Analysis

Trump's Thuggish Unilateral Policy Will Make It Harder to Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Trump offers an original route: first state the Palestinian refugee problem doesn't exist, then negotiate. The only thing that's clear is the price the Palestinians have so far paid and will pay in the future

Trump and Abbas in Bethlehem, 2017
Evan Vucci/AP

“Our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are... Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there,” wrote Jared Kushner, son-in-law and adviser to President Donald Trump, in an email to other senior White House officials in January. In the email, first reported by the journal Foreign Policy in early August, Kushner discussed his desire not only to “disrupt” UNRWA, the UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees, but also to try to revise the number of Palestinians entitled to refugee status.

According to recent reports from Washington, the administration plans to recognize only some 500,000 Palestinians as refugees, whereas under UNRWA’s definition, there are about five million. Inter alia, Kushner discussed this with King Abdullah of Jordan, asking him to strip Palestinian residents of Jordan of their refugee status.

>> Report: Trump to demand recognized Palestinian refugees be capped at tenth of current number ■ Trump to cut $200 million from Palestinian aid ■ Trump: Israel will 'pay a higher price' for Jerusalem embassy move

These moves, combined with the administration’s earlier decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the American Embassy there, its decision to freeze $200 million of the $250 million in humanitarian aid it gives the Palestinians, and now its decision to reduce funding for UNRWA, are all based on the same strategy: What can’t be solved through negotiations will be solved through unilateral decisions. As Kushner put it, you have to break things in order to effect change.

This thuggish policy doesn’t fit with Trump’s recent statement that the Palestinians will “get something very good” in exchange for the embassy move. It also contradicts his desire to implement the “deal of the century,” in which both sides would have to pay a heavy price for peace.

Palestinian refugees from Syria participate in an English lesson at the Jafna Elementary school, run by UNRWA, Taalabaya, Lebanon, May 22, 2018.
Hassan Ammar,AP

One thing about this top-secret deal, which is gradually being removed from the agenda, has become very clear – the price the Palestinians have so far paid and will pay in the future. In Trump’s view, all that’s left for him to do is dictate Israel’s borders, as defined by the map of the settlements, and have Washington determine the status of the holy sites. Then he’ll be able to present the historic peace deal, which will be signed by both parties – the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister.

The refugee problem exists on two levels. At the Palestinian national and symbolic level, the Palestinian right of return, as defined in UN Resolution 194 from 1948, is the main cause for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is the basis for the Palestinians’ demand for historic justice, which was deprived from them by Israel's War of Independence, which caused the Nakba, or catastrophe, and the Palestinians’ refugeehood.

Concessions on the refugee issue and the right of return is a betrayal of the Palestinian national idea and grants forgiveness without recompense to those who caused that great injustice.

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, with Jordan's King Abdullah in the Oval Office, June 25, 2018.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

But even symbols have their price. Just as many countries which suffered tragic national conflicts found ways to compromise and forgive without forgetting the tragedies they underwent – from the reconciliation between Israel and Germany to that of the rival tribes in Rwanda – the Palestinian leadership has also made it clear that it’s willing to negotiate with Israel over the right of return.

Back in 2002, at the Arab League summit in Beirut, the Arab states said they would accept a just and agreed solution based on Resolution 194. That was the first official crack in the wall that had previously prevented any discussion of this issue.

Years later, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that “demanding that Israel absorb five million refugees isn’t reasonable. Neither is one million.”

According to the “Palestine Papers” published by Al Jazeera in 2010, Abbas proposed to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Israel take in about 100,000 refugees, at a rate of 10,000 a year for 10 years (Olmert proposed 25,000 in total).

Both sides understood that neither maximalist demands nor complete refusal would lead to a solution, so the question then became what number both sides thought their own people could live with.

Palestinian refugees students from Syria and Lebanon at the Jafna Elementary school, run by UNRWA, in the eastern Bekaa Valley town of Taalabaya, Lebanon. May 22, 2018
Hassan Ammar,AP

Thus, at the practical level, the right of return requires translating symbols into numbers. This translation is supposed to be part of the negotiations, just like the status of Jerusalem is.

Trump waving his ax at the bookkeeping of refugee numbers directly impacts both dimensions of the problem, making it harder to solve and not proffering any practical alternative. The thing is that even if the Palestinians wondrously accept the American position, what is supposed to happen to those half-million Palestinians? Would they be allowed to go home? Would half a million refugees, versus five million, diminish the dimensions of the historic wrong in Palestinian eyes? Are the negotiations likely to move to issues of accounting instead of striving to reach agreement on the principle, irrespective of the number of refugees? And in general, on what basis was the number of refugees set at half a million?

Trump offers no answers to these conundrums. For now, to him the be-all and end-all is to abolish UNRWA by presenting it as inflating refugee numbers in order to justify its own existence and the budgets it gets and mainly, to blame it for the perpetuation of the refugee problem. Ostensibly, without the agency, there would be no refugee problem if there was one, it's marginal.

Trump is right that UNRWA is a corrupt entity that cannot claim to be transparent either in its actions or in its spending. But it is an organization that finances more than 22,000 educators, that runs dozens of schools and distributes food aid. It is the main, often exclusive, source of help for hundreds of thousands of refugees. Cutting its budget will significantly impair its ability to function.

If the Arab nations decide to make up for the money the U.S. won't be delivering, Trump's decision won't have much practical significance. The U.S. administration suggests transferring the aid directly to the countries hosting the refugees, thus bypassing UNWRA. But it is concurrently cutting aid for the Palestinians and is not saying how much it would give these host countries.

The argument that only Palestinian refugees enjoy the right of inheriting refugee status is true. The definition of refugees under the Geneva Conventions and the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (in contrast to UNRWA) says a refugee is a person who himself or herself had to flee to another country because of a well-founded fear of persecution, but this status is not inheritable. From time to time there are reports of that the State Department has a secret report about the true number of Palestinian refugees, and it's a lot smaller than even Trump's suggestion, but that it doesn't get published for political reasons.

The right of inheritance is what created the huge number of Palestinian refugees, but in contrast to other refugees, the Palestinians had no country to return to after the war, and generations of Palestinians remained stateless even after some obtained citizenship in certain countries. The establishment of an independent Palestinian state that would take in the refugees should solve the problem of national belonging and citizenship, but for that to happen, negotiations resulting in political agreements have to take place. Trump, on the other hand, is offering an original route: first stating that the problem doesn't exist, then negotiating.