Commentary / Japan

Killing the peace process with kindness

by Kuni Miyake

By the end of August, the Trump administration had decided to stop funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid to Palestinian refugees. Although this could be a second fatal blow to the moribund Middle East peace process, news coverage in Tokyo of this development was insignificant at best.

The U.S. State Department issued a press statement last Friday claiming that the “administration has carefully reviewed the issue and determined that the United States will not make additional contributions to UNRWA” because “the overall international response has not been sufficient.”

“We are very mindful of and deeply concerned regarding the impact upon innocent Palestinians, especially schoolchildren, of the failure of UNRWA and key members of the regional and international donor community to reform and reset the UNRWA way of doing business. These children are part of the future of the Middle East,” it said. “UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years,” and therefore, “the United States was no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden of UNRWA’s costs.”

In 2016, Washington donated $368 million to UNRWA and $350 million in 2017. In January, however, the State Department released $65 million for the agency and announced it was withholding another $60 million that had already been allocated in a budget process for 2018. Now they have stopped all funding. Why?

As a former Arabic language officer and Middle East hand for 27 years in Japanese foreign service, I was simply appalled and could not believe that this decision will lead to a solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more broadly, the Arab/Islam-Israeli disputes in the Middle East.

There is a proverb in Japanese: “Excessive patronage to your favorite person is doing him or her a disservice.” In plain English, this means “killing with kindness.” That’s exactly what the U.S. is doing to the state of Israel, America’s most important ally in the Middle East.

Reportedly, it was Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, who adamantly pursued the decision to cut the funding. Though the above statement referred to a “disproportionate burden” or “failure to reform,” it is widely known that the real motive was to compel Palestinian politicians to drop demands for refugees’ return to their homeland.

Several news reports suggest that the decision was made sometime in August at a meeting between Kushner and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Although the latter seems to have argued against a drastic cut, the former strongly insisted and finally won out. What kind of person does Kushner think is he?

I am deeply concerned. This move, together with the Trump administration’s decisions last December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and this May to consequently move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city, may be killing with kindness America’s favorite state in the Middle East.

Why am I so obsessed with the Middle East peace process? It is because Japan was an indispensable part of it in the past. Many in Tokyo, especially the younger generations, may not believe this, but Japan was one of the most active participants in the multilateral negotiation track for the “Oslo process” in the 1990s.

The process started in 1993 when the “Oslo 1” accord was signed in Washington between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. At that time, I was a young first secretary in charge of the Middle East at the Japanese Embassy in the United States, which was the main promoter of the peace process.

Believe it or not, Japan’s foreign minister was invited, among other key players, to the signing ceremony of Oslo 1, which was held at the White House on Sept. 13, 1993. Oh, boy! It was a logistical nightmare for me to send our foreign minister from Tokyo to Washington at a very short 24-hour notice.

At that time the international community tried to achieve a peace treaty based on U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, while fulfilling the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Japan even chaired one of the working committees in the multilateral negotiations. Those were the good old days.

The Oslo Accord created a Palestinian Authority tasked with limited self-rule over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, the most important issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian right of return, have not been resolved to this day. The process always needed honest third parties to be successful.

That’s why the previous U.S. administrations had kept the embassy in Tel Aviv while generously funding UNRWA to help the Palestinian refugees. Simply put, Washington was determined to remain an honest mediator in the peace process. Those good old days seem to be over.

The Trump administration, or Kushner personally, does not seem to understand the history of the process. Or Kushner may know what he is doing. He said in a leaked internal email that “our goal can’t be to keep things stable and as they are,” and that “sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.”

If that was what he wanted, he is killing Israel with kindness. The economic pressure will not force the Palestinian Authority or Palestinians in general to give up their right of return. On the contrary, the halt to U.S. funding will only convince them that they must fight to the death, since they now have nothing to lose.

In March, Japan’s parliamentary vice foreign minister attended an extraordinary ministerial conference on UNRWA held in Rome. He placed great importance on UNRWA’s activities and announced that Tokyo would contribute $23.5 million to the agency in addition to its regular fiscal 2018 payment.

Killing with kindness is counterproductive. Washington must come back to the peace process as an honest and respected mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. This is the best and probably the only way to secure Israel’s right to exist. Many Israelis seem to be worried about a possible killing with Trumpian kindness.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.