Nikki Haley’s Diplomacy of Revenge Targets U.N. Relief Agency

The United States threatens to pull the plug on hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to the Palestinians.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley cast lone U.S. veto to block resolution on Jerusalem on December 18, 2017, at UN Headquarters in New York. (Ken Betancur / AFP/Getty Images)
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley cast lone U.S. veto to block resolution on Jerusalem on December 18, 2017, at UN Headquarters in New York. (Ken Betancur / AFP/Getty Images)

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, started her diplomatic career as a champion for Palestinian refugees, visiting refugee camps and assuring her U.N. colleagues that she would protect the nearly $300 million in U.S. funding each year that provides schooling for half a million Palestinian children.

Today, she is championing the White House drive to sever the Palestinians’ most vital economic lifeline unless they participate in U.S.-mediated peace talks. The reversal reflects White House resentment over the Palestinians’ decision to put forward resolutions before the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly denouncing President Donald Trump for his Dec. 6 decision to move the U.S. Embassy to the disputed capital of Jerusalem.

Both of those resolutions passed overwhelmingly, reflecting widespread international opposition to the White House decision and personally embarrassing the president. This week, the State Department decided to put on hold more than $100 million in funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that was scheduled to be paid on the first working day of January, according to two diplomatic sources.

Haley, meanwhile, told other U.N. ambassadors that the money will not be forthcoming unless Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — who said Trump’s move on Jerusalem disqualifies the United States as neutral mediator — reverses course and comes to the peace table. She has also fumed about what she described as a “hateful” speech by the Palestinian envoy, Riyad Mansour, before the U.N. General Assembly.

The president, she said, considers the two U.N. votes a personal affront.

Haley argued internally in favor of moving ahead and conditioning humanitarian aid on the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to engage in peace talks, according to well-placed sources. She reasoned it would provide her with additional leverage in her future dealings with countries that voted in the General Assembly against the United States over Jerusalem.

Since that vote, Haley has sought to assure the more than 60 countries that didn’t vote in favor of the Palestinian resolution (eight voted alongside the United States, 35 abstained, and 21 did not vote) that they would receive special treatment from the United States. She started with an invitation to a Jan. 3 “friendship” reception at the U.S. mission to the United Nations. But Haley’s campaign to cut off all financial assistance to the Palestinians is feeding anxiety among other top members of the president’s national security team, who have begun to push back on Haley’s threats.

There is concern that the move against the Palestinians could backfire, feeding greater extremism in the region.

But Haley found dwindling support for her position at an interagency meeting of the National Security Council in Washington Friday, according to a congressional aide. Representatives for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, the Defense Department, and the intelligence community argued for keeping the aid flowing. A representative for Haley was the lone holdout. Lacking consensus, a decision was taken to send the matter back to New York for Haley to reconsider her position. In a peculiar twist, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who supported funding for UNRWA, rejected a request from the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration to release the more than $100 million authorized for UNRWA, the aide said.

But it remains unclear whether Trump and Haley would be prepared to climb down.

Haley has previously told reporters that Trump “doesn’t want to give any additional funding until the Palestinians agree to come back to the negotiation table.”

U.N.-based diplomats were uncertain at the time about what portion of the more than $700 million the United States gives to the Palestinians, including $300 million for UNRWA and hundreds of millions more in development aid through the U.S. Agency for International Development. In subsequent exchanges, Haley informed the diplomats that all of the funds were in jeopardy.

“Only this White House would be so cynical and delusional to think after needlessly inciting the Palestinians’ outrage over Jerusalem, that cutting off aid for Palestinian refugees would force their leaders to negotiate a peace agreement,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Leahy contends that the Israeli military opposes what he characterized as “the White House’s shortsighted bullying tactics.”

UNRWA, he added, “has been consistently supported by Democratic and Republican administrations, provides healthcare, education, and other basic services to vulnerable refugees — men, women, and children, many of them hosted by Jordan and other U.S. allies — whose alternative is joining extremist groups like ISIS.”

UNRWA was created nearly 70 years ago, after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, to assist the more than 700,000 Palestinians displaced by the conflict. Today, it provides food, education, and other services 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.

Last year, Haley assured UNRWA that the United States would maintain current levels of funding for its operations. On Aug. 1, Thomas Shannon, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, wrote to several wealthy donors, including Canada and the Persian Gulf states, and appealed for more than $100 million to meet a gap in the agency’s funding.

As late as last month, Haley was still touting Washington’s support for the agency. On Dec. 18, she cited Washington’s generosity to UNRWA in a Security Council speech defending her veto of a Palestinian-backed resolution that called on the White House to rescind its decision move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The United States, she noted, voluntarily contributes more than 30 percent of the organization’s budget to operate schools and medical facilities throughout the Middle East.

“I have been to the Palestinian refugee camps the United States supports with their contributions,” she said. “I have met with men, women, and children. I have advocated on their behalf.”

For years, the relief agency has enjoyed bipartisan political support from key congressional leaders, and Israeli security officials have viewed it as a necessary, if not always beloved, provider of services for Palestinians. Israel, which grants visas and permits to UNRWA workers, has taken no steps to shutter the agency’s operations.

The relief agency, however, has been the target of growing criticism by pro-Israel conservatives and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who considers it too sympathetic to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group. In remarks to Likud ministers in the summer, Netanyahu said he had advised Nikki Haley that “it’s time to dismantle UNRWA.”

Ilan Goldenberg, a top advisor to former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said this is not the first time that funding has been put on hold. In the past, he recalled, pro-Israel critics would stall the funds to protest some action by the Palestinian side.

But inevitably, over time, “things would calm down and the Israelis would come to the Americans and say, ‘You know, it would be a really good idea if you just gave them the money.’”

The Trump administration is different, he added. “And Nikki Haley is fairly on a bender on this one.”

This story has been updated.

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

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