly, “the U.S. will be taking names.”

On Monday, the U.S. used a rare veto to block a resolution in the Security Council calling for the administration to reverse its decision on Jerusalem. The vote on the resolution, which was drafted by Egypt, was 14-1, suggesting there could be a similarly wide margin against the U.S. in the 193-member General Assembly.

Canada, the Czech Republic and Hungary might abstain from the vote, according to diplomats. Days after the United States, the Czech Republic recognized West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, though it said it would not move its embassy before negotiating with countries in the region.

Egypt received $77.4 billion in foreign aid from the U.S. from 1948 to 2016, according to the Congressional Research Service, including about $1.3 billion in annual military aid.

Yemen and Turkey are sponsoring the General Assembly resolution, which underlines the problem Trump would face in retaliating for an anti-American vote. Yemen, which is torn by civil war, receives humanitarian aid from the U.S., while Turkey is a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally.

On Wednesday, Trump struck a familiar tone, declaring that “people are tired of the United States — people that live here, our great citizens that love this country — they’re tired of this country being taken advantage of, and we’re not going to be taken advantage of any longer.”

Derek H. Chollet, who served in the Obama administration, said: “This is an empty threat. Some of the countries Trump professes to be most admiring of would be caught in the cross-hairs of this.” President Barack Obama withheld Harpoon missiles and F-16 fighter jets from Egypt in 2013 after the country’s army ousted President Mohammed Morsi. But Obama did not try to kill the overall aid program, even though some officials argued that the army’s action constituted a coup, grounds for cutting off the aid. In 2015, he reinstated the aid.

“The idea that you can use foreign assistance as a lever to influence the behavior of countries is not a not new one,” Chollet said. “But this is bluster that other countries will see right through.”

Trump has threatened to hold up aid to Pakistan if it does not cooperate more with the United States on counterterrorism operations. During the 2016 presidential election, he warned that the U.S. might pull out of NATO because it shouldered an unfair burden in paying for the alliance.

It was also not the first time that Haley has used this language at the U.N. Soon after taking her post, she said, “You’re going to see a change in the way we do business.” The U.S., she said, would back its allies and expected their backing in return. “For those who don’t have our back,” she added, “we’re taking names.”

At the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Trump praised Haley, saying, “That was the right message that you and I agreed to be sent yesterday.”

But the deepening dispute over Jerusalem casts an even longer shadow over Trump’s hopes to broker a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Vice President Mike Pence postponed a trip to Israel this week that some officials hoped would be a victory lap for the administration.

White House officials said Pence stayed in Washington as an insurance policy because of the vote in the Senate on the tax bill. But the trip was shaping up as divisive: The vice president was not going to meet with Palestinian leaders, who are still seething over Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, which they regard as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

“They thought they were taking Jerusalem off the table,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East negotiator, said of the Trump administration. “They now have guaranteed it will be there for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”