Analysis

Trump's Threat to Defund UNRWA Could Cost Israel as Much as the Palestinians

It's unclear if the president will actually cut funding to the Palestinians or the UN refugee agency. What is clear is that he's playing with fire in the Middle East

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, December 8, 2017.
CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump has been adding his own fuel to the fire that has been ignited with the violent Palestinian response to the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month. In his series of late-night tweets, the president hasn’t spared the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although there appears to be less potential for damage here than Trump’s insistence on playing a Twitter-era version of Dr. Strangelove with his North Korean counterpart, the president is still playing with fire in the Middle East.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s declaration that the United States intends to cut aid the Palestinians, and possibly to UNRWA, the United Nations’ relief agency for Palestinian refugees, is no less worrying to Israel than it is to the Palestinian Authority. Officially, Israel has come out time after time against UNRWA employees’ flirtation with messages supporting terror and the funding the agency provides for the grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees from 1948. In practice, however, the agency is funds educational activities and medical services for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and a sharp cut in its resources could bring thousands of them into the streets to confront the Israeli army.

Moreover, if a war were to break out in Gaza, international organizations would be the only ones that Israel could turn to in order to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the enclave. The Israeli army is being careful to maintain an ongoing working relationship with UNRWA, and recently a senior official from the agency was even invited to speak to a group of top Israeli army commanders to explain the severe state of Gaza’s infrastructure.

Trump’s latest flurry of tweets also expressed disappointment with both Israelis and Palestinians following the Jerusalem recognition announcement. Trump complains that the Palestinians have suspended the peace process in protest (although in practice it has been at a standstill for years) and that Israelis haven't responded to his gesture with a readiness to make concessions to the Palestinians.

Contrary to the hopes of right-wingers who were quick to name city parks and a future train station after the president, it turns out that there are no free lunches from the author of “The Art of the Deal.” He expects Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to respond to the historic achievement in Jerusalem with steps that will advance the ultimate deal that he promised to bring to Israelis and Palestinians.