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On Palestinian Aid and Accountability

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avatar by Daniel S. Mariaschin


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Aug. 18, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Mohamad Torokman / Pool.

The decision to resume American aid to the Palestinians is a classic example of cart-before-the-horse thinking that has existed in one form or another for the past seven decades. Upwards of $235 million dollars in aid has been proposed by the White House, $150 million of which would be earmarked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

In exchange for this gesture, it appears there will be no quid pro quo.

Since 1993, the year of the signing of the Oslo Accords — the agreement that was to set in motion an end-of-conflict between Israel and the Palestinian — the conventional wisdom has been that providing financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) would incentivize it to reach a settlement with the Jewish State.

Actually, American assistance to the Palestinians goes back long before that. Since its establishment in 1949, UNRWA — set up to provide aid to Palestinians who fled during Israel’s War of Independence — has received over $6 billion from the United States, by far the largest single international contributor.

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UNRWA was originally intended to be a temporary assistance program — until the Palestinians it served were absorbed into the Arab countries to which they fled. It became instead a bloated (it has more than 30,000 employees) and corrupt operation, adding generations of Palestinians to its refugee rolls (now numbering more than 5 million “registered refugees”), politicizing education to the point of teaching hatred of Jews and Israel, and holding out the promise to its beneficiaries that one day they will all return to what is now Israel.

While wealthier Arab countries contributed little to UNRWA, the international community became comfortably accustomed to the organization’s wayward ways, without raising a call for reform. And US financial support continued unabated.

Fade to the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn in September of 1993. I was there to witness what for many of us was a very hopeful day. We sensed that while this would not necessarily portend a warm peace, it could establish an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a renunciation of claims and the prospect of normalcy for Israel and its people that had eluded it for decades.

It was not to be.

Still, American administrations and Congress provided generous assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA), now totaling more than $5 billion since 1994. The general assumption is that this financial aid, combined with that contributed by European countries, Japan, and others would not only help meet humanitarian needs, but would also fund infrastructure projects and civil service salaries. The idea being, with that aid, and an economic stake in their future, the Palestinians would be incentivized to conclude a deal with Israel.

In fact, the opposite has taken root. The litany of missed opportunities at the negotiating table is well known: Camp David, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the Annapolis Conference, the Kerry initiative, all came and went like late winter squalls. It became evident that the Palestinian side wished to pursue a zero-sum approach to peacemaking, a my-way-or-the-highway attitude, that somehow received a pass from many in the US and Europe.

Years ago, I was present at a meeting of Jewish leaders with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who was asked if he recognized Israel as a Jewish state. His response, with a self-assured, cavalier shrug was, “Israel can call itself anything it wants to.” He still refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and demands a “right of return” for over 5 million Palestinians to Israel.

At the United Nations, the Palestinians have gamed the system, with their narrative promoted daily in the organization’s major agencies. At the United Nations Human Rights Council, UNESCO, and its World Heritage Committee affiliate, resolutions that demonize and delegitimize Israel, and which seek to erase Jewish history in ancient Israel, are adopted year-in and year-out. The UN General Assembly each year funds specialized committees established for the expressed purpose of advancing the Palestinian cause through conferences, photo exhibitions, publications, and other means.

And then there is the issue of “pay-for-slay,” a long-term arrangement whereby the Palestinian Authority pays salaries and money to convicted terrorists or the families of terrorists who’ve been killed, in honor of their “martyrdom.”

In response to this outrage, the US Congress adopted the Taylor Force Act in 2018, named in memory of an American citizen and army veteran who was stabbed to death on a study trip in Israel by a Palestinian from the West Bank. The killer’s family, as do so many others, receives a stipend from the PA. Despite entreaties from the US and others to end this practice of glorifying terrorism, Abbas and his circle of PA lieutenants have steadfastly refused to end the practice. Until then, by law at least, there can be no direct aid to the PA.

Another constant over the nearly three decades since Oslo, has been the Palestinian media and education systems, which on a daily basis promote hatred of Israelis and Jews, using tropes and canards, along with cartoons of Jews and Israelis which evoke Holocaust themes, and stereotypical features, such as hooked noses and dollar signs festooned on overweight figures, right out of Der Sturmer. Teaching hate — and glorifying and inciting the murder of Jews — has been a staple in Palestinian textbooks and children’s TV programs and online postings, and continues unabated.

In response to the PA’s pay-for-slay program, its utilization of the UN system to demonize and delegitimize Israel, and its clear-as-day aversion to a real negotiation with Israel, the Trump administration began a cutoff of aid to the Palestinians. It also cut off aid to UNRWA, citing its innate corruption and politicization.

Earlier this month, the White House announced a resumption of aid to both UNRWA and to the PA, embarking on yet another effort by a series of American administrations to pull or push the Palestinians back into something resembling a peace process. The bulk will go to UNRWA, with the remainder going for a range of other programs. To get around the Taylor Force Act restrictions, it appears that aid to the PA will be directed to non-governmental organizations working in the West Bank.

In announcing the resumption of aid, a State Department spokesperson said, “By resuming this assistance today … we have a seat at the table. We can help drive UNRWA in the ways that we think is in our interest … Obviously, there are areas we would like to reform … We will continue to be in a better position, an even greater position to drive and steer UNRWA in a direction that we think is productive and useful…”

With this restoration of aid, a tremendous opportunity to condition assistance on serious changes both in the PA and UNRWA has been lost. Our previous $6 billion to UNRWA clearly was never used to end the organization’s excess and its promotion of hatred. Why should we assume UNRWA’s way of doing business will change, now that it knows American assistance is back?

And as for the PA, why not have conditionality there as well? Close down pay-for-slay, end the campaign against Israel in multilateral forums like the UN and the International Criminal Court, stop promising a right of return that simply will not happen, end the backing of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, cease antisemitic incitement against Israel and the Jewish people. And, for goodness sake, stop educating your young people to hate. Without education for peace, any process that seeks to end this conflict will never succeed.

In a normal world, the Abraham Accords would serve as a roadmap for the Palestinians — a way out that promises economic success, and a stake in a brighter future for all. The Palestinians are mired in a cycle of victimization, promoted and manipulated by leaders who have a bigger stake in the status quo, than in ending this seven-decades-plus conflict. More than willing to take the aid funding, they see no reason to compromise. And that, finally, needs to be called out.

Throwing good money after bad, as we’ve seen over these past decades, has produced high expectations and low returns. A resumption of aid to the Palestinian leadership based on hope, trust, and luck, will likely be dashed.

A more certain path might have been taken: we’ll consider the help, but not until this checklist of hatred, corruption, glorification of terror, and constant attempts to delegitimize Israel ends. For what is being offered now, this is surely not too much to ask.

Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International.

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