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August 8, 2018 2:36 pm

Leading US Jewish Groups: Kushner’s Push to Reform UNRWA ‘Long Overdue’

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White House adviser Jared Kushner. Photo: Reuters / Lucas Jackson.

US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner’s push to reform the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) is a welcome development, a number of officials with leading American Jewish groups told The Algemeiner this week.

Kushner’s efforts were first reported in Foreign Policy magazine, which said that in a series of internal emails, the adviser stated, “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA. … This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”

Furthermore, Kushner reportedly asked Jordan during a June visit to the Hashemite kingdom to remove two million of its Palestinian citizens from the refugee rolls, effectively making UNRWA’s activities in the country irrelevant.

UNRWA was originally set up to serve refugees displaced in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. At first designed to be a temporary body, it is now seven decades old and is embedded deeply in Palestinian society, serving, for example, as the single largest employer in the Gaza Strip. Critics accuse it of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by counting descendants of the 1948 refugees as refugees themselves, as well as engaging in anti-Israel activities and cooperating with terrorist organizations.

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Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations commented on the reports of Kushner’s efforts, telling The Algemeiner on Wednesday, “It is long overdue that the UNRWA mandate and activities be reviewed. For too long, UNRWA has been given a pass despite their support for and tolerance of anti-Israel activities and incitement, allowing their institutions to be utilized by terrorist organizations, let alone the designation of third-generation descendants as refugees on the UN dole.”

“We all want to see humanitarian needs met, but UNRWA’s antiquated and corrupt structure, as it exists today, is not the answer,” he added.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper — the associate dean and director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center — noted, “It’s basically saying that the US approach to regional peace is to take a very aggressive look and action against the current status quo. … As long as you have the so-called Right of Return hanging over a discussion where the numbers of ‘refugees’ continue to burgeon, there’s no chance of ever closing a deal.”

In regard to the possible Jordanian response to Kushner’s request, Cooper said, “The Jordanian monarch, he’s married to a Palestinian, making a move like that comes with its own set of problems and dangers.” Jordan, he added, might seek financial compensation from the US if it adopted such a policy.

“It’s a very interesting and out of the box move by Jared Kushner and the peace team,” Cooper pointed out. “There’s a lot riding on it, if this is an accurate depiction and I think it probably is. And if Jordan at the end of the day agrees, it gives further impetus” to UNRWA reforms.

Hillel Neuer of UN Watch also commented on the reports, saying, “There is political pressure on Jordan to discriminate against its citizens of Palestinian descent, but that is wrong. Jordan should listen to Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis, who recently called for their full integration. Instead of UNRWA schools and hospitals, he said Switzerland could support Jordanian facilities to promote the integration of Palestinian refugees.”

“By feeding the false hope of a return to family homes in Israel abandoned in a war years before most of them were even born, UNRWA is only harming this population,” Neuer continued. “It’s time for Jordan to take responsibility for all its citizens equally.”

B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President and CEO Daniel Mariaschin criticized UNRWA, calling it “a corrupt and politicized organization, and the attention given to its extensive list of misdeeds is long overdue.”

“It has willingly played a role in perpetuating the conflict rather than resolving it,” he charged. “It follows its own rules, despite UN guidelines on what constitutes a refugee.”

“Immediate steps should be taken to eliminate those programs which incite against Israel and Jews,” Mariaschin went on to say, “and it needs to sever its ties with Palestinian extremist groups that have used UNRWA to advance their own destructive aims. Comprehensive reforms must be immediate; ultimately, UNRWA’s work should be merged into the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, which oversees aid programs for all other refugees, globally.”

American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris told The Algemeiner, “In principle, the current situation is untenable and indefensible. Unlike any other people on earth, Palestinians are classified as ‘refugees’ from generation to generation — in other words, in perpetuity. Plus, again uniquely, the UN’s mandate is not their resettlement, but rather the perpetuation of their current status.”

Harris sounded a note of caution, however, emphasizing that “absurd as the status quo is, it can’t be scuttled in its entirety overnight unless another means of dealing with large-scale educational and welfare issues is found both for the West Bank and especially Gaza, or else a bad situation could become even worse. Alas, under present circumstances, that’s easier said than done.”

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