Analysis

Trump's Catch-22 With Iran and the Palestinians Could Blow Up at Israel

Like his threats to cut Palestinian funding, the U.S. presidents new demands for the Iran nuclear agreement suffer from inconsistencies that cannot be resolved

TOPSHOT - Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli security forces on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City, near the border with Israel, on January 12, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

Lately, U.S. President Donald Trump is looking like a suicide bomber loaded with explosive devices that he's releasing in different corners of the world. Fortunately, in most cases we've only had threats, finger wagging, shocking tweets and fake bombs, but there is no guarantee that the next one won't be real.

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At least two of these bombs could blow up in Israel's face. Trump's threat to significantly cut the funds the administration provides to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and the aid it gives the Palestinian Authority in order to force Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to launch negotiations with Israel is already shaking up refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, making the Jordanian kingdom tremble and sending Lebanon into a panic.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House in Washington, January 10, 2018.
Evan Vucci/AP

In 2016 the administration gave UNRWA $355 million, a third of the agency's budget. The expected cut is $65 million, around half of the first contribution that had been scheduled for 2018. Add to this the cuts to the PA funding, which amounted to $357 million last year and whose extent for this year isn't clear. The significance is that the PA, Jordan – home to more than two million Palestinian refugees – and the government of Lebanon, where 175,000 refugees live according to a recent survey (previous UNRWA estimates put the number between 400,000 and 500,000), will have to finance the education, health and welfare services that will be affected by the cuts.

Jordan and Lebanon already bear the heavy burden of aiding Syrian refugees, which is only partially funded by the United Nations and donor states and which isn't enough to assure them a reasonable quality of life. The Gaza Strip, where most of the Palestinian refugees are concentrated, has been in crisis mode for some time, and the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service believe the economic stress could lead to its total collapse. Rich Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are helping the PA, but it's doubtful they will step in to fill the gap created by the American cutbacks, especially since they are coordinating their positions with the U.S. administration on the peace process.

It isn't clear how Trump's sanctions strategy against the PA will lead to a change in the Palestinian stance. Abbas has made it clear that he no longer considers the United States a fair broker and that economic pressure won't make him adopt any program Trump presents.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (C) speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 14, 2018.
AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI

There is a paradox here: The IDF is asking – or even demanding – that the Israeli government consider steps to alleviate the dangerous economic pressure on Gaza's two million residents, and announced that it intends to approve a few thousand more permits for Palestinians to work in Israel. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration is adopting a policy aimed at curbing the threat of a violent outburst that could lead to a war with Israel, which undermines this demand.

The second potentially explosive charge, the sanctions on Iran, is no less worrisome. This week Trump gave the world powers four months to change the nuclear agreement that was signed with the Islamic Republic in 2015. Among other things, the new deal must include a ban on developing ballistic missiles, a halt in support for terror groups and a clause that keeps these restrictions in place forever in order for the United States to remain party to it. The U.S. president made it clear that if there was no progress in talks with his European partners, Russia and China, to fix the agreement, he would withdraw from it even sooner.

Like the threat to the Palestinians, this demand suffers from an inconsistency that cannot be resolved. The requirement to eliminate the nuclear deal's time frame testifies to the faith the U.S. administration has in the Iranian leaderships desire and ability to uphold its terms, even as the administration itself (not just the EU and the International Atomic Energy Agency) admits that it hasn't violated it to date. In other words, the deal may not be perfect, but according to Trump himself, the Iranian partner is a rational and responsible entity, to which one could make the demand that it sign to an eternal agreement – otherwise, what's the point of making such a condition? In fact, what's the point in signing any agreement with Iran at all?

Under the agreement, Iran is not required to subject its ballistic missile program or its military bases to international inspection. It announced this week that it does not plan to respond to the American demand to begin talks on changing the deal's terms.

Meanwhile, Congress has so far refused to take up the gauntlet, passed to it by the president in October, to begin legislating new sanctions on Iran; the EU fears the new initiative, which could create a rift between Europe and the United States and freeze the huge ongoing European investment in Iran. Russia termed Trumps decision extremely negative, and China, Iran's largest oil customer, is concerned about factors liable to complicate the agreement, as the Chinese foreign minister told his Iranian counterpart. It's therefore doubtful that Trump will find partners among the agreement's signatories to realize his latest demand.

In the worst-case scenario, Iran revives its nuclear program if the United States imposes new sanctions on Tehran or pulls out of the agreement. Under the more comfortable scenario, Europe, Russia and China continue to do business with Iran and thus push Washington into an isolated corner internationally. In such a case Trump could respond by punishing the states and international corporations that don't uphold the American sanctions, but that would turn the U.S. into a Western country hostile to the West.

Israel's great interest is for Iran to abide by the nuclear deal and not risk it being voided by its most important ally. The real concern regarding Iran's ballistic missiles must lead to the opening of a parallel negotiations channel with Iran, but not by holding the nuclear agreement hostage.

Israel achieved one of the most important strategic achievements in its history when it succeeded in mobilizing a strong international coalition against the Iranian nuclear threat. Trump might now crush that achievement and sabotage any chance of reaching any kind of agreement with Iran on its nuclear program or its ballistic missiles in the future. In the cases of both Iran and the Palestinian Authority, where Trump treads, Israels toes get broken.