For decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been mired in stalemate. Countless peace overtures over the past 30 years have fallen apart for one reason or another, and the basis for many of these negotiations—the division of the territory into two distinct states—is becoming increasingly impossible as a result of demographic changes both inside Israel’s 1948 borders and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Frustrated by the failure of international players—and the United States in particular—to act as neutral and effective arbiters, the Palestinian Authority recently put in motion a plan to unilaterally declare statehood. Despite the fact that this objective is in line with long-standing U.S. foreign policy, the response by many Washington pundits and policymakers has been remarkably vitriolic.
Washington has come down hard on the idea of an independently pursued statehood bid, attacking not only the Palestinian Authority but the United Nations itself, while implicitly supporting the increasing militarization of Israeli settlements. Washington’s reticence to acknowledge the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people could severely compromise the potential for future peace.
On the other hand, the steady erosion of Israel’s international legitimacy combined with diminishing U.S. influence in the region could well lead to an eventual solution, particularly if this situation forces Israel to loosen its iron grip on the Palestinian territories and participate in meaningful dialogue.
Cutting Aid, Losing Influence
In response to the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral declaration, a number of prominent policymakers in Washington, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, have called for a cessation of U.S. aid to Palestine, a move which could cost the Palestinian Authority as much as $500 million. Ros-Lehtinen and others believe that tightening the purse strings of the Palestinian Authority would enable the United States to reassert control over the peace process, by either forcing President Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw the statehood request or else punishing the PA for going against Washington’s express wishes.
This ideology is pervasive within some Washington circles, and Ros-Lehtinen’s hearings on the matter have consistently hosted “experts” from the Heritage Foundation, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as well as prominent neoconservative figures such as Elliott Abrams and David Makovsky. Their testimonies offer a wide range of recommendations for “punishing” the Palestinians, including by shuttering the PLO office in Washington D.C. and slashing U.S. funds to a number of projects.
Maintaining the Security Apparatus
Few of these anti-Palestinian figures call for a complete cessation of all aid, and Abrams himself has repeatedly stressed that “the best response is not to zero out all aid to the PA.” Recognizing that money buys influence, some analysts understand the need to keep cutting checks to the PA in order to maintain some sense of control, particularly in maintaining the PA’s robust security apparatus, which maintains one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and a staggering 1:80 police to civilian ratio.
Israel itself has clearly signaled that it wants U.S. funding for the PA security apparatus to continue, largely due to the high degree of collaboration between Palestinian security forces and the Israeli Defense Forces. One of the stipulations of the 1993 Oslo Accords that was pushed vehemently by Israel was the coordination of “security” efforts between the IDF and the PA, which in many ways allowed the IDF to outsource much of its intelligence work to the PA. The PA, in turn, has been particularly keen to maintain law and order in the Palestinian territories, while keeping opposing political forces—such as Hamas—on a very short leash.
The funding cuts, therefore, have been slated for practically all other aspects of the quasi-state apparatus operating in the West Bank and abroad. In early October, for example, Congress voted to block the transfer of $200 million to the PA, mostly earmarked for a number of humanitarian and development projects, a move described by chief PA spokesperson Ghasan Khatib as “another kind of collective punishment which is going to harm the needs of the public without making any positive contribution.”
The House Foreign Affairs Committee has also considered cutting all funding to the United Nations itself for its association with the Palestinian statehood bid. A proposed bill explicitly “[w]ithholds U.S. contributions from any U.N. agency or program that upgrades the status of the PLO/Palestinian observer mission" and calls for "the revocation and repudiation … of the Goldstone Report and any United Nations resolutions stemming from the report.”
Also on the chopping block is funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides goods and services to displaced Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine itself. The logic, as presented by Abrams, is that UNRWA is simply “perpetuating the refugee problem forever,” and its disbandment will diminish the ability of over five million Palestinian refugees to survive in the areas surrounding the Israeli state.
It is unclear where Abrams thinks these refugee populations—many of whom are living at or below basic subsistence levels—will go. Past experience demonstrates that the forcible relocation of Palestinian refugees often leads to increased impoverishment and a spike in political violence, as evidenced by the total collapse of order in the Nahr El-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon in 2007.
