On the last day of August, the U.S. Department of State announced that it would make no additional contributions to UNRWA, the United Nations organization that supports Palestinian refugees and their descendants. The decision comes almost 25 years after the signing of the Declaration of Principles that led to the Oslo peace process in Washington. The decision to end funding for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, doesn’t end the peace process — but it is a clear signal that the Trump administration sees the model that has underpinned decades of discussion about the Palestinians and Israel as fundamentally flawed.
The Trump administration says it wants “a more durable and dependable path towards a brighter future,” but in Israel and the Palestinian territories it is unclear how such a future might arrive.
Members of the generation born in the 1990s, during the height of Oslo when people thought peace and two states were possible, are now in their mid-20s. They’ve been to college, if they were lucky, or they try to find work in the Palestinian territories. Although the Palestinian flag flies from town halls and across cities, there is a feeling that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is not leading them to a state. There haven’t been presidential elections since Mahmoud Abbas was elected in 2005, and people wonder who will replace him.
Yossi Beilin, a former government minister who helped initiate the Oslo peace process, argued on Aug. 28 that dismantling the PA in the wake of U.S. funding cuts could lead to a two-state solution: “A resulting Palestinian decision to dismantle the PA and hand the keys back to Israel could have a vital role in forcing the Netanyahu government to understand the interim arrangement included in the Oslo Accords has a limited shelf life.”
Dismantling the PA also is an agenda of some on the Israeli right who see the PA and organizations such as UNRWA as pushing incitement that leads to terror. The more mainstream view of the current center-right government is to pay lip service to the idea of negotiations, but not actually host peace talks. Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said in April 2014, “We’re ready for negotiations. We’re willing to negotiate in Jerusalem, in Ramallah, New York, London or Vienna. But we need readiness from the other party.”
But Israel’s actual position was underlined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a speech on Aug. 29 commemorating former Israeli President Shimon Peres: “The strong are respected and alliances are made with the strong and in the end peace is made with the strong.” He noted that leading countries in the Arab world, thought to refer to several Gulf states, were in the process of “normalization” with Israel.
Israel is stronger than ever, with its high-tech local industry, a growing economy and advancements every year in missiles and defense technology — much of it in partnership with U.S. funding and support. Yet this strength has not brought a desire for a new push for peace. Fewer than 50 percent of Israelis support the two-state solution.
The Palestinians also are more divided than ever. Not just because the PA’s aging leadership is ossifying and afraid of change, but also because Hamas has run the Gaza Strip since 2006 and appears cemented in its place. A recent discussion about a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Egypt, Washington and Qatar, among others, would allow Hamas to stay in Gaza and potentially even win some concessions. “The Palestinians are more ready to conclude a truce with the Israelis than reconcile with each other,” a recent Al-Jazeera piece concluded.
This is a far cry from the 1990s when Palestinians thought it was only a matter of time before a state would emerge. But the 1990s were a different time. It was the end of the Cold War and countries were exploring new models as democracy began to take root in new places. But then came 9/11 and the chaos of the Arab Spring, the rise and fall of ISIS and a new authoritarianism in the Middle East. Israel and the PA leadership are cautious. Jerusalem prefers the status quo.
The Trump administration wants to end decades of what it sees as failed policies of paying into endless programs such as UNRWA that enshrine refugee status forever. But even if the peace process symbolically is ending, its institutions will remain. One bit of funding the United States isn’t cutting is the $60 million for the Palestinian Security Forces.
Security first. Peace agreement later. Or never.
Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is writing a book on the state of the region after ISIS.