White House ‘reviewing’ aid to Palestinians after threats to slash funds

Official says move in reaction to PA’s ‘recent conduct,’ days after Trump warns he might shut spigot over Ramallah’s refusal to enter peace talks

US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Republican members of the Senate on January 4, 2018. (AFP/ JIM WATSON)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Republican members of the Senate on January 4, 2018. (AFP/ JIM WATSON)

WASHINGTON — The White House is examining possible aid cuts to the Palestinian Authority, a senior administration official said Thursday, days after US President Donald Trump threatened to slash funding over Ramallah’s refusal to work with Washington on peace talks.

“We are reviewing our assistance to the Palestinians in light of their recent conduct, per the president’s recent message,” the official told The Times of Israel.

The comments came after Trump tweeted late Tuesday that he wanted to cut funding to the Palestinians “because they are no longer willing to talk peace.”

The administration has sent mixed signals, however, over whether it is looking to cut all funding to the Palestinians, or just that which is funneled to the UN refugee agency UNRWA.

On Wednesday, a US official told The Times of Israel the administration was evaluating its financial backing of the UN Relief and Works Agency, while noting that the US views UNRWA’s work as vital to stability in the region.

“We continue to review the impact and effectiveness of UNRWA’s aid programs,” the official said. “This is prudent, and indeed, it is our duty to the American taxpayer.”

And yet, the official also praised UNRWA.

“We continue to review the impact and effectiveness of UNRWA’s aid programs,” the official told The Times of Israel, referring to the UN Relief and Works Agency. “This is prudent, and indeed, it is our duty to the American taxpayer.”

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks with the press at United Nations headquarters in New York City on January 2, 2018. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

On Tuesday, US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley warned US support for UNRWA would end if the PA refuses to enter negotiations with Israel.

“I think the president has basically said that he doesn’t want to give any additional funding until the Palestinians are agreeing to come back to the negotiation table,” she said. “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.”

The United States was the biggest donor to UNRWA in 2016, giving $368,429,712. The same year, it donated another $357 million to Palestinian aid projects, including $290 million through USAID and $54 million for security and justice assistance.

The US does not deliver aid money directly into the PA’s coffers. Instead, to avoid possible misuse of funds, particularly to pay the salaries of convicted terrorists, the US channels aid into specific projects.

Palestinians receive aid at a United Nations distribution center (UNRWA) in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip on July 31, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

While publicly backing the Trump administration’s moves, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working behind the scenes to prevent the US from cutting funds from UNRWA, fearing it could destabilize the Gaza Strip, the Hadashot news outlet reported Wednesday. There was no confirmation of this report.

The threats to cut these aid programs follow administration anger over Palestinian reaction to Trump’s decision last month to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Since Trump made the announcement on December 6 and set in motion plans to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said Washington can no longer function in its traditional role as a mediator in peace talks; he has not said, however, that he would not negotiate with Israel at all.

US President Donald Trump’s envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 25, 2017. (FLASH90)

Abbas has also refused to meet with American diplomats on Trump’s team responsible for shepherding a peace push, including Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt and Vice President Mike Pence, who is due to arrive in the region later this month.

US officials have been insisting that they remain intent on seeking a peace treaty. When Greenblatt came to the region two weeks ago, even though he was shunned by Ramallah, the administration emphasized that its peace efforts remain a priority.

Dov Lieber contributed to this report.

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