President Donald Trump’s much-delayed “deal of the century” is creeping into view.
The latest insight is provided by the U.S. decision to defund UNRWA—the UN organization responsible for feeding and educating Palestinians denied a homeland, residing for generations in refugee camps throughout the Middle East, almost everywhere but Israel.
The decision to dramatically reduce U.S. funding for UN programs for refugees, not only those in the Gaza Strip, but also in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, comes in the wake of Washington’s earlier decisions to reduce aid to the Palestinian Authority and sets the stage for U.S. efforts at the UN to reduce the number of formally recognized refugees.
The fog enveloping Trump’s deal of the century is clearing, revealing a U.S.-led effort to simply remove Palestinians from the diplomatic and humanitarian equation. This policy is far more ambitious than Obama’s ill-famed preference to “lead from behind.” But rather than solve the issue, Trump is implementing a destructive and destabilizing plan to simply wish the Palestine problem away.
UNRWA was one of the central institutions created by the international community to accommodate the almost one million Palestinians who lost the battle against Israel for the creation of a sovereign state in what was British Mandatory Palestine. More than one half century later, the organization’s staying power is a testament to the failure of all parties to resolve the sovereign status of these refugees and their descendants.
Within a few years of their “Nakba,” it was clear that Palestinians would not soon—if ever—return to their ancestral lands. Diplomats for decades have found it preferable to kick the can down the road. Arab states, weak and untested, offer heartfelt but limited sanctuary. Against these considerable odds, Palestinians dealt a short deck by history, have, no thanks to UNRWA, managed to feed and educate themselves without the considerable advantages of a state to represent and defend them.
UNRWA bears a burden far bigger than itself. It assumes responsibility that no one else is prepared to shoulder—for those orphans of international diplomacy—five million Palestinians without a passport in a world of nation-states.
Palestinians are of two minds about the organization. No one can deny the health and educational benefits it provides, but the price paid for being wards of the international community is considerable, indeed for many unbearable.
Many years ago I sat on the veranda of the Marna House, a gentile guest house on the outskirts of Gaza city run by Alia Shawwa, daughter to one of Gaza’s richest families. She was a woman who knew her own mind and was not shy about telling anyone, including the perfect stranger sipping tea opposite her. UNRWA was an abomination, she declared, responsible for breeding complacency and fatalism among Palestinians and offering an excuse and a means for powers great and small to let the Palestinian problem fester.
Palestinian refugees now numbering in the millions must today compete against new cohorts of unfortunates—Syrians and Rohingya to name but two. Lacking for the first time in decades even the hint of a diplomatic process, they are in so many ways yesterday’s news. For those who want to bury even the idea of Palestine, Trump’s advisors among them, the time to strike is now.
Israel is one of UNRWA’s most significant beneficiaries and the more sober Israelis are well aware of the unrequited service the organization offers. Their cash keeps the lid on—it keeps kids in school and off the streets and pays for things that remain Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power to provide, and would have to be paid by Israel if only as a matter of self-interest if the organization is made to disappear. That’s why Israel’s long-serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu loves to hate the UN and its mandate while in public. But through a far colder calculation he understands the value UNRWA—despite its many problems—provides Israel to maintain an unsustainable status quo.
If simply taking issues such as Jerusalem and refugees “off the table” were so simple, Trump’s road would have been taken long ago. That it has not is for Trump not a sign of their complexity but of the weakness of his predecessors and their failure of imagination. So he is stepping over the wreckage of generations of failed efforts to make peace, forging ahead where they feared to tread.
Ending funding for UNRWA is one leg of his diplomatic trifecta—the others being his decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and a yet to be mooted decision to purge most Palestinians of their refugee status, and banish their “Right of Return” from the international diplomatic lexicon.
Even advocates of UNRWA’s demise who believe that refugees can be stripped of their status by the simple stroke of a pen stop short at simply cutting them off without a shekel.
“Responsibility for the Palestinians and the UNRWA budgets could be transferred to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which looks after the rest of the world’s refugees and, unlike UNRWA, works toward solving the refugee problem instead of perpetuating it,” suggests former Israeli diplomat Ron Prosor.
“Alternatively, U.N. agencies that already operate in the region, such as the United Nations Development Program, could be tasked with the job,” he added. “Another option is to transfer the budgets directly to the Palestinian Authority.”
It takes a special kind of chutzpa for an administration—whose record on welcoming Arab immigrants in these last years can be counted on the fingers of two hands—to declare to countries like Lebanon and Jordan, groaning under the weight of hosting Palestinian and now Syrian diasporas, that the responsibility for the care and integration of millions of Palestinians is now theirs.
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin welcomed the U.S. administration’s “justified decision,” on UNRWA, saying it “finally speaks the truth to the Arab lie that has been marketed all over the world for decades.”
“The solutions for the challenges facing those [Palestinians] currently living in various Arab countries can be found in those countries. There is no reason for them to dream of returning [to Israel],” Elkin said.
Strange words indeed from a man who every year at Passover reaffirms the Jewish peoples’ perenial yearning to live “next year in Jerusalem.”
On the other hand, he explains that “the State of Israel was, is and will always be the national homeland of the Jewish people, on the grounds of 2,000 years of history as well as its official status since the days of the Balfour Declaration.”
With absolutely no sense of irony, Elkin invokes for himself and his people the very sense of historical entitlement he denies to his enemies.
There’s the rub. Trump is not going to all this trouble in order to move pennies from one UN column into another. He indeed wants to take the refugee issue off the table, not by solving it but simply by redefining it out of existence, and if boosters like Elkin have their way, to deny Palestinians the right to even dream about an end to their exile.
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.