Cutting funds to Palestinians will boost Iran’s role in region

The Iranians would gladly pay two or three times that much.
Sunday 04/02/2018
An Iranian student holds a portrait of the late founder of Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during during an anti-Israel protest in Tehran. (AFP)
Cashing in. An Iranian student holds a portrait of the late founder of Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during during an anti-Israel protest in Tehran. (AFP)

Hoping to arm-twist the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, US President Donald Trump is using the carrot-and-stick approach. Except with the Palestinians, Trump is using only sticks, reserving the carrots for the Israelis.

Using threats and bullying one side in a dispute may work in some instances but it is highly unlikely to produce positive results in Middle East peace negotiations. Rather, Trump’s approach to international peace-making will, without a doubt, further harm US interests in the region and empower Iran’s position of influence as a regional leader.

Iran, a majority Shia country, has been trying to make headway in Sunni countries since the Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah. A US withdrawal from supporting the Palestinians would serve up the Palestinian territories to Iran on a silver platter. The Iranian mullahs have already infiltrated predominantly Sunni Gaza, controlled by Hamas. A financial void created by the United States withholding economic aid to a region badly in need of such assistance would pave the way for Iran to jump in.

The United States gives about $600 million annually to the Palestinians, most of which goes to pay the Palestine Authority’s security forces. Imagine if Iran controlled the Palestinian security services and how that could alter the political map of the region.

The Iranians would gladly pay two or three times that much for the access it would give them to Israel.

There is no doubt that the Palestine Liberation Organisation under Iranian influence would be a very different and more hard-line faction to negotiate with. If this were to happen, it would put the Iranians in a position of unprecedented power in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. That is what the mullahs in Tehran are hoping for.

The amount of financial aid Washington would spend on the Palestinians is marginal for the United States, especially compared to the amount it gives Israel every year.

Speaking in Davos, an annual gathering of financial elites from around the world, Trump said he would cut off all financial aid to the Palestinians unless they agreed to peace. What Trump utterly fails to comprehend is that his approach to resolving the conflict is only going to make it worse.

Trump has proven to the world, and to the Palestinians in particular, that the United States can no longer be considered an honest broker in the Middle East dispute.

Trump has shown his contempt for the Palestinians’ view of the conflict by stating that he would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israelis believe Jerusalem is their God-given right to have the holy city as their capital and so do the Palestinians.

Jerusalem will remain one of the hot issues in any peace talks. Trump claims his action has taken Jerusalem off the table. It has not. Trump’s decision on Jerusalem has further complicated future talks, in which Palestinians are likely to place the city at the very top of their agenda.

Add to that the financial aid threat, which many Palestinians and other Arabs see as a slap in the face. Crippled by the Israeli occupation, Palestinians are facing economic hardship, especially in the over-populated Gaza Strip where unemployment abounds.

Unlike other countries that receive US aid in quarterly instalments, Israel since 1982 has been paid in one large lump sum at the beginning of the fiscal year, leaving the US government to borrow from future revenues. Israel even lends some of this money back through buying US Treasury bills, by which it collects interest.

Jeremy Sharp, a specialist in Middle East affairs at the Congressional Research Service, wrote in an April 11, 2014, report titled “US Foreign Aid to Israel” that “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid. To date, the United States has provided Israel $121 billion (current, or non-inflation-adjusted, dollars) in bilateral assistance. Almost all US bilateral aid to Israel is in the form of military assistance, although in the past Israel also received significant economic assistance.”

In 2001, at a presentation with the Centre for Policy Analysis on Palestine, international relations scholar Stephen Zunes noted that, while Israel is an “advanced, industrialised, technologically sophisticated country,” it “receives more US aid per capita annually than the total annual GDP of several Arab countries. Approximately one-third of all US foreign aid budget goes to Israel, “even though Israel comprises just… one-thousandth of the world’s total population and already has one of the world’s higher per capita incomes,” Zunes said.

US government officials argue that this money is necessary for moral reasons. Some even say that Israel is a democracy battling for its very survival. Israel may be seen as being democratic so long as you are not Palestinian, where a whole different set of rules applies. In that case, it more closely resembles the ugly face of apartheid than democracy.