JERUSALEM – US President Donald Trump’s administration decided last month to cut all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides schools, health care, and other assistance to Palestinian refugees. Last week, the administration announced the withdrawal of $25 million in funding for six East Jerusalem hospitals, where the majority of patients are Palestinian. And this week, the US State Department announced the imminent closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Washington mission.
The goal is to force Palestinian leaders to drop their demand for the right of return to the homes they left when Israel was established in 1948. It will not work. On the contrary, it will probably make an agreement on one of the most contentious issues in the Israel-Palestinian conflict even less likely.
Trump has tried this tactic before. Last year, his administration threatened, via its ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, to impose financial punishment on countries that contested its formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. UN member states responded by voting overwhelmingly to condemn the decision.
Using financial blackmail to threaten the Palestinians directly may be even more ill-advised. Given the deep personal interest Palestinians have in the conflict’s outcome, negotiators are already walking a tricky path that demands a nuanced approach and respects the sensibilities and aspirations of the people.
Of course, in the business world, financial leverage can be used effectively to close difficult deals. But, when it comes to international diplomacy, crass attempts to force particular outcomes, especially using money, usually have the opposite effect, as they tend to push those being threatened into taking more extreme positions.
After all, these are not negotiations over a real-estate deal, the results of which will please some investors and disappoint others. What is at stake are dignity, identity, and human rights. The outcome in such cases will shape the lives and futures of entire populations.
Public threats shackle even moderates like Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to hardening public opinion. Over the years, Abbas has opposed violent resistance, shown unprecedented flexibility on the prospect of a demilitarized independent Palestinian state, and expressed publicly his willingness to compromise on contentious issues like the right of return.
But, with the Trump administration’s tactless bullying, such concessions become impossible, as Abbas would no longer be able to convince Palestinians that a deal was made in a fair and equitable way that does not compromise national pride. To most of the Palestinian public, disavowing the right of return in such circumstances would simply look like defeat.
The fact is that no Palestinian leader can agree to anything – even what is technically a good deal – if it seems like they are capitulating to threats, especially when it means abandoning what Palestinians view as their birthright. As soon as the US made its threats public, they became self-defeating.
In fact, the two most important Middle Eastern peace agreements of the last half-century – the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt and the 1993 Oslo Accords between the Israelis and Palestinians – succeeded because negotiations were conducted largely behind closed doors. This freed negotiators from the fetters of fluctuating, often emotionally driven public opinion, so that they could formulate broadly equitable compromises that, in their completed form, could be defended on the public stage.
Even behind closed doors, the compromise must be fair. The Trump administration could not try to force the weaker Palestinian side to accept inequitable positions under the guise of political realism, because any agreement that was hammered out would still have to secure broad public support. If the terms were excessively one-sided, the deal would collapse.
To avoid such an outcome, talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, conducted in a less public way, should be based on long-accepted reference points. Palestinian leaders have shown a willingness to compromise even on contentious issues like Jerusalem (agreeing to keep it united); refugees (accepting that only a limited number could return to Israel); and even land swaps (as long as they are equal in size and nature).
But such compromises would be made only within the context of a peace settlement that included the establishment of an independent Palestinian state conforming to the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. That is the basic framework toward which stakeholders should be working. The first step, however, must be to rebuild trust, not just between the Israelis and Palestinians, but also with third-party brokers. The US cannot expect to serve as a credible intermediary if it persists with a blatant pro-Israeli bias.
The Palestinians are a proud people who have made tremendous sacrifices in their struggle to survive displacement, occupation, and protracted sieges. They will not be blackmailed into accepting US-Israeli diktats. No peace agreement will be possible unless and until all parties involved recognize that fundamental reality.
Daoud Kuttab is a former professor of journalism at Princeton University.