Senate Republicans think they’ve found a powerful way to hobble President Obama's participation in international climate diplomacy through the decades old Israel-Palestine conflict.
More than two dozen GOP senators told the Obama administration this week it has to cut off the hundreds of millions in contributions to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund.
Their argument is that 1994 law prohibits any United States money from going to a UN agency that recognizes as a member a country that isn’t recognized as a sovereign state.
The law targeted the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian territories that are not recognized as a country by the United States.
Palestine is now a member of the UNFCCC, which Republicans argue should result it an end to U.S. funding to the group.
“The administration needs to obey the law, and we’re going to do everything we can to enforce it,” said Sen. John BarrassoJohn BarrassoPoll: Sanders most popular senator in the US The animal advocate Trump climate move risks unraveling Paris commitments MORE (R-Wyo.), who led 27 lawmakers in the letter to Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryEllison comments on Obama criticized as 'a stupid thing to say' 'Can you hear me now?' Trump team voices credible threat of force Obama to attend Pittsburgh Steelers owner's funeral MORE. “If the administration wants to continue to act in a lawless way, we’ll do everything we can to make sure they actually follow the law.”
For Republicans, the new climate offensive has at least two goals.
It allows them to portray Obama as weak on Israel, and as wasteful of taxpayer dollars.
Palestine is recognized by more than 130 countries, but major world powers including Canada, Australia and most of western Europe do not recognize it as a state, nor does Israel. It also is not a UN member.
The State Department said that while it opposes Palestine’s membership in the UNFCCC, it doesn’t believe that that triggers a withholding of funds, since UNFCCC is not a UN agency.
“The UNFCCC is a treaty, and the Palestinians’ purported accession does not involve their becoming members of any UN specialized agency or, indeed, any international organization,” State spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
“Further, we do not believe that it advances U.S. interests to respond to Palestinian efforts by withholding critical funds that support the implementation of key international agreements, which could undermine our ability to pursue important U.S. objectives,” he said. “Specifically, cutting off funding for the UNFCCC, would deal a blow to our efforts to promote global action to address climate change.”
The policy regarding UN funds is, in part, an effort to stop Palestine from trying to seek international recognition through UN means, instead of through the negotiations with Israel.
Obama has cut off funding to United Nations entities in the past over the Palestine issue.
In 2011, he cut off funding to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) just after it admitted Palestine as a member, citing the 1994 law. The United States had provided about a fifth of the agency’s funding.
Since then, the administration has pushed Congress to restore funding.
Groups opposed to Obama’s climate change efforts and last year’s international deal in Paris are applauding the move.
Myron Ebell, who leads the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), said the GOP’s efforts could dismantle the Paris agreement.
“We want to have the whole thing collapse and be found by future generations in the dustbin of history,” said Ebell, whose group is backed in part by the fossil fuel industry.
Since poor countries are counting on hundreds of billions of dollars in the Green Climate Fund to help them cut emissions and adapt to climate change, Ebell thinks the whole agreement will fall apart if the United States can’t contribute.
“I hope that we can somehow figure out how the 1994 law can be enforced and we can defund it now, which will, I believe, quickly cause the implosion of the Paris agreement,” he said.
Democrats in Congress have sided with Israel over Palestinian statehood, but have been dismissive of the climate arguments.
“It’s not new, in the sense that it is a continuation of a ridiculous pattern of throwing anything against the wall and seeing what might stick,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “They are really at the end of the of the line in terms arguments against climate action.”
Sen. Ben CardinBen CardinLawmakers talk climate for Earth Day, Science March Live coverage: March for Science rally is underway Dems outraged over Spicer's Holocaust remarks MORE (D-Md.) was sympathetic to the arguments that the United States should enforce its position that Palestine is not a nation, but he thought the GOP was going too far.
“I am supportive of, not necessarily taking all of the funds, but taking action where there is a recognition of an entity as a state that’s not a state. If that’s the case, then there could be consequences,” said Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
“As far as the Green Climate Fund, I think that’s a stretch.”
Eugene Kontorovich, a professor of international law at Northwestern University School of Law, said the argument could put the Obama administration in a tough spot.
“The president is committed to climate change, and the president is also opposed to Palestinian unilateral statehood efforts at the UN, and the U.S. clearly does not regard Palestine as a state, per its official stated foreign policy,” said Kontorovich.
He said it’s well established that the executive branch has the sole authority over foreign relations questions like whether or not to recognize a nation. But laws like the 1994 one use money to enforce policies, something Congress can clearly do.
“It would be a step beyond anything that’s been done before for the administration to ignore this provision, because it’s the power of the purse,” Kontorovich said.