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COLUMN: Trump administration’s strategy for Israeli-Palestinian peace is ludicrous

A discernible strategy for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is starting to emerge from the Trump administration.

That strategy is to apply more pressure to the Palestinian side in hopes of persuading Palestinian leadership to surrender the rights of its people.

The latest steps in this strategy were announced by the State Department this past week. On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert announced the U.S. plans to withhold $65 million of the $125 million that was pledged to donate to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, in early 2018. On Thursday, Nauert announced the U.S. will also withhold a separate $45 million in food aid that was pledged in response to UNRWA’s West Bank/Gaza Emergency Appeal.

Nauert said there is still a chance either payment will be made in the future, but only if UNRWA makes reforms. She would not specify what these reforms should entail.

This comes as Gaza, suffering through the 11th year of a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade, is in a humanitarian crisis. UNRWA stated in 2016 that 80 percent of Gazans depend on aid.

Nauert claimed these changes in pledged funding were not to punish the Palestinians, but that claim is directly undercut by recent threats made by President Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley.

If this were about budget concerns, the obvious place to make cuts would be the $3.1 billion in aid the U.S. plans to give Israel in 2018.

The Trump administration’s most significant blow to the Palestinians was the recognition of  Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, despite the internationally agreed-upon principle that East Jerusalem is an occupied territory that should go to the Palestinians in a two-state solution.

The U.S. is sending a clear message to the Palestinians: relinquish your rights or face punishment. 

Pressuring the Palestinians is the opposite of what is needed to achieve a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict. The reason why peace efforts have failed for so many years, as International Crisis Group analyst Nathan Thrall has cogently argued, is the lack of pressure on Israel.

Any Israeli prime minister who agrees to the international consensus — a truly sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem, and a resolution of the refugee problem that a Palestinian leader could realistically agree to — would be committing political suicide.

Such a solution would involve uprooting hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories. It would involve dividing Jerusalem when even the leader of the liberal-centrist opposition party Yesh Atid has declared Jerusalem non-negotiable.

Israel, by far the more powerful party, currently controls every part of historic Palestine to some degree. Israelis live in relative comfort and security. The only thing that can persuade Israel to create a Palestinian state is massive external pressure.

Many Palestinians live under military occupation, in refugee camps or in extreme poverty. The idea of putting them, rather than Israel, under further pressure is ludicrous.

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