Adel Hana/AP/File
Palestinian girls fly kites during an event at the UNRWA Rimal Girls Preparatory school in Gaza City. The UN agency serves some 5 million Palestinians across the Middle East – including refugees displaced by the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948 and their descendants. Palestinian officials have denounced reported US attempts to undercut UNRWA.

Palestinian refugees: Can Trump ‘disruption’ alone solve complex issue?

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President Trump believes he took the thorny issue of Jerusalem “off the table” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by moving the US Embassy in Israel there. Now he seems to want to do something similar with Palestinian refugees. By cutting aid to the UN agency that administers to them, pressing to sharply cut the number recognized, and demanding Arab countries do more to support them, his administration suggests it can remove the decades-old issue as a peace impediment. Yet even supporters who think a shake up is what the Middle East needs doubt the approach will take the issue off the table – or give Mr. Trump’s anticipated peace plan any greater chances of success. Political realities in the region may mean that addressing sore issues individually may indeed be the way to go, some regional experts say. But it can only work if the aim is not just simply to “disrupt” the status quo. What is needed, says Alon Ben-Meir, an expert in conflict resolution at New York University, is to foster a new “public narrative” about the refugee issue and resolve it through just resettlement and compensation.

Why We Wrote This

Efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute have been stymied so long that the Trump philosophy of “disruption” would seem to be a perfect fit. But the complexity and emotion of the Palestinian refugee issue may require a step further.

At his MAGA rally in West Virginia Tuesday night, President Trump told his audience that his decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem was a “good thing” for Palestinians because it settled one perennial roadblock to peace and “took it off the table.”

Now it would be the Palestinians’ “turn” to “get something very good,” Mr. Trump said.

The president’s comments on Middle East peace drew none of the raucous crowd response reserved for his promises to “bring back coal” or to end illegal immigration.

Why We Wrote This

Efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute have been stymied so long that the Trump philosophy of “disruption” would seem to be a perfect fit. But the complexity and emotion of the Palestinian refugee issue may require a step further.

But among Middle East experts and Palestinian advocates, the remarks magnified already growing concerns about a similarly problematic piece of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the plight of Palestinian refugees and the question of those refugees’ “right of return” to lands in what is now Israel.

They see Trump aiming to use the Jerusalem model to deal with the equally emotional and peace-stymieing issue of Palestinian refugees. By cutting US assistance and pressing to “disrupt” the traditional approach to Palestinian refugees, Trump may be aiming to take another thorny issue “off the table” before unveiling his anticipated “deal of the century” to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This year the Trump administration has slashed US funding for the United Nations agency that administers to more than 5 million Palestinians registered as refugees who are spread around the Middle East and concentrated in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The agency, known by its acronym UNRWA, saw a first installment in annual US support cut in January from an anticipated $125 million to $60 million. Traditionally UNRWA’s largest donor, the US has now slashed its support from more than $300 million last year to $60 million, according to UN officials.

The reduction in Palestinian assistance is not just a piece of a general objective from the White House to reduce foreign aid, both critics and supporters of the administration say. Rather, they see it as part of a specific effort to up-end the seven-decades-old system that treats Palestinian refugees differently from other refugees and perpetuates their status as a core issue – some say impediment – in any Mideast peace initiative.

“What Trump and his Middle East team are trying to do is remove the question of the refugees from the table as they believe they did with Jerusalem,” says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.

“Clearly [Trump] is trying to shake things up and shatter the status quo,” he adds, “but he’s doing it in a way that is vindictive and punitive toward the Palestinian refugees. You don’t disrupt things without laying the foundation for a viable alternative, and that’s not happening.”

Encouraging ‘realism’

The Middle East has been abuzz with speculation over Trump’s strategy concerning Palestinian refugees in the wake of the US aid cut to UNRWA and as Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and special Middle East adviser, has discussed the contours of the awaited White House peace plan with leaders from around the region. But it was the publication this month of one of Mr. Kushner’s emails, in which he addressed the issue of Palestinian refugees with White House colleagues, that drew the spotlight.

“It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA,” Kushner said in the email, published by Foreign Policy magazine. Administration officials have not disputed the email’s veracity or the accuracy of it as a reflection of the administration’s outlook on the issue.

Kushner also envisioned the need to reduce the number of recognized Palestinian refugees to a more realistic 20,000 to 30,000, closer to the number of actual surviving refugees out of the initial 700,000 to 750,000 who were expelled or fled from homes and property when Israel was formed in 1948.

Indeed, some Middle East experts see both the US aid cut and Kushner’s “disrupt” comment as elements of a needed effort to jolt the parties to any peace deal and replace the same old approaches to peace with some new thinking.

