Like the best stories of our time, this one also started abruptly, by chance, then continued with a furious tweet and meanwhile is going nowhere after some vague explanations.
The threat to cut the American aid budget to the Palestinians, as punishment for their rebellion against the "master deal-maker" from Washington, emerged Tuesday when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley convened a press conference on a totally unrelated matter – Iran.
After her statement, however, a reporter asked if the United States planned to maintain its funding of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid to Palestinian refugees, given that the Palestinians had pushed for the UN General Assembly resolution against President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. She answered, without hesitating, that Trump “doesn’t want to give any additional funding, or stop funding, until the Palestinians are agreeing to come back to the negotiation table.”
Not to give any additional funding, or stop funding? Who cares about the details? The difference is a few hundred million dollars and the lives of human beings in distant lands. Haley immediately proceeded to the next question and left UNRWA officials perplexed. Did Haley mean, as was stated in the question she was asked, that the United States planned to cut the budget of the agency or the entire aid budget to the Palestinian Authority, which is a totally different story. After all, the United States had been a loyal partner to UNRWA and its biggest single funder since 1949.
Journalists’ efforts to determine what exactly Haley meant got no response. So far the UN agency’s offices in Washington have not received any indication of a budget reduction for 2018. Moreover, they wondered, how would cutting humanitarian aid – for schools, doctors and social workers – help restart the peace process?
Shortly after 12:30 at night Israel time, when Israeli and Palestinian officials were already asleep, some kind of response arrived – or, more accurately, a response that raised its own questions. Trump, in a tweet, began by first lashing out about financial support for Pakistan, then continued, “We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED [sic] OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect.” He later added, “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?” Not a word about UNRWA.
A White House statement on Wednesday evening, which was meant to clarify the tweets, gave no explanation about which budgets the Americans were threatening to cut or by how much. Once again his tweets demonstrated that Dr. Trump of the Teleprompter and the written speeches is not Mr. Trump of Twitter. With a few tweeted characters he managed to surprise and anger all the parties.
First of all, his tweet also included the following remark: “We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table.” This is a direct contradiction of his Jerusalem declaration, in which he stressed that the borders of the city would still be negotiated by Israel and the Palestinians. Second, he said, that “Israel, for that, would have had to pay much more.” This contradicts all the briefings on the matter from both the Israelis and the Americans, as well as U.S. Ambassador David Friedman’s statement to Makor Rishon that Trump didn’t demand anything from Israel in return for the recognition. “It was the moral thing to do,” Friedman said.
The consequence of the threats, vague though they may be, is primarily to push the Palestinians further into a corner. With a mediator who calls them recalcitrant liars, they don’t have too many options other than to turn to international institutions and feel out friendlier countries in an effort to persuade them to assume the role of broker, and in time threaten to cancel all their agreements with Israel. On the other hand, after a direct clarification from Trump that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, many in Israel would also prefer that the “ultimate” deal continue to exist mainly in tweets.
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