New Trump cuts deepen Israeli-Palestinian conflict's intractability

Trump wants to push the Palestinians to the table, but peace appears more distant than ever

Palestinians pass by the gate of an UNRWA-run school in Nablus in the occupied West Bank August 13, 2018. Picture taken August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini
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After the Jerusalem embassy move, deep cuts to the UN agency that serves Palestinian refugees and a visit to the region by US Vice President Mike Pence that Ramallah snubbed, it appeared that US-Palestinian relations had hit an all-time low.

But those ties went into freefall again on Friday as Washington cut a further $200 million in aid to the West Bank and Gaza to redirect that money and "address high-priority projects elsewhere", the US State Department said. The slashing of funds, which now totals more than $500 million this year alone, have not only left the Palestinians more isolated than ever but threaten to increase the intractability of the conflict that has raged for seven decades.

US President Donald Trump had come into office promising to live up to his dealmaker reputation and strike the “impossible” agreement that could end years of bloodshed, turmoil and acrimony. But, in the eyes of the Palestinians, his actions have only deviated from his words.

The man that believes he can get what he wants through unilateral and punishing moves on the world stage – be it trade war with China or sanctions on Iran – appears to have picked the wrong strategy if he truly wants to cajole the Palestinians to the table.

If the billionaire believes that recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, cutting Palestinian aid and squeezing the life out of those who rule in the West Bank and Gaza will make them more willing for concessions to the Israelis, he may find he is sorely mistaken.

At a rally on Tuesday, Mr Trump said Jerusalem was off the table but that something “very good” would await them if they abandoned their claim to Jerusalem. For Palestinian leaders, this would represent political suicide.

The latest cuts have again shown them that the American leader does not appear to be serious about peace but, as Ramallah’s ambassador in Washington called it, “anti-peace”.

Behind the scenes on Capitol Hill, Mr Trump’s team of Middle East advisers, son-in-law Jared Kushner and envoy Jason Greenblatt, are crafting what they say is the ultimate peace deal. But neither side wants it.

In the middle of his Lithuania trip, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he does not “see any urgency on the matter” when asked about the plan. Palestinians have publicly said they do not care what Mr Trump has to offer, although privately they are at least interested to see what Washington’s idea of peace looks like.


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Mr Kushner is spearheading the shaping of that very plan, but in emails leaked last month, he spoke of a deliberate effort to “disrupt UNRWA”. That disruption cost hundreds of already-impoverished Palestinians their livelihoods. In a moment of despair, one man who had his Gaza contract nixed tried to set himself on fire, only stopped by his colleagues who were on hand to save his life. The latest missile to the Palestinian cause, by denying them millions in aid, appeared to be the latest salvo in that effort.

Even before the latest cuts, the Palestinians had cut all ties with American officials and said the US can no longer be a mediator in the conflict. For Mr Netanyahu, who seeks to maintain the status quo of a non-sovereign Palestinian entity next to Israel’s borders, this is a situation that only helps him and the Israeli far-right’s cause.

So by dismantling decades of US engagement with the Palestinians, the president has effectively left them out in the cold unless they give up core tenets of the Palestinian vision of statehood. For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the next move will inevitably be to again ramp up his “diplomatic Intifada”, calling upon the international community to help the Palestinians.

Yet, ever since Mr Trump came into power, all the Palestinians have received are words of support and words of opposition to Mr Trump’s moves. Little action has been forthcoming. Against the most powerful country in the world, that may not be a surprise.

To that end, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza looks set to continue unabated. UNRWA is mired in its biggest crisis since its founding in 1949 and so too are the millions of Palestinians it supports. Hamas, after a year of deadly protests and back and forth shots with Israel’s military, may turn its eyes to a new conflict if ceasefire negotiations aided by Egypt do not bear fruit.

West Bank Palestinians, both in the territory’s cities and its refugee camps, who are seeing their land appropriated and their leaders become ever more ineffective, will only become more disillusioned with the situation on the ground.

All the while, this spiral of hopelessness will continue to chip away at the dignity of the average Palestinians who have suffered years of war, occupation and subjugation at the hands of Israel.

So, thanks to Mr Trump and his backers, it appears that peace prospects are once again off the table and consigned to the cabinet draw in both Washington and Ramallah, at least until he leaves office.