After US rebuke, Palestinian Authority could face deluge

At risk of losing American aid, the Palestinian leadership must make some tough decisions.

By CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE
January 6, 2018 06:40
After US rebuke, Palestinian Authority could face deluge

A Palestinian woman takes part in a protest against possible reductions of the services and aid offered by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in front of UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City August 16, 2015.. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM)

"Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the state of Palestine and it is not for sale for gold or billions," a spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas affirmed; this, just hours after US President Donald Trump threatened to cut-off aid to the PA.

The latest dust-up between Washington and Ramallah is part of an ongoing feud that erupted in the wake of the former's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. In response, Abbas effectively disqualified the US from its traditional role as mediator of the peace process and directed PA officials to boycott their American counterparts.

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While the White House had remained relatively quiet, seemingly hoping for the anger to blow over, President Trump weighed-in this week, tweeting that the US' investment in the Palestinians—some $300 million in direct assistance per year—has been "for nothing" as it garnered "no appreciation or respect.

"They don't even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel," he continued, "[so] why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"

The comments echoed those of US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who earlier had warned of a funding cut-off to UNRWA—an international body that supports Palestinian refugees but which also employs a huge number of civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—should the PA refuse to engage in peace talks. In 2016, Washington was the organization's biggest donor, contributing more than $350 million.

This all comes against the backdrop of Congress' recent passage of the Taylor Force Act—named after an American citizen murdered in a Palestinian terror attack in Israel—which would substantially reduce US aid to the PA if it continues paying monthly stipends to Palestinian prisoners or to the families of those killed in confrontations with Israeli security forces.

The potential repercussions to the cash-poor Palestinian Authority if its leadership continues along its current path in the estimation of the American administration is arguably catastrophic. Coupled with unfulfilled pledges of support from its Arab neighbors and foreign donors opting to fund organizations directly rather than through the PA in order to circumvent possible corruption, it could spell a financial meltdown.

Dr. Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli minister and one of the initiators of the Oslo peace process, believes that neither the U.S. nor the PA have made final decisions on a particular course of action. "I don't think Abbas has of yet chosen how to proceed and Trump does not know where this may lead. It could be a game of chicken," he elaborated to The Media Line, "as we are dealing with the most unpredictable US president in history, but if the threats are implemented it might induce the Palestinian Authority to dissolve itself."

This would effectively turn back time to the early 1990s, when Israel maintained full civilian and military control over the West Bank, which it conquered in the 1967 war. Such a scenario has its own inherent risks, though, including the prospect of a third Intifada, or popular uprising, breaking out to counter further entrenchment of what the Arab world bitterly calls, “the occupation.”

Moreover, if the PA were to collapse it would leave the door open for Hamas to step-up the pace of its designs on domination of the West Bank in addition to its rule over the Gaza Strip.

In Dr. Beilin's estimation, however, "the Palestinian public would definitely prefer this situation, as there is no longer any support for Abbas. The PA anyways has existed for too long, as it was only supposed to be a transitional body created by an interim agreement. At the end of the day," he stressed, "if such a decision is taken in response to the end of American aid it might be very healthy."

According to Dr. Einat Wilf, a former Israeli parliamentarian who served on the foreign affairs and defense committee, the White House may be serious about cutting financial ties to the PA.

"Of the two leaders, I would bet on Trump to follow through with his threat as his personality does not take kindly to negative behavior. Also," she continued, "Trump is completely willing to break with all historical manners of doing things and the Palestinians are not used to this. Whenever they used to play the insulted teenager everyone would run after them."

For her part, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee, confirmed to The Media Line that Abbas is likewise "dead serious, without a doubt, about excluding the US from the peace process, as he will not accept pressure from Washington, which is unacceptable.

"The American move," she expounded, "is humiliating for the Palestinians as it presumes we are for sale, so there is a national consensus to not cave to any threats."

Ashrawi revealed that the Palestinian Authority is currently in talks with other donor countries around the world "with the aim of establishing a security network for the Palestinian economy. We do not want one single country to mediate the peace process anymore," she explained, "as Trump used this leverage against us and dealt with negotiations as if he were in a market. We want a group of countries to be involved as we will not put ourselves in this position again."

For its part, Israel has already made clear that it will not engage in any diplomatic initiative that disregards the US. So, while the position of "honest broker" comes with a modicum of prestige, any third-party nation assuming a more central role in the negotiations would essentially be plunging into the deep end of a process that will likely continue to be marred by high-profile failures and cyclical violence, as it has for over two and a half decades.

Further complicating matters for the PA is the ongoing rapprochement between the Jewish state and Sunni Muslim countries—who are also allied with Washington—stimulated primarily by a shared desire to curb Shiite Iran's expansionism and potential nuclearization. This was brought into stark focus after President Trump's Jerusalem announcement, when nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia were criticized in some circles for not issuing stronger condemnations.

Riyadh, in particular, reportedly has gone as far as threatening to see Abbas removed from office if he rejects the White House's in-the-works peace plan, which is expected to deviate significantly from long-held Palestinian positions. Thus, it is unlikely that the usual regional suspects will be anxious to isolate the US or fill the financial vacuum in the event Abbas and, in turn, President Trump, hold firm.

Nations such as France and Germany could increase their contributions to the Palestinians, but there appears to be limits to the willingness of European countries to sideline Washington, as evidenced by French President Macron's reported refusal to recognize a Palestinian state following the Trump Jerusalem declaration despite a personal request from Abbas.

The wild cards, then, are Moscow and Beijing, both of which have offered to assume a greater role in the peace process, thereby serving their joint interest of counterbalancing Washington's supremacy in the Middle East.

"China is the only real potential replacement for US ," Dr. Beilin contended to The Media Line, "as Russia does not have the money and the Arab countries do not pay their pledges and the Palestinians are sick and tired of this. However," he qualified, "the Chinese are probably not ready to assume such a role."

Dr. Wilf agrees that "Russia does not have much of an interest in the peace process and the Arabs have less concern than in the past. China and India are not relevant allies in this context. If the Palestinians realize they are alone," she added, "[they] will be forced to ditch their maximalist demands and accept the existence of a Jewish state while forgetting about the right of return. Only when they do this can they emerge from the bind that they are in."

Overall, then, Washington may be unique in its ability to sustain both the financial cost of supporting the Palestinians and the diplomatic cost of sustaining repeated failures to broker a peace agreement.

And while its special relationship with Israel is often blamed for impeding the negotiating process, most observers see virtually no chance that Jerusalem is prepared to make the territorial concessions necessary to clinch a deal without security guarantees from Washington.

Accordingly, it is unlikely that any nation other than the United States could bring the sides close to an accord. The ball now appears to be in the Palestinians' court, an empowering position for Abbas, albeit somewhat paradoxical, given his back is against the wall.


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