The Trump administration insists that it has a plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But prospects for “the ultimate deal,” as U.S. President Donald Trump calls it, are rapidly dwindling as Palestinians lose faith in the United States as an honest broker for peace. A series of decisions that favor Israel, the most recent being the termination of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for Palestinians, have convinced Palestinians that the U.S. seeks to impose an unfair deal on them.
Every U.S. administration has a special relationship with Israel, but Palestinians suspected that the Trump administration’s tilt toward Israel was unique. Its ambassador to Israel is a right-wing Israel advocate who has dismissed the “two-state solution” — a cornerstone of peace negotiations for decades — as “a suicidal peace.” Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the architect of the administration’s peace plan, has long supported right-wing settlers as well. And the president himself has been assiduously courted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who sees in Trump an ally and partner whose views of Middle East dynamics match his own.
Concerns crystalized last year when Trump declared that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. That city is claimed by Israelis and Palestinians as their capital and its disposition was considered a piece of the peace puzzle that would be determined in the final stages of negotiations. Trump’s move removed a big bargaining chip and he got no reciprocal concessions from Israel. In response, Palestinian leaders cut ties with the U.S. and have not met with negotiators since then.
U.S. frustrations have mounted in turn. The administration objects to how the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the organization dedicated to helping address the Palestinian refugee problem, defines a refugee, arguing that it should only include those alive from when the agency was created 70 years ago. They also charge that aid creates a culture of dependency, ignoring the second-class status these people endure.
The administration has also been infuriated by the Palestinian call for the International Court of Criminal Justice (ICC), to which the U.S. does not belong, to investigate and prosecute Israel for alleged war crimes. The ICC has been a bete noir of U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and that suggestion was more fuel on the fire of U.S. grievances against the Palestinians.
Finally, the Trump administration has been angered that U.S. aid and support has not bought it deference. Trump tweeted early in the year that Palestinians receive “HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year” from the U.S. and yet show no “appreciation or respect.”
These complaints culminated in decisions last month to cancel most aid and assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The administration has cut $200 million for Palestinian development and humanitarian projects, $300 million that it gave to UNRWA, and $25 million that it gave to Jerusalem hospitals providing Palestinians with medical care. As a final blow, the Trump administration announced earlier this month that it would close the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington, because of the Palestinians’ failure “to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel,” and the refusal of the PLO leadership to engage in a U.S. peace plan “they have not yet seen.”
The Palestinian response was unbowed. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the U.S. was using “collective punishment” along with “sanctions and blackmail to make our people surrender.” Hanan Ashrawi, a leading Palestinian activist and legislator, agreed that the U.S. had resorted to “cheap blackmail as a political tool,” and warned that “The Palestinian people and leadership will not be intimidated and will not succumb to coercion.”
To its credit, Japan has stepped up to try to fill the gap. In May, Japan offered $10 million in aid to Palestinian refugees affected by the conflict in Syria. It has since agreed to provide another ¥600 million to the UNRWA Gaza food assistance program, which will provide nearly 100,000 Palestine refugees in Gaza with basic supplies such as wheat flour, beans and sunflower oil. This is the seventh consecutive year that Japan has contributed to that program. In fact, Japan has been one of the seven top donors to the UNRWA, contributing $43.3 million in 2017 alone. That is a start, but nothing more. Those donations are a drop in the bucket when the U.S. has provided more than a third of the UNRWA budget.
The real problem is that the Palestinians have lost faith in the U.S. as an honest broker. Trump’s version of “the golden rule” — “he who has the gold makes the rules” — is no foundation for lasting peace. The U.S.’s special relationship with Israel is a means to ensure that Israel feels comfortable with making concessions and knows that its security will always be assured. It is not a reason to take sides and impose an unequal peace. The U.S. believes that it can force the Palestinians to make a deal. History suggests that it will be proven spectacularly wrong.
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