PA premier calls Trump plan ‘blackmail,’ says Bahrain workshop to be ‘born dead’

Mohammad Shtayyeh claims Palestinians weren’t invited to Manama but wouldn’t attend anyway; warns PA could collapse within 2 months if financial spat with Israel not resolved

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 16, 2019. (AP Photo/ Nasser Nasser)
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 16, 2019. (AP Photo/ Nasser Nasser)

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has called US President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan “blackmail” and said the PA wasn’t invited to this month’s Bahrain economic workshop — but wouldn’t have attended anyway.

Speaking with the New York Times in an interview published Wednesday, Shtayyeh also warned that the PA would collapse by July or August if a financial standoff with Israel isn’t resolved.

Shtayyeh criticized the Trump administration for touting the Bahrain conference  as focused on improving Palestinian economy, while withdrawing its funds to Palestinians.

“These same people are the ones who have been working on the drying up of the financial resources of the Palestinian Authority,” he said, referring to hundreds of millions of dollars in halted aid money and contributions to UNRWA, the controversial UN agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

“We know the political agenda,” Shtayyeh said in the interview. “They are saying no to refugees. They are saying no to Jerusalem. They are saying no to two states. They are not respecting ’67 borders. And if this economic track is part of the overall package, what are we accepting? If we are there, people will use our presence there to capitalize on that.”

US President Donald Trump, right, holds a bilateral meeting with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“We hope that Arabs don’t go” to the Bahrain workshop, he added. “Now, we know also that there are countries who are under serious pressure. Some can afford the pressure, and some cannot afford the pressure.”

He predicted that nothing tangible would come out of it, saying it will be “born dead” like other similar US attempts to promote economic peace, from Reagan to Obama.

He also criticized Washington for moves viewed as biased toward Israel such as the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — which prompted the Palestinians to cut off ties with the White House in 2017 — and the downplaying of the two-state solution.

“The United States is doing a very dangerous thing,” Shtayyeh said. “We and the Israelis have agreed that Jerusalem is a negotiation issue. Now the United States is taking it off the table,” along with the issues of refugees and West Bank settlements.

“There are so many people who are blind, but we know — we know where they are taking us,” he charged. “I will tell you, this American design of this blackmail strategy, it will never yield. There are people who think, in Washington, unfortunately, that Palestinians have to be defeated, so they surrender, so they accept.”

In early 2018, the US, which was UNRWA’s biggest donor for decades, cut its contributions from $360 million to $60 million. In 2019, US contributions are zero.

Employees of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and their families protest against job cuts announced by the agency outside its offices in Gaza City on July 31, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

The agency serves some 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, who have not been naturalized in any country except Jordan and view UNRWA as a vital safety net, providing services that governments do not. Critics in the US and Israel accuse the agency of perpetuating the conflict, defining refugees differently from the main UN refugee agency, and promoting a culture of welfare dependency by maintaining an ever-growing population of people regarded as refugees.

Shtayyeh also threatened that the West Bank Palestinian leadership could rescind its recognition of Israel and return to armed struggle if the PA collapses.

Israel announced in February that it would withhold $138 million in monthly payments to the PA — to offset the PA’s payments to Palestinians jailed by Israel for terrorism and violence, and to the families of dead terrorists.

Israel says the PA payments to terrorists and their families encourage further violence and offer a direct incentive to commit attacks. The PA claims they are a form of welfare to families who have lost their main breadwinner.

The Palestinians have protested the law, refusing to receive any of the taxes Israel gathers for them on a monthly basis, as long as the Jewish state does not transfer them their full amount. “Politically, we cannot take it that our kids in jail are terrorists,” Shtayyeh explained.

Palestinian policemen participate in a training session at their headquarters in the West Bank city of Hebron on January 30, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

The taxes Israel collects and transfers to the PA make up hundreds of millions of shekels, more than half of its monthly budget.

Israel has several times reportedly tried to transfer $182 million to the PA, but the transactions were rejected. Jerusalem is concerned that if the PA collapses, it will destabilize the West Bank.

“We are in a collapsing situation. It’s a very hot summer, at every level,” he told the New York Times, threatening to lay off PA police officers if that scenario plays out, thus endangering the security cooperation with Israel that is much valued by Jerusalem for preventing terror attacks. “I hope we will not reach that point.”

“We will not dissolve the authority. But they can push it to collapse,” he said, adding that if that happens, the Palestinian Liberation Organization would go back to “running the show” and the recognition of Israel could be called into question.

“Our backs are really tight to the wall. We are now in control of the situation. I don’t know for how long,” Shtayyeh said.

In April, the Arab League pledged $100 million per month to the Palestinian Authority to make up for funds withheld by Israel.

PA Finance Minister Shukri Bishara has announced that Ramallah undertook a series of austerity measures to mitigate against the impact of the lack of funds on government operations, including the slashing of public employee salaries.

AFP and Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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