U.S Vows to Fund a U.N. Agency For Palestinian Refugees Israeli Leader Wants Shuttered

The Trump administration defies Bibi in hopes of restarting peace talks and averting upheaval.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15:  U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) participate in a joint news conference at the East Room of the White House February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump hosted Prime Minister Netanyahu for talks for the first time since Trump took office on January 20.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) participate in a joint news conference at the East Room of the White House February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump hosted Prime Minister Netanyahu for talks for the first time since Trump took office on January 20. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Trump administration has pledged full funding to an oft-maligned U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees, defying calls by Israel’s Prime Minister and  pro-Israel lawmakers to dismantle it, according to several diplomatic sources.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has privately assured the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, that the United States, which provides more than $300 million to the agency each year, will maintain its current levels of funding to the organization. “America has long been committed to funding UNRWA’s important mission, and that will continue,” said one official at the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

Thomas Shannon, the Undersecretary of State for political affairs, meanwhile, wrote on Aug. 1 to several wealthy donors, including Canada and the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, to cough up more than $100 million to meet a shortfall in funding for UNRWA, according to those diplomats.

The State Department did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The moves run contrary to the administration’s push to rein in spending on U.N. relief programs elsewhere. It reflects growing concern that the imposition of sharp cuts to Palestinian relief programs could thwart the White House campaign to restart Middle East peace talks, and inject further political instability in a region that stands permanently perched on the brink of political upheaval.

It also highlights one of the curious realities of Washington politics: While Israel and its Congressional backers routinely bash UNRWA for what they view as its pro-Palestinian bias, U.S. officials find ways each year to raise hundreds of millions to fund the organization, which provides a range of services to 5 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

“The Israelis are stuck in a position where the only thing worse than supporting UNRWA is not supporting UNRWA and having total chaos in the West Bank or Gaza,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official who served as a member of then Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East negotiating team. “As with all issues involving the Palestinians there is a combination of public railing against UNRWA, with the public reality of continuing to fund it,” he said.

The debate over funding comes at a time when the Palestinian refugee agency is confronting an aid gap of just over $126 million for 2017. With its cash set to run out in September, the agency may have to cut programs for vaccines, diabetes medicine, and sanitation. For the time being, UNRWA is pressing ahead with plans to open its schools for the new year, but they cannot keep them open without more funds.

“UNRWA faces a chronic funding shortfall and in 2015 we almost had to postpone the beginning of the school year for 500,000 students,” Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s chief spokesman., said in a statement “This year our shortfall stands at a $126 million US dollars and urgent action is required to avoid impacting our services.”

Hady Amr, a former State Department official, said UNRWA faces budget shortfalls of $80 to $120 million each year, but that “the funds seemed to eventually arrive” after pressing Canada and the Gulf states to dig deeper in their pockets.

But a Congressional aide that works close with UNRWA said the agency’s financial position is “more precarious than ever.”

“We met with UNRWA and they are very, very worried, and they are seriously facing the prospect of shutting down,” the aid added. “There is a real serious risk that UNRWA will not be able to continue to operate.”

The Trump administration’s embrace of the U.N. refugee program contrasts starkly with its typically tough stance towards the Palestinian Authority.

In one of its first acts on the Middle East, the Trump administration held up $221 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority that had been approved in the final days of the Obama Administration.

Earlier this month, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee signed off on the Taylor Force Act, named after an American national stabbed to death in Israel last year, which would cut assistance to the Palestinian Authority if it continues to make payments to the families of terrorists. The law, however, would have no impact on funding for Palestinian refugees.

At the U.N., Haley has taken an unapologetically pro-Israel position across most fronts, vowing to oppose any action aimed at pressuring Israel to halt the construction of settlements. She also blocked U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres from hiring former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as his top Libya envoy, and later pledged to oppose the appointment of any Palestinian national to top U.N. jobs.

