By Martha Muir
To most observers, the Israel-Palestine conflict is the textbook definition of an intractable conflict. Yet to Donald Trump, resolving it is much simpler than it seems – a firm stance from the US is all that is needed to push the region into peace. The United States is known for being an ally to Israel but has historically positioned itself neutrally on flashpoints of conflict. It was customary for presidents to waive recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, and give generous amounts of financial aid to both sides.
Yet Donald Trump, no friend to norms and conventions, has cut aid to the Palestinians by more than $200 million and slashed $65 million from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
The rationale behind this move is to strengthen Jared Kushner’s negotiating hand when he unveils his long-awaited peace plan. The State department also pointed to “the challenges the international community faces in providing assistance in Gaza, where Hamas control endangers the lives of Gaza’s citizens and degrades an already dire humanitarian and economic situation”.
The aid cuts could trigger a disastrous humanitarian crisis.
Since the group won the 2006 elections they have been accused of subjecting the population of the Gaza Strip to numerous human rights abuses. The “Martyrs Fund”, which provides financial assistance to the families of prisoners in Israeli jails, has also come under criticism since it provides for those who have been implicated in terrorist attacks.
However, the budget cuts may be counterproductive. The move has been described as “cheap blackmail” by the PLO, who added that “the Palestinian people and leadership will not succumb to coercion”.
Moreover, the US already has measures in place to ensure that resources given to the Palestinians are not misused, such as Hamas’ designation as a terrorist group making them ineligible for much funding.
Most of the cut aid goes directly to UNRWA, which has been described as a “quasi-government” since it provides education, hospitals and vocational training centres. The aid cuts could, therefore, trigger a disastrous humanitarian crisis. There hasn’t been an election in Gaza since 2006, so there is no feedback mechanism for them to pressure their leaders into making the kind of compromises Trump and Kushner envision. The IDF values economic development in the Palestinian territories as a way to quell violent outbursts and some have voiced their opposition to Trump’s plans. Military officers have responded by saying “this is a security interest for all of us…we don’t want kids to be bored, and to start throwing rocks” and Colonel Grisha Yakubovich said the move would spark “a storm” which “may lead to a wave of terror”.
Yet there are signs that the agency may not collapse dramatically. German Finance Minister Heiko Maas signalled that they would be willing to provide more to stop the agency’s decline, UN Secretary General António Guterres called on other states to plug the gap, and the Arab League also released a statement saying they would not permit UNRWA to be dismantled.
The most significant consequence of the move might actually be the US losing its credibility as a mediator.
Thus, the most significant consequence of the move might actually be the US losing its credibility as a mediator. Trump can’t have leverage if one of the negotiating parties never comes to the table: the Palestinian Authority (PA) has suspended contact with the administration, and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Washington D.C. has been closed down. This is damaging for the long-term prospects for peace in the region because the US was simultaneously an actor which Israel trusted to be a mediator, and which Palestinian leaders like Arafat and Abbas felt they were able to deal with. They also have the connections in the Arab world to ensure that powerful players like Jordan and Saudi Arabia would support a deal, and the resources to enable compromises to be met.
In 1993, after years of arduous work, the US was able to make the impossible a reality when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn and recognised each other. In 2018, Trump risks bulldozering the potential for further milestones like these because he sees them as piecemeal. For a conflict to end, the needs of both sides must be considered and a plan devised and implemented. When asked what his plan was, Trump replied “what is it going to be? I can’t tell you”.
So the conflict shall rage on.
Photo by StateofIsrael via Flickr