Trump Unlikely to Carry Out Threat to Cut US Aid to Palestinians

Gregory Aftandilian

Despite threatening to cut aid to the Palestinians in response to their sharp criticism of his decision on Jerusalem, US President Donald Trump may not carry through with it because of opposition from an unlikely source: Israel.
Trump’s style as a businessman was to hit back hard whenever he was challenged. In practice, this meant filing counter lawsuits whenever someone sued him and relentlessly attacking those standing in his way.
He has taken this practice to the international political arena, most notably after UN Security Council and UN General Assembly resolutions that condemned his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley threatened to cut aid to countries that voted against the US decision — the overwhelming majority of countries in the world.
Trump, however, had special ire against the Palestinians, who not only criticised his decision on Jerusalem but declared that, because of it, Washington could no longer be considered an honest broker in the peace process.
Some Trump administration officials said they expected a “cooling off” period in the peace process following the Jerusalem decision but seemed surprised by the ferocity of the criticism.
Long-time adviser to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat stated: “So, Mr Trump, your art of the deal. What’s left to negotiate? You are moving from negotiating to dictating and then you are threatening us if we don’t accept your dictations.”
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “Jerusalem and its holy places are not for sale, not with gold nor silver.”
What added fuel to the fire was that not only was Trump’s decision on Jerusalem praised by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his right-wing cabinet but a law was passed that would make any future Israeli decision on Jerusalem subject to a supermajority (80 votes out of 120) in parliament. The measure allowed for the reconfiguration of the boundaries of Jerusalem to possibly exclude Palestinian neighbourhoods.
In response to Palestinian anger, Trump threatened in a Tweet: “We pay the Palestinians millions of dollars a year and get no respect. With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
The amount of US aid to the Palestinians was about $650 million in 2016, including funding of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Palestinian administration and security forces and US Agency for International Development (USAID) projects. While the amount pales in comparison to the more than $3 billion the United States gives Israel annually, Trump’s tweet stirred debate within Israel itself.
Many Israeli security officials said that a cut-off of US funds for the Palestinians would do more harm than good because it would weaken the PA, giving extremists a victory. An unidentified Israeli security official told the Washington Post that cutting US aid would “end up making the Palestinian leadership even weaker” and added that, if the Palestinian Authority collapses, “then there really would be no one to talk to or rely upon.”
While some Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, want the United States to stop funding UNRWA, others said this would result in Israel having to pick up the very costly tab for Palestinian humanitarian assistance. While UNRWA has come under criticism from right-wing Israelis for allegedly allowing some of its schools in Gaza to be used by Hamas, many Israeli security officials said UNRWA schools in Gaza act as a counter-balance to the group.
Because of these pitfalls, Israeli analyst Moshe Maoz warned that, if the United States cuts aid to the Palestinians, “it would be catastrophic.” Israeli opposition politician Tzipi Livni said the Israeli government should “explain to [Trump] what the real Israel interest is.”
Trump’s Jerusalem decision and the anti-US backlash among Palestinians are jeopardising US programmes in the West Bank. Palestinian NGOs are under public pressure not to participate in USAID projects and many are refusing to meet with US project managers. One Palestinian NGO leader acknowledged to the Guardian that his organisation could no longer cooperate with the US aid agency because it “puts us in an awkward position.”
Although Trump is unlikely to reverse his Jerusalem decision, as he is loath to admit he made a mistake, he may not go forward with his threat to cut aid to the Palestinians given the myriad of problems it would entail. Because the US Congress has the ultimate say on foreign aid and many of its members are sensitive to the concerns of Israeli security officials, Trump may not be able to cut the aid even if he wants to.
Gregory Aftandilian
is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former US State Department Middle East analyst.
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