Fanning the Flames
Perhaps in preparation for the violence that may ensue from the loss of crucial social and economic safety nets for the Palestinians, Israel and its Washington backers have been fanning ethnic tension in the occupied territories by providing weapons and training to residents of illegal Israeli settlements. While the IDF trains “readiness squads” and coordinates the distribution of crowd-control weaponry to settlement security officers, U.S. organizations such as SOS Israel have been actively financing settlement-based “shoot-to-kill” campaigns.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric of the Israeli government’s right-wing U.S. backers has grown more vitriolic. After the release of Gilad Shalit, for example, Rachel Abrams, wife of Elliott Abrams and board member of the Emergency Committee for Israel, described Palestinians as “slaughtering, death-worshiping, innocent-butchering, child-sacrificing savages” before recommending that Palestinian prisoners be thrown “into the sea, to float there, food for sharks.” The statement was re-tweeted by the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin the following day.
The GOP presidential candidates have also chimed in. While Mitt Romney threatened that the Palestinian statehood bid “must have consequences,” Rick Perry was characteristically blunt in stating that “there is no middle ground between our allies and those who seek their destruction.” Herman Cain, in an interview with Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, deplored the Obama administration’s “weakness” in not preventing the “so-called Palestinian people” from acting unilaterally.
Paralleling this divisive U.S. discourse has been a spike in hate crimes committed against Arabs in Israeli-controlled territories. After a mosque was set on fire in Galilee, settlers spray-painted calls for the expulsion of all remaining Palestinians from Israel and wrote “death to all Arabs” and “price tag” on tombstones in Jaffa.
The Perfect Storm
The policy pursued by “pro-Israel” hawks in Washington is primarily characterized by two parallel tendencies: the elimination of American funding for projects and institutions that build the legitimacy of the Palestinian state, and the maintaining or even strengthening of support for organs of state repression. The heavy-handed tactics of the PA security apparatus, and its western and Israeli backers, are likely to further exacerbate tensions as the Palestinian government continues to hemorrhage its legitimacy.
The problem is particularly acute in its overlap with the increased popular pressure borne of the Arab Spring, as the Palestinian people, like Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa, demand greater accountability and transparency from their government. The result may very well be that Washington’s current policies will produce the precise opposite of what neocons and policy hawks hope to achieve. U.S. intransigence and heavy-handedness may further radicalize the Palestinian people, leading to a deeper break with Washington and a diminishing ability of the Palestinian Authority to enforce calm and conformity in accordance with Israeli desires.
Meanwhile, other international actors are seeking to assume more regional prominence in the Middle East, and it is likely that the PA can recoup much of its funding elsewhere. The Arab League has already issued a statement promising to cover any funding cut by the United States, and even the World Bank has reopened a long-shuttered investment fund to attract other international aid to the Palestinian government. If these funding drives are successful, it may result in no substantive loss for the Palestinian Authority’s coffers—other than the loss of the remaining slivers of American influence.
The Silver Lining
This turn of events may actually help the Palestinians in the long run. An increasing number of prominent figures are openly confronting “the reality that Washington won't make Israel do what is necessary to create a Palestinian state.” If the United States really is incapable of mediating a just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, it may be best for Washington to take a step back while the situation on the ground develops outside the parameters of its own peace plan, which has failed to produce tangible results for decades.
In addition, the fact that the PA bid for statehood is unlikely to avoid a U.S. veto is obviously unfortunate for countless reasons, but considering the heavy-handed security and policing functions of the PA, and the decreasing importance of its other “state” functions, perhaps it is not yet time for the PA to completely eclipse the PLO. The lack of formal recognition for the PA will keep the legitimate representation of the Palestinian people within the broader PLO framework that, unlike the PA, includes Palestinian refugee populations and is not as directly tainted by the many missteps made by the Palestinian Authority in recent years.
In the end, the increased militarization of the conflict—as well as the collective punishment of the Palestinian people for not following prescribed U.S. policies—will only exacerbate existing problems. But for the PA to score symbolic victories alone is also insufficient to overcome current impasses. Perhaps the most important tangible result to come out of the Palestinian vote is the discrediting of hardliners in both Washington and Tel Aviv. The steady erosion of Israel’s international legitimacy may be exactly what is needed to loosen its iron grip on the occupied territories, leading to a more meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians to establish a lasting peace.