Haley said clashing with State, Defense over slashing UNRWA funds

Report says Washington’s envoy to the UN is facing pushback over her desire to cut funding to Palestinian aid

Illustrative: UN trucks carrying building materials for projects funded by UNRWA arrive in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip after crossing the Israeli Kerem Shalom crossing on December 10, 2013. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90/ File)
Illustrative: UN trucks carrying building materials for projects funded by UNRWA arrive in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip after crossing the Israeli Kerem Shalom crossing on December 10, 2013. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90/ File)

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley is clashing with representatives of the State and Defense Departments as well as the intelligence community over her push to cut funding for the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, Foreign Policy magazine reported over the weekend.

According to the report, an aide to Haley faced pushback from representatives of the departments and agencies during a National Security Council meeting Friday. As no consensus was reached on the matter, a decision on whether to release the aid was reportedly pushed off.

Both Haley and President Donald Trump have spoken of cutting aid over the Palestinians’ reaction to the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month.

The report also said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, despite opposing cuts to UNRWA, has rejected a request from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration to release the funding as internal deliberations continue.

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (R) on August 11, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. (AFP Photo/Jim Watson)

On Friday, senior US officials denied reports that $125 million in aid to the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency had been frozen.

“Contrary to reports that we have halted funding to UNRWA, the decision is under review,” a State Department official told The Times of Israel. “There are still deliberations taking place, and we have missed no deadline.”

Earlier on Friday, Channel 10 news reported that $125 million in US funding that should have been transferred to UNRWA by January 1 was being held up.

The TV report said that while that initial payment had been frozen, the administration was actually considering cutting altogether a total of some $180 million from its UNRWA payments — about half of the annual budget.

A White House official also responded to the TV report on Friday, confirming to The Times of Israel that no decision had been taken on the issue.

“There is no existing schedule that obligates the United States to provide specific amounts of aid to UNWRA on specific dates,” the official said. “The decisions of when to provide aid in the fiscal year, and in what allocations, lie with the Secretary of State.”

“At this time, no such decisions have been made,” the official added.

US President Donald Trump (L) and PA President Mahmoud Abbas leave following a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

Relations between Trump’s White House and the Palestinians have deteriorated since Trump’s December 6 Jerusalem announcement.

The declaration led Abbas to break off all contact with the Trump administration, and he has refused to meet with US officials regarding the peace process, including envoy Jason Greenblatt and Vice President Mike Pence.

The Palestinians also pushed for a UN resolution that rejected Trump’s position, which passed 128-9 and embarrassed the administration. On Sunday, the PA recalled its envoy to the United States for consultations in protest of US actions. It later said the ambassador would return.

On Tuesday, Trump threatened to cut off aid to the PA, asking why Washington should make “any of these massive future payments” when the Palestinians were “no longer willing to talk peace.”

The Palestinians rely heavily on international aid, with many analysts, including Israelis, saying such assistance helps maintain stability in a volatile region.

“We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” Trump tweeted. “They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more.”

It was not immediately clear whether Trump was threatening all of the budget, worth $319 million in 2016, according to US government figures.

Haley has said Trump “doesn’t want to give any additional funding until the Palestinians are agreeing to come back to the negotiation table. We’re trying to move for a peace process but if that doesn’t happen the president is not going to continue to fund that situation.”

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to publicly address the reports about possible slashed American funding to UNRWA, Channel 10 reported Thursday that he is privately urging the US not to go through with the cuts.

The report said Netanyahu would publicly back the move, amid pressure from right-wing lawmakers such as Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, and in order not to undermine Trump.

But the Axios news site said that Netanyahu has been in contact with the White House regarding UNRWA funding and that Israel prefers a “gradual disengagement” from the refugee agency.

In response to the report, the Prime Minister’s Office said: “Netanyahu supports President Trump’s critical attitude towards UNRWA and believes practical steps need to be taken in order to change the fact that UNRWA is being used to entrench the Palestinian refugee problem instead of solving it.”

An Israeli security source also told Channel 10 the funding cuts to UNRWA would make an already tense situation in Gaza “much worse.”

Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.

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