Turning the tables Part II: US Rejecting the Palestinian right of return, defunding UNRWA

The basis of the Palestinians’ grievance against Israel is their claim to their “right of return” to what was once “Palestine”.  Their demand is claimed not only for the original half-million or so refugees of 1948, but – uniquely for any refugees anywhere in the world – for all of their descendants for all time. It is unique also in that no other refugees anywhere in the world have a right of return to their original land.

As Dr. Einat Wilf tweeted:

This demand has been the stumbling block to any kind of settlement (if you excuse the term) between Israel and the Palestinians, for this “right of return” will, if fulfilled, destroy the State of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish People. In fact, that has been the prime reason for keeping the “refugee” problem alive until this day.

The refugees and their multiple generations of descendants have been supported economically, politically and socially by UNRWA. Again, this is a unique situation. All the other refugees in the entire world are supported by a single UN agency – the UN High Commission for Refugees. Alone among the refugees are the pampered Palestinians who were privileged with their own “private” UN agency.

This absurd situation has perpetuated not only the refugee crisis but the Israel-Palestinian conflict in general – and it would seem that that was the general intention all along.

But finally, with the unlikely figure of Donald Trump in the White House, and the heroic personality of US Ambassador Nikki Haley in the UN, it looks like the tables are beginning to turn.

It all began a few weeks ago, as the BESA Center explains in its article “Is a historic decision on UNRWA imminent?“:

Two weeks ago, Foreign Policy reported that in internal email correspondence, Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, wrote to his colleagues: “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA. This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and does not help peace. Our goal cannot be to keep things stable and as they are… Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.” Earlier this year, the US slashed its contribution to UNRWA by half, signaling its growing displeasure with the agency.

UNRWA was created in 1950 to resettle the 600,000 Palestinians who had been displaced during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. While the Western powers did in fact do everything they could to help the Palestinians rebuild their lives, the Arab world used UNRWA to perpetuate the problem rather than solve it. For the Arab world and the Palestinians themselves, resettling the refugees would have meant making peace with Israel, and that they were not willing to do. To the Arabs, the State of Israel was a grave disruption of the natural order, and the only remedy could be the repatriation of Palestinian refugees – thus turning Israel into an Arab state.

The US supported UNRWA for decades, even though it knew the agency is a disruptive organ that harms the prospects for peace, keeps the Palestinians locked in a trap of dependency, and threatens Israel’s security. UNRWA lists over 5 million Palestinians as “registered refugees” and has long encouraged them to dream that someday they will resettle in Israel. This falsehood – the most significant obstacle to achieving peace – is a euphemism for the Arab desire to completely undo the State of Israel. The US, along with other Western powers, continued to sustain UNRWA all these years as a means of appeasing the Arab world. UNRWA is thus a relic of the Cold War era.

For the past few decades, the West has treated the Arab-Israeli conflict as a territorial dispute. Since the June 1967 war, the prevailing motto was “land for peace,” which meant that in return for territory, Israel would receive peace from its neighbors. An American decision to withdraw from UNRWA would signify that the US believes the dispute to be not territorial but existential. By addressing the core ethos of the Palestinians – that the entire land is theirs, and therefore all “registered refugees” should be entitled to “return” – the Trump administration could make an invaluable contribution to Israel’s security as well as to the prospects for future peace. Only by dealing directly with the intransigent worldview of the Palestinians, as epitomized by the “refugee” problem and the Palestinians’ demand for the “right of return,” will peace be possible in the future.

This would be the first time the Palestinians pay a price for their intransigence. Up to now, they have been encouraged to harden their position every time they refuse a peace deal offered to them by Israel. When they said no to Ehud Barak’s peace proposal at Camp David in July 2000, they received a better offer from Bill Clinton a few months later. When they refused that offer, they were offered another, still better deal by Ehud Olmert in 2007-2008. They refused that offer as well. The inner logic of the peace process until now was that the Palestinians might as well keep on saying no, since doing so brings them better offers.

If Trump pulls all US funding from UNRWA, he will break this twisted logic. The message will be: If you are going to turn down peace proposals, do not expect better ones to follow. Intransigence breeds less negotiating power, not more.

Following this discussion, last week Nikki Haley declared that “we have to look at the right of return”:

WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations questioned on Tuesday the credibility of Palestinian claims to a “right of return” to lands in modern-day Israel, touching on one of the most sensitive topics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian rioters on the Gaza border demand a “right of return” to Israel

Accepting an honor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Nikki Haley was repeatedly asked by Clifford May, the organization’s president, to comment on reports that the administration will soon target the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a body which treats the descendants of refugees from 1940s Mandate Palestine as refugees themselves, by cutting the rest of its funding to the body and challenging its qualifications for refugee status.

