You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee
By Alex Joffe and
Wall Street Journal
September 6, 2018
Dramatic shifts are rare in American foreign policy. One
undeniable example is the Trump administration’s decision last week to cease
funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the main U.N. agency giving
aid to Palestinians. At once a nearly 70-year-old Gordian knot has been cut, but
what comes next?
From Unrwa’s 1949 founding on, each U.S. administration
had ignored the agency’s central role in prolonging the Arab-Israeli conflict.
As we pointed out in our 2013 book, “Religion, Politics and the Origins of
Palestine Refugee Relief,” the U.S. has aimed since the early 1950s to
stabilize Palestinian society through the delivery of aid, providing more than a
quarter of Unrwa’s funding. But the effect has been to foster Palestinian
dependence on foreign support. As the current administration recognizes,
Palestinian elites continue to demand aid even as they fulminate against the
U.S. in every way.
The decision to cut Unrwa’s funding corresponds with the
Trump administration’s broader perspective on foreign policy. Like trade
policy, the U.N. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, President Trump
insists that foreign aid must benefit the U.S. in a more substantial way than
merely sustaining stability. Unrwa does not, and has not. It retards the
development of Palestinian civil institutions and affirms several of the
Palestinians’ self-defeating grievances.
The so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees,
which Unrwa promulgates through its educational and policy organs, bolsters a
sense of disenfranchisement among Palestinians throughout the world. Unrwa’s
definition of “refugees” to include millions who never set foot in British
Mandate-era Palestine runs counter to international law and practice. And in the
long run, the agency’s assumption of duties that ought to belong to the
Palestinian people might slow the emergence of a two-state solution to the
standoff with Israel.
The Palestinian Authority must now overcome its shock and
rage and recognize reality. Reports that they are betting on Democrats’
winning control of Congress in November indicate they are betting on the past.
Even if the Democrats win, they will be unlikely to build enough support to
sustain funding over the president’s veto.
Some members of the U.S. and Israeli defense establishments
also have fretted about the defunding of Unrwa, but their worries are misguided.
They fear that Israel will have to assume responsibility for the education and
health care Unrwa currently provides Palestinians. But in doing so they
underrate the value of President Trump’s commitment to letting developing
nations sink or swim, taking greater ownership of their own social welfare.
Meanwhile the European Union will likely try to replace the
lost funding. But the fiscal problems and local migration crises in European
nations will make it difficult to collect the funds. As with NATO, Iran and
other issues, Europe eventually will follow America’s lead.
To ensure that the new approach is effective, the U.S. must
redirect aid to specific Palestinian institutions—schools, hospitals and other
social cornerstones—with or without the help of the Palestinian Authority. The
total collapse of infrastructure would serve neither Palestinians nor any party
interested in peace.
The next step for the Trump administration is to persuade
Americans of the benefits that will emerge from sidelining Unrwa. The
administration recognizes the ways Palestinian grievances have delayed the
emergence of peace in the Middle East, and it knows American taxpayers are
willing to support countries and causes that further the goal of a peaceful
world. They will not support dependence and anti-American hostility, causes
Unrwa has advanced since its beginning.
This new direction has come at a transitional moment in
Palestinian politics. With reports that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas is in failing health, new leaders will soon emerge to determine the
direction of Palestinian society. In particular, they will have the crucial task
of preventing Hamas from taking control of the West Bank. But if a moderate
democratically elected leader does not emerge, the U.S. should administer aid
directly to various Palestinian cities and regions until viable politics—free
of Hamas and extremism—can be reconstituted.
The onus has been shifted, and previous understandings
swept aside. Israelis must respond with imagination and magnanimity and
Palestinians with the recognition that this is not 1948, 1967 or 1993. The Unrwa
decision is a new opportunity, and Palestinians should embrace it.