WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s threat to cut aid to countries that vote for a UN resolution condemning his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is likely just that — a threat.
But in merely issuing the warning, the president managed to both assert what he expects from allies in exchange for the money and highlight the importance of this particular issue for the White House — even at the expense of national security commitments normally seen as sacrosanct.
And even if he doesn’t actually cut aid money, he still might take other types of revenge in the international arena, former US officials said Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Trump followed a comment by UN envoy Nikki Haley that the US would be “taking names” Thursday of those countries that support a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Washington’s Jerusalem decision by cautioning that aid could be cut as a result.
“They take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars, and then they vote against us. Well, we’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We’ll save a lot. We don’t care,” Trump said at his last cabinet meeting of the year.
An actual slashing of funds, though, could seriously impact the national security interests protected by aid money, particularly that which goes to Arab allies Egypt and Jordan — nations that are all but certain to back the resolution.
It is “inconceivable” that the Trump White House would cut aid to either country, said Elliott Abrams, who held multiple high-level positions in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.
“In the case of Jordan, it’s a country with a friendly government that is now supporting a million Syrian refugees, that from a security point of view is an ally of ours when it comes to Iraq and Syria and Israel,” he told The Times of Israel. “So cutting off military aid to Jordan would be senseless from a point of American security interests in the Middle East. I don’t think that’s seriously being contemplated.”
With Egypt, the US made clear in 2015 how important it considers aid to its ally when it reinstated military aid that had been frozen two years earlier in response to the overthrow of president Mohammed Morsi by current leader Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.
The funding slash had led to worries that Egypt could cancel its peace accord with Israel, destabilizing the Middle East.
Jordan and Egypt each get over $1 billion a year from the US in military and other aid, according to the Congressional Research Service, money dwarfed only by the over annual $3 billion Israel gets. The money is considered as both humanitarian aid and a strategic investment, keeping the countries in Washington’s sphere of influence. Were it cut, the vacuum could be filled by Russia or other powerful countries.
One former diplomat, however, said if countries were not backing the US in international forums, DC might be better off investing at least some of it elsewhere.
“Why not spend money for the same reason on countries that are prepared to work with the United States in the field of international affairs?” Richard Schifter, the former assistant secretary of state for humanitarian affairs in the Reagan and Bush administrations, as well as an ex-US envoy to the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, told The Times of Israel. “I’m not suggesting that we cut it all off, but factor UN votes into this and then make the appropriate allocations.”
Egypt has been one country that has consistently voted in favor of the myriad UN resolutions condemning the Jewish state for years, including a Security Council vote last year on Resolution 2334, which criticized Israel for its ongoing settlement enterprise in the West Bank, branding the settlement enterprise illegal, including in Jerusalem.
The Security Council resolution that condemned Trump’s Jerusalem move was supported by 14 states before being vetoed by Haley on Monday was drafted by Cairo. But the US has never publicly threatened to cut aid to Egypt over votes at the UN.
With Trump’s threat on Wednesday, nevertheless, the US may be following the playbook of Israel, which has become intertwined with Washington in this battle at the UN.
Last year, after the UN Security Council passed its resolution condemning Israeli settlements, Israel cut aid to some African countries that supported the measure and leveled other diplomatic punishments at Western allies, such as recalling ambassadors, summoning foreign envoys on Christmas and reportedly canceling high-level meetings.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that there are times when the US deems UN votes significant enough to inform decisions over where to allocate aid, but one vote is usually not the deciding factor.
“Historically, we have sometimes considered UN votes when allocating aid,” he told The Times of Israel. “But it’s usually not about just one issue or one vote. So this would, I believe, be a precedent. It would also be a very bad idea because it would be trying to dictate to other countries how they should think about a specific issue that involves many matters of diplomatic strategy.”
And yet, Abrams, for his part, said the resolution up for a vote on Thursday is different from past resolutions.
“We have vetoed in the past plenty of resolutions and we have lost plenty of votes in the General Assembly that condemn Israel for something in a way that we think is very unfair,” he said. “But this isn’t about Israel. The United States made a decision about its diplomacy and the location of its embassy. We are being condemned. That’s what’s different about this.”
What could the US actually do, though?
While Abrams, a figure of the Washington establishment and pro-Israel community, who is often billed as a neoconservative, doesn’t deem it likely Trump would actually roll back American aid to allies that vote for the Thursday resolution, he said there are other ways to make those countries pay.
“There have been occasions when we have taken a harder line. I can remember occasions during the Bush administration when people on the White House Staff called foreign ministers and prime ministers and made it very clear that a particular vote had affected the bilateral relationship, and that it was now worse than it had been the day before,” he said.
Instead of doing something that could damage US interests, the former diplomat said the next time the foreign minister or prime minister of one of these countries wants to meet with the US secretary of state or Trump’s national security adviser, they could just just say no; or the next time the secretary of state is due for a visit in the region, they could skip a stop in the capital of that country.
“There are ways of showing displeasure that don’t destroy a relationship but that make the countries know that this is not something you can do without damaging the bilateral relationship,” Abrams said.
“When people seek a World Bank loan or an IMF program, friends of ours, they will often come to the United States and say, ‘This what we’re asking for. We assume we’ll have your support.’ That’s the kind of thing where we could say, ‘Well, we assumed we’d have your support in the General Assembly. We’ll think about it,'” he continued.
Actions like that, Abrams indicated, could be more efficacious than hollow threats that can’t be delivered on, like pulling aid from key US allies in the region.
“What you really want them to do is that the next time somebody tries this, they work with us to avoid such a vote,” he said. “The goal here is not just to say, ‘We’re angry.’ The goal is to say, ‘We’re angry and this better not happen again.'”