Last month, Haley derailed a push by the Palestinian U.N. ambassador, Riyad Mansour, to press for a vote on a General Assembly resolution that would have secured tens of millions in funding for Palestinian refugees. Shortly before the vote was scheduled to take place she privately threatened to cut some of the more than $300 million in funds the United States gives the Palestinians each year if they went ahead, according to three diplomatic sources. The White House, she argued, is committed to slashing funding, and the move would likely provoke Congress into retaliating against the Palestinians with even steeper cuts.

Mansour, the Palestinian envoy, promptly withdrew the resolution.

An official at the U.S. mission to the United Nations said that while the U.S.  supports continued voluntary funding for UNRWA it opposes the adoption of a U.N. resolution that would legally require it to make contributions. Such a requirement, the official suggested, would undercut U.S. leverage that ensures the money is properly spent. “We will not stand for budget practices that discourage accountability in UNRWA or in any organization in the UN system,” the official said.

But behind her tough talk, Haley has emerged as an unlikely champion of UNRWA. In early June, she paid a high-profile visit to the agency’s Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, where she posted a photo of herself with Palestinian refugees. on Twitter “Had a chance to talk with girls & women about their lives, their hopes, and their dreams,” she wrote.

That same month, she parried attacks on the agency by House Republicans, including Ros-Lehtinen, who asserted the agency was using U.S. taxpayer dollars to incite terrorism. Haley said that, though the United States needed to continue to pressure the relief agency on certain issues, “there is also good that comes out of UNRWA: what they do with schools and healthcare. You do see value in it.”

UNRWA was established nearly seventy years ago, after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, to aid the more than 700,000 Palestinians displaced by the conflict. Today, it provides food, education and other services to for more than 5 million Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, including a corps of more than 30,000 school teachers who serve more than half a million children.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views it as unacceptably cozy with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that refuses to recognize Israel. “I told U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley that it’s time to dismantle UNRWA,” Netanyahu told Likud ministers.

UNRWA is also famously unpopular with Republican members of Congress, who believe that it’s used to incite anti-Israeli violence. “I’ve introduced legislation over the years that exposes problems and offers solutions on UNRWA,” Ros-Lehtinen said at the June hearing. “Particularly the incitement issues, the ties from Hamas to its employees, and the fact that U.S. taxpayer dollars are used to support this violence.”

Still, every year, Republicans and Democrats alike agree to continue funding UNRWA. And Israel, which grants visas and permits to UNRWA workers, has taken no steps to shutter the agency’s operations.

Netanyahu and his U.S. supporters — primarily Republican lawmakers — have floated the idea of having the U.N.’s main refugee organization, UNHCR, take over UNRWA’s duties.

But the proposal, which would require approval by the U.N. General Assembly, has little chance of succeeding. It also faces stiff opposition from the PLO, which maintains that UNHCR is not empowered to help all needy refugees to the same extent. “The mission is quite different,” the Palestinian delegate said. For instance, he added, “UNRWA provides people with jobs and education.”

Despite its historical mistrust of UNRWA, Israel has grudgingly accepted its humanitarian role, which lessens Israel’s burden for providing relief to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as Palestinians refugees spread across the Middle East.

A representative from the PLO Delegation in Washington, D.C. cautioned that sharp U.S. cuts in funding would “hinder” ongoing Middle East peace negotiations led by President Trump’s son-in law, Jared Kushner, and the President’s special envoy, Jason Greenblatt, who has himself visited an UNRWA office in March.  So far, the Palestinian official noted, they haven’t heard from the “very fluid and unpredictable” Trump administration one way or another about plans to reduce UNRWA funding.

Some observers suggested it is unlikely Israel would move to shutter UNRWA’s operations.

Hady Amr, the former State Department official, said while he wouldn’t dismiss the calls for the agency’s closure as mere “bluster,” Israel also needs UNRWA. “It provides critical services,” he said, “without which the West Bank and Gaza would explode.”

Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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