“Part of the strategy definitely is to encourage more realism among the Palestinians, particularly on the so-called right of return,” says James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle East affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “The administration’s move on UNRWA isn’t going to help the peace process in the short term, but I do think it aims to shake things up in ways that put more responsibility on the Arab countries and encourage the Palestinians to compromise,” he says.

Ending statelessness

Others go farther. Elliott Abrams, who served in foreign policy positions under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, said in a Council on Foreign Relations blog post early this year that Trump was on the right track with the cuts to UNRWA and efforts to “upset the apple cart” on Palestinian refugees.

Echoing points the administration makes, Mr. Abrams noted that only Palestinian refugees have a separate UN agency dedicated to them, and that only Palestinians are able to extend their refugee status to descendants – a “right” that has permitted the original refugee population at Israel’s creation to balloon to the current 5.2 million.

Differentiating UNRWA from the UN’s agency for all other refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Abrams said that the “admirable” UNHCR names as one of its core missions “ending statelessness.” UNRWA, on the other hand, sees its mission as “never ending statelessness,” he added.

UNRWA says it educates more than 500,000 Palestinian children in nearly 700 schools, while providing the primary health care for the refugee population. But Abrams suggested the organization had settled into being an employment and patronage agency, and he questioned why wealthy Arab countries don’t do more for the Palestinians they claim to care about.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, is seen on a video screen in a translator's booth as she addresses a Security Council meeting on the situation in Gaza, Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at UN headquarters.

That last theme was taken up by Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, when she used a UN Security Council meeting in July to publicly berate Arab and other Middle Eastern countries for shirking their responsibilities toward Palestinians and failing to encourage compromises in the interest of peace.

“How much have the Arab countries – some of whom are wealthy countries – how much have they given to the Palestinians?” Ambassador Haley said.

Jordan ‘terrified’ by added burden

Mr. Gerges, who is Lebanese-American, says that his contacts with the region underscore how a country like Jordan is “terrified” that White House efforts to “disrupt” the status quo on Palestinian refugees will saddle it with a greater burden it cannot bear.

Jordan’s resources are already stretched by its accommodation of some 750,000 Syrian refugees, and officials say it could ill afford to educate and provide health care for the 2.1 million Palestinian refugees in the country currently aided by UNRWA. Most Palestinians in Jordan have Jordanian citizenship, but many still live in camps administered by UNRWA.

Gerges acknowledges that it sounds reasonable to “disrupt the status quo on issues like Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees when the status quo quite demonstrably has not settled these problems.” But he adds that in reality the Trump moves on both issues have done little to “take them off the table” because they are widely seen as favoring Israel and in particular “a very right-wing perspective within Israel.”

He notes, for example, that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has “taken the [peace process] portfolio away from the crown prince” Mohammad bin Salman, over the king’s discomfort with the tenor of the White House peace initiative and the way the Saudi positions on it have been communicated.

For some regional experts, Kushner’s call for an “honest and sincere” discussion of the Palestinian refugee issue may have been on the right track. But it is likely to go nowhere, they add, if it is linked to a Trump peace plan that almost no one gives very high chances of success.

Changing the narrative

Rather than remaining a perpetual impediment, the Palestinian refugee issue can serve as a step to peace if it is addressed separately from a grand plan imposed from the outside and instead is used to foster a new way of looking at an old problem, says Alon Ben-Meir, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and a noted expert in conflict resolution.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that if there is going to be a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will no longer be by taking on all the difficult issues simultaneously,” he says. “The issue of Palestinian refugees is one that can be taken up first to change the public narrative and build the reconciliation that will be necessary for a broader peace.”

But Professor Ben-Meir says the Trump administration’s strategy of disrupting the status quo by cutting UNRWA funding and shifting responsibility to Arab states is not going to encourage the constructive dialogue that is necessary. He says he’s met with Trump administration officials to discuss ideas for resolving the conflict, but does not sense any shift in approach suggesting an incorporation of his views.

Like many other experts with close knowledge of the region, he says the large majority of Palestinians understand there will be no “return” to lands inside Israel. He predicts that an honest public discourse on the issue – plus international commitments of billions of dollars for compensation and resettlement – would result in many “refugees” remaining where they currently are.

Ben-Meir says the governments of the principal parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem incapable of reconciliation right now, which makes the prospects of a comprehensive peace plan so grim. But he says that is why starting out on one central issue offers more promise.

“Let’s get the Palestinian refugees talking in new ways and considering new solutions,” he says, “and I believe it can be a step to a broader peace.”

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