How Trump’s Mideast Moves Are a Game Changer

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Back in the early '70s, as a young staff officer in the Israeli military government of the West Bank, I served as a liaison the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). I even had an office in the organization’s headquarters in east Jerusalem.  

Things seemed simpler then. UNRWA ran refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza for the hundreds of thousands of Arabs displaced in the 1948 war of Israeli independence. It doled out food, medical treatment and schooling. Its ostensible mission was humanitarian. I thought that was admirable. I no longer see it that way. UNRWA has become an obstacle to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It should be shut down.  

UNRWA’s original mandate was to care for the displaced Arabs of 1948 and it is fair to say that it has pretty much accomplished that mission. Nearly all of the 1948 refugees spent the last half century of their lives in UNRWA camps (which grew into permanent neighborhoods and sprawling villages) in Jordan, where they received citizenship, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. It wasn’t a great existence, but the UNRWA provided a place to live, ample food, free medical care and schooling.

Those refugees are mostly gone now; only a few tens of thousands are still alive. But bureaucracies do not disappear just because their mission is complete. And so UNRWA found itself a new mission. It became a perpetual refugee-making machine, registering the children, grand-children and great-grand-children as bona fide refugees. The number ballooned to 5.4 million today from 700,000 in 1948. The U.S. provides about a quarter the agency's annual budget.

UNRWA did nothing to help resettle these second, third and fourth generation refugees. It allowed its camps to be become a staging ground for terrorism. Worst of all, it educated students to believe that justice demanded armed liberation of their ancestral lands from the Zionist usurpers. Propagating the doctrine has been self-destructive, both to UNRWA and the people it supposedly serves.

It is UNRWA registration that determines who qualifies as a refugee; there are no prescribed limits. The result has been to perpetuate an obstacle to Mideast peace. As UNRWA educators and senior officials know perfectly well, no Israeli government will commit national suicide by welcoming millions of revenge-seeking “refugees.”

Some Palestinian advocates, especially those in Western capitals, cast the demand for return as a bargaining tool, leverage in a negotiation with Israel. This is, at best, wishful thinking. The "right of return" demand is the beating heart of the Palestinian national movement, enshrined in its political platforms, honored in its public ceremonies and scrupulously observed in its diplomacy. Most important, it is fervently believed by the Palestinian masses, making it impossible for any Palestinian leader to publicly compromise this principle.

The U.S. government, determined to change this dynamic, wants to end its funding. The Trump administration reportedly would like to cap the number of Palestinian refugees at a more realistic 500,000. If it succeeds, the cap would revolutionize the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

While the decision is the right one, the Trump administration must now also be thoughtful in how it implements its policy. The administration is already regarded with deep suspicion, or outright hostility, by Palestinians after it moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and also decided to close the Palestinian Liberation Organization office in Washington. If UNRWA receives substantial funding and support from many other countries, it is out of both humanitarian concern and fear that any change might ignite further violence. So like any welfare reform, Washington needs to cushion the blow of a change in refugee policy, especially for the elderly refugees of 1948. Israel is prosperous enough to contribute too.

It would take time and a great deal of statesmanship from all sides, but there are opportunities here. UNRWA “refugees” around the Middle East might be encouraged to begin looking for more practical ways to better their situation and helped in those efforts; governments, especially Arab governments, should be encouraged to allow them to resettle permanently.

For its part, Israel, faced with a more honest refugee count, should consider reparations and limited repatriation. After all, 50 years ago, a smaller, poorer Israel allowed tens of thousands of Palestinians to take up permanent residence in the West Bank as part of a program of family reunification for Jordanian West Bankers caught outside the region by the Six Day War. I helped process their applications back then.

Something like that could happen again, if some brave Palestinian leader is willing to offer a peace proposal that begins from present-day realities. I’m not confident that such a leader will emerge. But time is very clearly not on the Palestinian side, and fuzzy math is not going to fix anything. 

A fear of violence has paralyzed Western countries and kept the current system in place long past its usefulness; other countries may try to make up for lost U.S. support, but that would be a mistake. A disruption of the old narrative coupled with new forms of assistance, are the only way forward.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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