Last week, the State Department confirmed that it was permanently cutting more than $200 million in aid to Palestinians, part of a larger tranche of cuts to foreign aid. The Trump administration is also stepping up its offensive against UNRWA, the U.N. agency that provides aid for millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. There are even rumors that the administration may completely shut down its funding for UNRWA as early as next week.
Trump’s apparent disregard for the plight of Palestinians should be no surprise. Trump has never hidden his affinity for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who welcomed Trump’s election in 2016, endorsed his vision for a wall along the Mexican border and cheered his unraveling of the nuclear deal with Iran. In various meetings, they have hailed their close friendship and like-minded views.
Among those is ambivalence about the prospect of an independent Palestinian state. Key ministers within Netanyahu’s coalition openly oppose the quest for Palestinian statehood, the policy solution long sought by Washington. David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, is an avid supporter of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Prior to his appointment, he wrote columns calling for the end of “the two-state narrative.” Trump’s own signature act on Israel — recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state — is seen by Palestinians as a dismissal of their claims to both East Jerusalem and statehood altogether.
Now the White House is moving to squeeze the Palestinians even further. An investigation by Foreign Policy earlier this month published leaked emails written by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his designated envoys for the peace process. In them, Kushner discloses his desire to undermine, if not wholly dismantle, UNRWA, an institution detested by the Israeli right.
“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,” Kushner wrote in one email, dated Jan. 11. “This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace."
That argument is popular among pro-Israel hawks in Washington and Netanyahu’s supporters in Israel, who see the institutions that define the Palestinian status quo, including UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority, as anti-Israel cash cows. They specifically resent the U.N. agency for giving refugee status to millions of Palestinians who were not expelled from the land that is now Israel but rather born to families who were. Kushner and other Trump administration officials are reportedly seeking to strip such refugees of their status in order to weaken UNRWA’s regional mandate.
“The refugees represent the Palestinian hope of eradicating Israel,” read a Monday column in Israel Hayom, the country’s largest daily newspaper, adding that to “support UNRWA is to fuel the conflict, not help resolve it.”
“Our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are," Kushner wrote in his January email. “Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.”
But “breaking things” would spell real harm for Palestinians. In parts of the occupied territories, UNRWA provides vital medical care and education services. In the West Bank alone, its schools and vocational centers instruct close to 50,000 pupils. In Gaza, close to a half a million Palestinian refugees receive UNRWA food aid.
“Jared Kushner’s attempt to ‘disrupt’ UNRWA by slashing their funding — against the recommendations of the Pentagon, State Department and US intelligence community — is both callous and dangerous," said Dylan Williams of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group in Washington, in a statement earlier this month. “These cuts have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and contributed to instability that, according to Israel’s generals, threatens Israeli security. This is just the latest evidence that the Trump administration is more interested in punitive action against Palestinians than in the serious pursuit of peace.”
And Palestinian officials see the cuts and attacks on UNRWA as an existential assault on the peace process. “This is another confirmation of abandoning the two-state solution and fully embracing Netanyahu’s anti-peace agenda," said Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s general delegation to the United States, to reporters. “Weaponizing humanitarian and developmental aid as political blackmail does not work.”
Indeed, Palestinian leaders have refused to negotiate with U.S. officials since Trump’s decision on Jerusalem. Expectations that other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, would cajole the Palestinians to go along with the Trump plan have dimmed, and Arab officials are voicing their disquiet over Trump’s full embrace of right-wing Israeli positions. “While it is difficult to make peace with one’s enemy, it is impossible to make peace without it,” wrote Jorgen Jensehaugen, a historian of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “The unilateralist peace process has not worked in the past, nor will it work now.”
Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, put it more bluntly in a tweet: “This decision represents a terrible decision by Trump’s team, which seems to think it will put pressure on the Palestinians to come to the table (it won’t)."
Instead, Trump’s pressure campaign could empower extremists, collapse the Palestinian Authority and pose new security risks for Israel, warned Peter Lerner, a former spokesman for the Israeli military.
“While it is Trump’s prerogative to pick and choose whom to support, and how to support them, the ramifications of these abrupt steps will only empower the radicals,” Lerner wrote in Haaretz. “The deal of the century can’t be made with Israel alone, and hardballing the Palestinian into submission is likely to blow up on Israel’s doorstep.”
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