Donald Trump and Nikki Haley at the UN in 2017

The Trump administration has already cut much of its funding to UNRWA, and Haley’s response suggests a complete cut is in the offing.

“You’re looking at the fact that, yes, there’s an endless number of refugees that continue to get assistance,” she said. But she said the issue was “bigger” than that. “The Palestinians continue to bash America,” she said, while “they have their hand out wanting UNRWA money.”

“UNRWA can stay there, and we can be a donor if they reform,” Haley continued, declining to endorse a proposal to wrap UNRWA – a refugee body devoted exclusively to the Palestinian cause – into the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. “We will look back at partnering them.”

She called on specific countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, among others – to contribute to UNRWA, noting that the US remains its primary benefactor.

“I absolutely think we have to look at right of return,” she added.

Trump administration officials have declined to comment or push back against reports that they will soon roll out their position on a “right of return,” long criticized by the Israeli government as an attempt by Palestinians to undermine the Jewish nature of the state.

The Times of Israel was more definitive in its report on the issue, and says that the US is to reject Palestinian right of return:

According to the Hadashot TV report Saturday, the US in early September will set out its policy on the issue. It will produce a report that says there are actually only some half-a-million Palestinians who should be legitimately considered refugees, and make plain that it rejects the UN designation under which the millions of descendants of the original refugees are also considered refugees. The definition is the basis for the activities of UNRWA, the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

Employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and their families protest against job cuts announced by the agency outside its offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

The US — which on Friday announced that it had decided to cut more than $200 million in aid to the Palestinians — and has also cut back its funding for UNRWA — will also ask Israel to “reconsider” the mandate that Israel gives to UNRWA to operate in the West Bank. The goal of such a change, the TV report said, would be to prevent Arab nations from legitimately channeling aid to UNRWA in the West Bank.

UN Watch, in a series of tweets about the above BESA Center report, explains how The US is to decide next month whether to discontinue funding UNRWA:

“The US funds one quarter of UNRWA’s $1.2 billion budget. A complete US withdrawal would be a significant step, signaling for the first time in decades that Washington is willing to touch upon the core issue of the conflict: the question of Israel’s existence within any borders.”
“While the Western powers did in fact do everything they could to help the Palestinians rebuild their lives, the Arab world used UNRWA to perpetuate the problem rather than solve it.”
“For the Arab world and the Palestinians themselves, resettling the refugees would have meant making peace with Israel, and that they were not willing to do.”
“To the Arabs, the State of Israel was a grave disruption of the natural order, and the only remedy could be the repatriation of Palestinian refugees – thus turning Israel into an Arab state.”

“An American decision to stop supporting UNRWA would be an announcement that the US understands that the ‘refugee problem’ is a political disguise for the Palestinians’ real aim, which is to dismantle the State of Israel entirely.“
“Removing this disguise would do a huge service not only to the cause of peace but also to the security and future of the Jewish State.”

The Americans have not shut the door on the Palestinians entirely. Nikki Haley assured that the US will work with UNRWA when the number of refugees is corrected:

She confirmed that the United States had cut the budget to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, by more than 82 percent, adding, “We will be a donor if it [UNRWA] reforms what it does … if they actually change the number of refugees to an accurate account, we will look back at partnering them.”

It will be very interesting indeed to see if UNRWA gets its act together and starts to act as a proper refugee agency, issuing a recount of the number of genuine refugees, and stops acting as a branch of the PLO.

Unfortunately, the Europeans, completely missing the point of the American decision, undid most of the good work that the US is trying to do, by jumping into the breach and assuring UNRWA and the Palestinians that they will pick up on the funding where the US left off. Now the question remains how much can Europe, with its floundering economy, afford to give these pampered non-refugees.

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7 Responses to Turning the tables Part II: US Rejecting the Palestinian right of return, defunding UNRWA

  1. Pingback: Turning the tables Part II: US Rejecting the Palestinian right of return, defunding UNRWA – 24/6 Magazine

  2. DavidinPT says:

    It would be interesting if the USA retaliates against the EU making up its reduced contribution to UNRWA by making an equal cut in its finance of the defence of Europe.

    • anneinpt says:

      That would be very interesting indeed. Though I think the US is anyway cutting its European defence costs. Maybe Trump would impose tarriffs etc. Interesting times indeed.

