By Bryant Harris December 12, 2017
Palestinians have all but abandoned hope in America's willingness and ability to help them obtain their own state following President Donald Trump's unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a televised speech following Trump's Dec. 6 announcement declared that the United States was hurtling toward irrelevancy by giving Israel what it wants without getting anything in return.
“These condemned and unacceptable measures are a deliberate undermining of all efforts exerted to achieve peace," Abbas said, "and represent a declaration of the United States’ withdrawal from undertaking the role it has played over the past decades in sponsoring the peace process."
And Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' main peace negotiator, went one step further by declaring that the search for two states living side-by-side in peace in keeping with UN resolutions dating back to 1974 was "over". Instead, he said, the time has come to "transform the struggle for one-state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine" - one in which Muslims might one day outnumber Jews.
The full repercussions of Trump's decision remain uncertain, with the president and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom Trump has tapped to lead Mideast peace talks, gambling that the Jerusalem move will help rather than hinder the peace process. That largely depends on the Palestinians' next steps; on Aug. 21, Al-Monitor reported that Abbas intended to bypass the United States and Israel by pushing for United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state if the Trump administration didn't commit to a two-state solution and start real negotiations.
Indeed, the Palestinians had grown increasingly concerned about the administration's plans even before Trump's Dec. 6 bombshell. Since the president's election, his administration has repeatedly broken past bipartisan taboos, such as tapping pro-settlement advocate David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel, offering inconsistent support for a two-state solution and threatening to close down the Palestinian Liberation Organization office in Washington.
As a result, Abbas has grown increasingly impatient since meeting with the president in Bethlehem in late May. At an August meeting with Knesset members from Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party, the aging Palestinian leader reportedly complained that he still lacked clarity about the administration’s plans for resuming peace talks despite meeting with US officials 20 times since the November election.
“I don't understand their conduct toward us, as inside his country the administration is in chaos,” Israeli media quoted Abbas as saying.
The PLO’s new envoy to the United States, Husam Zomlot, vented similar frustrations to reporters in mid-August.
“We need them to tell us where the hell they are going,” Zomlot said. “It’s about time we hear it.”
Further complicating matters, Abbas' Fatah party reconciled with the Islamists of Hamas in mid-October in an effort to extend the Palestinian Authority's writ to Gaza. Congress and the White House have been ambiguous about the move, welcoming the chance to rein in the Islamists in Gaza while insisting that Hamas disarm and recognize Israel before a unity government can be considered a partner for peace.
The Trump administration has been equally ambivalent about financial support for the Palestinians.
At a White House meeting with Abbas in early May, Trump noted “the positive ongoing partnership between the United States and the Palestinians on a range of issues — private sector development and job creation, regional security, counterterrorism, and the rule of law — all of which are essential to moving forward toward peace.”
“I also applaud the Palestinian Authority's continued security coordination with Israel,” Trump said. “They get along unbelievably well. I had meetings, and at these meetings I was actually very impressed and somewhat surprised at how well they get along.”
Nevertheless, the State Department is seeking to slash assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip from $364 million to $251 million in its budget request for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, a 31 percent cut over FY 2017’s request. And even that diminished amount would be further constrained by myriad congressional restrictions, including requirements to cut aid by the same amount as the amount of so-called martyr payments paid to the families of Palestinians who are killed or imprisoned in the wake of attacks on Israelis.
Congress now wants to go even further and impound large swaths of nonsecurity assistance until the practice ends.
The House of Representatives voted unanimously in early December in favor of the Taylor Force Act, named after a US Army veteran who was killed in a Palestinian stabbing attack in Tel Aviv last year. The bill would create an escrow fund to set aside the withheld assistance for up to two years.
To push back against congressional pressure and help propel the Trump administration’s peace initiative, the Palestinians paid the PLO delegation to Washington $1.23 million in the 12 months to March 31, 2016, according to the most recent available lobbying filings.
Separately, the Palestine Monetary Authority paid the law firm DLA Piper $638,000 last year to help it comply with anti-money laundering and economic sanctions laws and regulations. The Palestinian Mission to the UN meanwhile has retained the services of the advisory firm International Diplomat, while the PA’s Ministry of Finance hired prominent Washington lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs in 2014 for help “assessing US funding promises to Palestinians to date and helping ensure that such US commitments of financial assistance are fulfilled and received by the PA.”
In the months leading up to the Aug. 3 vote, Squire Patton Boggs conducted a flurry of email exchanges and meetings with key senators and their staff, lobbying disclosures show, including with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn. The bill still passed out of committee overwhelmingly, but its fate on the House and Senate floors remains in question amid concerns that it could harm regular Palestinians and Palestinian security cooperation with Israel.
Meanwhile, despite its proposed cuts to bilateral assistance, the State Department still seeks funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), a frequent target of congressional ire. The budget request asks for $2 billion to fund the UN Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs, which includes UNRWA as well as other UN agencies serving refugees.
Israeli critics and their US allies have long accused the agency of doing too little to stop Palestinian incitement against Israel. The State Department request, however, states that UNRWA “provides education, health care, relief and social services, and emergency assistance to approximately 5.3 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza.”
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