U.S. Defends UNWRA Move: Cuts to UN Palestinian Refugee Agency Not Punishment

Tuesday's comments contradict a statement by UN Ambassador Haley two weeks ago which threatened cuts if the Palestinians did not rejoin the peace process

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
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WASHINGTON - The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday that the Trump administration's decision to withhold $65 million from UNRWA, the UN agency aiding Palestinian refugees and their descendants, was "not aimed at punishing" the Palestinian Authority, despite earlier comments made by U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, which suggested otherwise

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Two weeks ago, Haley stated that president Trump wanted to stop funding UNRWA because of the Palestinian Authority's decision to no longer accept his administration as a mediator in peace talks with Israel. At a press conference in New York, Haley implied a direct link between the stalemate in the peace process, and the administration's wish to decrease American funding for UNRWA. "We're trying to move for a peace process," Haley said at the time, "but if that doesn't happen, the President is not going to continue funding that situation." 

On Tuesday, following a decision made by the State Department to withhold $65 million from a payment of $125 million it was planning to forward to UNRWA, the department's spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, offered a different explanation to the funding halt. "This is not aimed at punishing anyone," Nauert said during her daily press briefing. "The United States Government and the Trump administration believe that there should be more so-called burden sharing to go around," she added. 

According to Nauert's explanation, "the United States has been, in the past, the largest single donor to UNRWA. We would like other countries – in fact, other countries that criticize the United States for what they believe to be our position vis-a-vis the Palestinians, other countries that have criticized us – to step forward and actually help with UNRWA, to do more." Nauert compared the decision regarding UNRWA to the Trump administration's push for members of NATO to increase their defense spending: "Just as we have with NATO, asking other countries to provide that 2 percent GDP into its defense, we are asking countries to do more as it pertains to UNRWA." Nauert also said that "I can assure you as a part of our policy, we will be going to different countries and we will ask them to step up to the plate and provide additional money" to UNRWA. 

The decision reached on UNRWA came after internal debate within the administration, in which Haley pushed for a complete halt of U.S. Funding for the agency, while the State Department, led by Secretary Rex Tillerson, pushed for a more moderate line, based on assessments that Haley's suggested policy could lead to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Jordan and other parts of the Middle East. Eventually, the more moderate position prevailed. 

Nauert was also asked during the briefing on Palestinian President Abbas' speech from Monday in which he attacked the Trump administration and explained his decision to cease all contacts with it. "We would like to see a peace process go forward. Weve talked about that a lot," Nauert said. "Thats something thats important to this administration. But we know that tensions and emotions are running high. We would just caution them on some of the language, because wed like to see both sides be able to come to the table and talk."