  3. Brian Goldfarb says:

    This is not the first time the whole question of UNRWA and its relationship to the “problem” of the middle east, “refugees” and possible solutions has been aired here. Nor, come to that, the first time that Dr Einat Wilf, former Labor MK and now academic has featured here either. Anne was kind enough to post one of my efforts on this very topic (
    https://anneinpt.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/guest-post-unrwa-not-part-of-the-solution-but-part-of-the-problem/) some 5 years ago (to which she contributed her own pertinent comments).

    Sadly, plus ca change, plus le meme chose…except that the US (sorry, my fingers refused to type the words “the Trump Administration”) has changed the ball game…or perhaps that estimable person, Nikki Haley has, by cancelling its contribution to UNRWA.

    Just what Dr Wilf, Anne and I were arguing for all those years ago.

    Well, that old folk saying “everything comes to he who waits” may just have some potency after all!

    Just wish we didn’t have to wait so long!

    • anneinpt says:

      You’re right Brian. When I look back through my blog it’s scary how many times I have written about UNRWA and its malign influence.

      I have to admit that I am very worried that if a Democrat administration will win the next US elections they might go back on Trump’s decision and reinstate funding to UNRWA. Do you think that could be a possibility? Because US politics have become so terribly partisan, particularly about Israel, that whatever one party does, the other party does the exact opposite. It never used to be like that.

      Some people blame Netanyahu, but, despite being a fan of his (well, I have cooled off a bit but that’s a different subject), I honestly think it’s nothing to do with Bibi. He simply saw the opportunity with a favourable administration and jumped at the chance – and kol hakavod to him.

      • Brian Goldfarb says:

        There’s a very useful to remember aphorism in relation to politics: “never say never!” Say “unlikely”, say “a remote possibility”, say “anything is possible”, even “I would be surprised if…”, just don’t say “never”.

        That said, often when there’s a change of government or administration, some policies don’t get changed back. The electorate have clearly signalled that they like this or that policy a lot, or the incoming politicos realise that, actually, despite their election and/or manifesto promise, the price (financially or politically) is too high.

        For instance, as a man of principle, John McCain voted against reversing the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare” as the Trumpists insisted on calling it) because, as a man of principle or out of a noble view of what was best for most Americans, he realised that ACA did more far more good than anything that might replace it under Trump. And he wasn’t alone.

        It might have helped that Trump had been immensely and appallingly rude about John McCain, American hero and patriot (unlike Trump, he had served, with honour and immense bravery in America’s armed forces, even though the Vietnam war was unpopular among Americans, while Trump invented “foot spurs” to avoid the draft). Note also that McCain & Kerry (leave aside the latter’s part in the Iran deal), who also served in Vietnam, joined forces to normalise relations with Vietnam later and also to make clear their understanding of those who refused to serve on grounds of deep political conviction. This they could understand, but they could never forgive Trump’s, in effect, cowardice.

        Sorry for the diversion: essentially, a future Democratic (which may be nearer than we think, as Trumps possible misdemeanours catch up with him) Administration may decide that this was one of the correct things that Trump (or perhaps Nikki Haley!) did, and quietly let it be.

        Perhaps this comment should be a “cut out and keep” item to see if it actually happens! Remember: “never say never”!

        And I didn’t say a word about Bibi!

      • Brian Goldfarb says:

        I thought I’d added a further comment…clearly not! So, try again, with greater brevity.

        There’s a very useful political aphorism: “never say never”. Say “it’s unlikely that…”, say “I can’t see it happening, but who knows?”, say “stranger things have happened”, say “well, it’s not in [the opposition’s, the other side’s] ideology or their latest policy statement, but who know’s what their thinking?”, just don’t say “never!” Politician’s lose their jobs and their future just for saying” never. One very promising UK Conservative politician lost whatever future he might have had by saying “never” when asked, during the 1950s, when might Cyprus (then a British colony) gain her independence.

        So, will the Trump defunding of UNRWA get reversed? Who knows? However, new governments/administrations sometimes find that, despite their election or manifesto promises, reversing policy X is more expensive (politically, because the voters like it, or financially) than they thought when in opposition. Thus, a Democratic Administration (which might be closer than we think, as Trump’s possible misdemeanours get ever closer to him) might find that they have other, much more “important” issues to deal with than worrying about a “little country far away” (apologies for the plagiarism of a 1938 politician), especially when it has, in part, been solved, at least temporarily, for them.

        Perhaps this should be a “cut out and keep” item to see if my attempt at prophecy is correct!

        And I didn’t mention Bibi once…unlike Anne!

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