Back in 2012, I warned a friend who was working on international trade issues: pay attention to what’s happening with the Palestinians at the UN, because it could cause problems for the U.S. on a wide range of issues, including the ones you deal with. I recall clearly his response, mainly because it was so patronizing. In essence, he told me: “don’t kid yourself – nobody is going to let a boutique issue like Israel-Palestine harm truly important U.S. interests (like trade).”
Now, five years later, President-elect Trump and his surrogates are dropping heavy hints about plans to break with longstanding U.S. positions vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the direction of changes that both Israelis and Palestinians would view as turning away from a negotiated peace agreement. And like my friend in 2012, few people today seem to grasp the consequences – entirely unrelated to Israel and the Palestinians – such changes are set to unleash, or the profoundly negative implications they would have for all Americans.
The most widely-anticipated policy change is moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (which in the short-term would require just switching the signs in front of U.S. diplomatic facilities). Another possibility is kicking the official representatives of the Palestinians out of Washington. A third is ending aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Why focus on these three? Among other reasons, because all are already required by law: a 1995 law requires the transfer of the embassy; a 1988 law bars the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the recognized representative of the Palestinians, from operating in the U.S.; and Congress has for nearly two decades passed legislation every year barring funding to the PA. However, Congress also gives presidents the authority to waive implementation of each of these laws, in an arrangement that lets legislators score political points with pro-Israel hardliners, while leaving space for presidents to preserve responsible policies.
Rash action by Trump in this arena is preordained to trigger a dangerous political dynamic, the results of which will have nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians.
Until now, presidents from both parties have consistently exercised these waivers; by merely ceasing to do so, Trump could change any or all of these policies, immediately and on his own.
Why should the average American care if he does? Because in another area related to the Palestinians, U.S. laws don’t give presidents any flexibility at all. And if these laws are triggered, the potential implications for Americans are, as president-elect Trump might say, huge.
Specifically, back in the early 1990s Congress passed laws requiring the U.S. to de-fund any United Nations (UN) agency that admits the Palestinians as a member. De-funding means, by the way, both giving up virtually all U.S. influence in and massively cutting the overall budget of the agency in question.
Back then, nobody gave the laws a second thought, since in those days it was considered beyond the pale to suggest that there might ever be a Palestinian state. Today, things are very different. Support for a two-state solution has been U.S. policy since 2002, and in 2012, the Palestinians were admitted to the UN as a non-member observer state. This status grants them the right to join specialized UN agencies – a right the U.S. cannot block, and admission in many cases is either automatic or requires only a simple majority vote.
Congress has never fixed this legislative anachronism. Its failure to do so led to a showdown in 2011, after the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) admitted the Palestinians as a member. At the time, powerful members of Congress rejected pressure to find a way for the U.S. to avoid cutting off its nose to spite its face in UNESCO – and in any other UN agency – over the Palestinians. As Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) put it: “There’s a lot of bipartisan support for cutting off funding to any political U.N. organization that would do this...” and “If the U.N. is going to be a body that buys into Palestinian statehood … then they suffer. It’s a decision they make.”
More recently, many of the same members of Congress who rejected giving a waiver to permit continued funding of UNESCO slammed that same body for adopting a resolution on Jerusalem that Israel strongly opposed — while ignoring the reason why the Obama Administration was powerless to influence the outcome. And on January 4, 2017, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a resolution that, among other things, reiterated that admission of the Palestinians to UN agencies would likely trigger a cut-off in funding.
After joining UNESCO, the Palestinians put the brakes on plans to join other UN agencies, but actions by President Trump to change U.S. policy on the status of Jerusalem, the legitimacy of the PLO, and the viability of the PA virtually guarantee that they will again step on the accelerator. And if Americans didn’t notice or care when the U.S. effectively quit UNESCO (despite a highly informative and entertaining two-part report on the issue on the Daily Show), they are sure to do both when it comes to other UN agencies the Palestinians are poised to join.
Take, for example, the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). Americans already feeling threatened by the nuclear programs of countries like Iran and North Korea will have even greater reason to worry when the Trump Administration has to de-fund the key watchdog monitoring civilian nuclear programs around the world (the U.S. is the IAEA’s largest donor, so de-funding would be devastating to its operations).
Or what about the World Health Organization (WHO)? After being forced by Zika and Ebola to accept that borders can’t stop the spread of deadly diseases, Americans will have greater reason to be fear for their own well-being when Trump is forced to cut off funding to the key international body charged with dealing with international epidemics and pandemics.
Then there are the immediate concerns to most Americans: jobs and the economy. Here let’s consider the impact of the U.S. de-funding the World Food Program (WFP) and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Rural America may not care about the Israelis or Palestinians, but American farmers and shippers will be shocked when agricultural export programs specifically designed to benefit U.S. farmers and shippers suddenly end.
And then there is the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). While threatening to pull out of trade agreements and organizations like these may seem like smart politics in an election season, America’s businesses may be less sanguine when, because of actions taken on Israel-Palestine, Trump literally has no choice but to give up all influence in organizations from which US businesses derive real benefits when it comes to defending their rights and equities around the world.
Many Americans doubtless believe that the policies of the next president regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have nothing to do with them. They’re mistaken. Rash action by Trump in this arena is preordained to trigger a dangerous political dynamic, the results of which will have nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians. Those results will, however, have far-reaching and potentially devastating implications for the security, health, and economic well-being of all Americans.