A month ago, when President Donald Trump announced that the US would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there from Tel Aviv, he explained that this move “marked the beginning of a new approach to [the] conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
“When I came into office, I promised to look at the world’s challenges with open eyes and very fresh thinking,” Trump said. “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past. Old challenges demand new approaches.”
Well, one of his new approaches was on full view in two tweets he posted regarding the Israeli-Palestinian
impasse, and it could be summed up in one phrase: There are no free lunches.
US threatens to withhold aid cash to Palestinians, January 3, 2018 (Reuters)
“It’s not only Pakistan that we pay billions of dollars to for nothing, but also many other countries, and others,” he tweeted.
“As an example, we pay the Palestinians hundred of millions of dollars a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?” There were two key points in that tweet.
The first was that Washington – with a businessman as its president – wants to see a bang for its buck.
Or, to quote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign slogan from 1996 regarding the Palestinians, “If they give, they’ll get; if they don’t give, they won’t get.”
But unlike Netanyahu, whose slogan was a demand for reciprocity in negotiations and concessions, Trump – in return for the more than $730 million last year that the US earmarked for the Palestinians through payments to UNRWA and USAID projects in the territories – was not asking for any huge concessions, but rather for “appreciation,” and “respect,” and for the Palestinians to not slam the door on negotiations.
Following the Jerusalem announcement last month, the Palestinians were pointedly denying Washington all three.
Trump’s tweet was a signal that the rules had changed, and that – unlike in the past where US aid to the Palestinians continued uninterrupted regardless of what they did or how they acted – now there were strings attached. He’s a businessman, after all, and wants to see a return on his investment.
That return was nowhere to be found over the last few weeks when the Palestinian leadership, led by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, spoke of Trump and the US in a way that would have shaken the world had Netanyahu dared speak in a similar matter about former president Barack Obama during the heat of their disagreements over Iran and the settlements.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley foreshadowed Trump’s Twitter message on December 18 when she explained the American veto of a Security Council resolution slamming the US for its Jerusalem move.
“The United States has done more than any other country to assist the Palestinian people. By far,” she said. “Since 1994, we have given over $5 billion to the Palestinians in bilateral economic assistance, security assistance, and humanitarian assistance.”
And that is independent of the $4.1b. the US has given during that same time period to UNRWA, which operates in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
With this tweet, Trump put the Palestinians on notice that this aid was not guaranteed forever. He also brought the issue to the attention of his 45.7 million Twitter followers.
What is not clear, however, is whether this is just rhetoric, or something that will indeed be followed up with concrete action. Trump also said he would be cutting aid to countries that voted against the US in the UN General Assembly vote a month ago on Jerusalem, but so far there has been no sign of how, or if, that will play out.
The second revelatory point in that tweet had to do with Israel – and it was also the same message that he sent to the Palestinians: No free lunches.
Tweeting is not a medium that allows for a lot of explanation.
The Middle East is a complicated place, and it is not going to be possible – in the 553 characters Trump used spread over two tweets – to fully explain one’s thinking.
As a result, Trump’s words – “We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more” – has raised more than a few eyebrows.
What did the president mean when he said that Jerusalem is now off the table? During his announcement of the move he made it clear that recognition of Israel as a capital did not prejudge any final-status issues.
And, what in fact did he mean by saying that Israel would “have had to pay more?” Immediately after his announcement about Jerusalem, questions were raised about what Israel would be asked to pay in return. The refrain from the government and the Trump administration was fairly consistent: that there was no quid pro quo, and that the US did not take this step with the hope of getting anything in return from the Israelis, but rather because it was simply “recognizing reality.”
Trump’s tweet revealed, however, that this was not entirely the case, and that his expectation was that this move – so important for Israel – created leverage over Netanyahu, and that Israel would be expected to “pay for it.”