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Opinion Tillerson prevails over Haley in Palestinian funding debate

President Trump stands with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as they listen to questions from members of the media after their meeting at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., in August 2017. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
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The Trump administration has decided not to cut all U.S. funding for Palestinian refugees, a clear victory for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Haley wanted to eliminate all of the funding as punishment for Palestinian opposition to Trump’s policies. The decision shows that Tillerson still has Trump’s ear, despite their past troubles.

Earlier today, the State Department sent a letter to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) notifying it that the United States will deliver $60 million of assistance for its programs supporting Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank. That’s almost half of the $125 million the United States had been expected to deliver to UNRWA on Jan. 1.

The funding had been on hold while the Trump administration debated the issue internally. Haley had been pushing for a total cut in U.S. funding for UNRWA in response to the Palestinian Authority’s actions following Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement that the United States was officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In late December, Haley said the Trump administration was “taking names” of those who voted in favor of a resolution condemning the move.

Trump tweeted Jan. 2 that unless the Palestinians return to peace negotiations, U.S. aid could be in jeopardy. Meanwhile, the administration was still debating what to do. The State Department, supported by other national security agencies, proposed a partial reduction in UNRWA funding.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley Jan. 2 addressed the Trump administration's stance on Pakistan. (Video: Reuters)

One senior administration official said that while the issue was being debated, Tillerson raised it personally with Trump and secured the president’s agreement to support the State Department’s position. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert declined to confirm that detail but said, “The Secretary has the authority to make the determination on UNWRA funding.”

That’s technically true, but inside the administration it was understood that Trump would make the final call. Tillerson and Trump have had extensive discussions on this topic.

“This shows that we have a secretary of state who is not really wandering around in a Bermuda Triangle with no sense of mission or influence with the president, despite the press coverage,” said Aaron David Miller, vice president at the Wilson Center.

One State Department official who was not authorized to speak on the record concurred.

“Contrary to the ‘sky is falling’ media reports that State is cut out of foreign policy, this shows the opposite is true,” this official said. “While not flashy or concerned about what job he may have later on, the Secretary is focused on his current role.”

That take can be seen as a not-so-subtle jab at Haley, who is viewed by some inside the administration as too quick to announce policies that have yet to be finalized and too politically ambitious.

The U.S. mission to the U.N. and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

The decision over UNRWA funding represents a middle ground between cutting all funding and business as usual. A State Department spokesperson told me that UNRWA should receive the $60 million in a matter of days.

”Without the funds we are providing today, UNRWA operations were at risk of running out of funds and closing down. The funds provided by the United States will prevent that from happening for the immediate future,” the spokesperson said.

The remaining $65 million will be held for future consideration, the spokesperson said, adding that the State Department does believe there is a need to undertake a fundamental review of the way UNRWA operates and the way it is funded. UNRWA was established as a temporary relief program in 1950 and now supports an estimated 5 million registered refugees.

“As across the U.N., the United States should not be asked to bear a disproportionate share of these costs,” the spokesperson said. “It is time other countries, some of them quite wealthy, step in and do their part to advance regional security and stability… It is time for a change.”

Miller said that while an examination of UNRWA is well within the administration’s prerogative, threatening funding for refugees is not likely to get the Palestinians to yield to the Trump administration’s pressure and return to the negotiating table. In fact, it could have negative consequences.

“To reduce the American contribution to UNRWA for the Palestinians’ refusal to engage in a still-nonexistent peace process strikes me as stunningly incompetent,” he said. “If that is the objective, it’s going to fail. And in the process it’s going to inflict needless damage and harm to American and allied interests, Jordan in particular.”

For the immediate future, the risk that emergency aid could be denied to needy refugees has been abated. But the greater struggle over who is making foreign policy inside the Trump administration is still going strong.