Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Trump’s bear hug risks crushing Israel

September 11, 2018 at 3:08 PM

A Palestinian refugee waits on Sept. 1 for a medical check at a U.N.-operated health center at the Asker refugee camp in the West Bank. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)

National security adviser John Bolton made headlines on Monday with his blistering attack against the International Criminal Court. But “Bolton attacks ICC” is a dog-bites-man story if there ever was one. Bolton has been on a tear against the ICC since its inception, and his blood-curdling threats against nations that cooperate in investigations of U.S. troops are more of the same. In substantive terms, though, his objections were already codified in the 2002 American Service-Members’ Protection Act, which went so far as to authorize military force to free any U.S. personnel held by the court.

Sadly, this only confirms what we already knew: The Trump administration, which has already pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, has jettisoned U.S. commitment to international law. The United States, once the linchpin of the international system, is turning into a rogue state.

Of greater immediate consequence is the fact that Bolton announced the closing of the Palestine Liberation Office mission in Washington, ostensibly in retaliation for “Palestinian attempts to prompt an ICC investigation of Israel.” The Trump administration thereby takes a giant step back from the Oslo Accords, which resulted in formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Palestinian Authority.

This is simply the latest Trump assault against Palestinians. On Aug. 31, the administration cut all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which operates 677 schools educating 515,260 Palestinian students, 143 health facilities with 8.8 million annual outpatient visits, and a Social Safety Net program, composed of food and modest cash stipends, that serves 292,000 people. The United States was UNRWA’s biggest donor last year, contributing $368 million, more than a quarter of the agency’s budget.

The end of support for UNRWA was followed by a cut-off of $200 million that the U.S. Agency for International Development had provided for infrastructure projects — such as roads, sewers, and electrical lines — that employ thousands of people in the West Bank. This week, the administration even cut off $25 million for hospitals in East Jerusalem that provide the most advanced medical care to Palestinians in the West Bank. The only funding President Trump hasn’t eliminated is $60 million for the Palestinian security forces.

These are far more meaningful — and destructive — moves than the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which I supported. Top Trump aides such as Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt — veterans of the real estate industry whose ignorance of the Middle East is vast and invincible — will no doubt cite this as evidence of how pro-Israel they are. And in a certain respect, it is true: The governments of Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tied together by major donors such as Sheldon Adelson, are more closely linked than any previous Israeli and American governments in history. But Trump’s bear hug risks crushing Israel.

Israeli security officials are worried that, if the Palestinian Authority doesn’t provide basic social services to the population, then the far more radical Hamas could fill the gap. Or, maybe, no one will fill the gap and young Palestinians, utterly devoid of hope and opportunity, will launch a third intifada.

Retired Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, a former chief of staff for the Israeli Defense Forces, calls UNRWA “a despicable organization perpetuating the right of return and engaging in anti-Israeli propaganda” but also says that simply cutting it off will “lead to a vacuum Hamas will exploit in its favor.” A former spokesman for the IDF, retired Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, tweeted: “There are many problems with @UNRWA, but cutting financial support to the organization hurts the weakest members of Palestinian society and is unlikely to bring the Palestinian Authority to the table.” And retired Col. Grisha Yakubovich, who once worked in the unit overseeing the Palestinian territories, told Foreign Policy: “It’s clear to me that there will be a storm and [these steps] may lead to a wave of terror.”

What these Israeli military leaders realize is that security cannot be guaranteed by security forces alone — unless, perhaps, you are willing to turn the entire country into a North Korea-like police state, which isn’t an option for a liberal democracy such as Israel. To avoid unrest, you have to provide jobs and basic services to the population. You have to offer some hope of a better life. That is, in fact, a central tenet of the counterinsurgency strategies that U.S. commanders implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran realizes the same thing, which is why it has poured money into social services in countries such as Iraq and Lebanon to extend its influence. Trump and his Middle East team don’t get it.

They also don’t understand that the Palestinian Authority, for all its problems, is vastly preferable to any conceivable alternative. Yes, it is corrupt and undemocratic and, yes, it engages in anti-Israel propaganda. But, far from sponsoring terrorism against Israel, the Palestinian Authority is working closely with Israel to squelch terror. In May, after the U.S. Embassy relocation, thousands of Gaza residents tried to storm the Israeli border fence, resulting in 62 fatalities. There were no such attacks in the West Bank, because the Palestinian Authority worked there to prevent them. By gratuitously insulting and defunding the most moderate Palestinian faction, Trump is opening the door to the radicals. That’s a Rosh Hashanah present Israel could do without.


Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right."

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