Quarterly Updates for (16 Aug 2018 — 31 Dec 2018)

                By the end of 2018, U.S. president Donald Trump’s peace plan had still not been revealed nor had a date been set for when it would. First in September President Trump said (9/26) that the plan would be released within 4 months, which would be by the end of January 2019. Then in December a White House official stated that the peace plan might be published later in the year due to the Israeli elections. In his September announcement President Trump said that the plan involved a separate Palestinian state which he previously insinuated was still a question, despite long-standing U.S. policy. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Nikki Haley, who announced she would be leaving her position at the end of 2018, said in December that the peace plan was “much longer” than previous plans and would take advantage of technology. Palestinian ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour responded to Ambassador Haley’s comments by stating that the plan was “dead on arrival.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration continued its heavy-handed attack on Palestinians by cutting aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), aid for hospitals in East Jerusalem, aid for Palestinian Authority (PA) security cooperation with Israel, aid through the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID), and by closing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington.

                The Trump administration’s decision to cut all aid to the Palestinians was explained as an attempt to pressure the Palestinian leadership into negotiations with the U.S. for the still unseen peace plan. After President Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy to the city, the Palestinian leadership had officially stated that the U.S. was no longer a credible broker of peace. Prior to President Trump’s decision, PA president Mahmoud Abbas, PLO secretary-general Saeb Erakat, and PA ambassador to the U.S. Husam Zomlot had been in talks with the Trump administration and the negotiation team led by Jason Greenblatt, Jared Kushner, and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, but they have not met with the U.S. since December 2017. Then on 24 August, some 3 months after the new embassy was inaugurated in Jerusalem, the Trump administration announced that the U.S. would cut $200 million in funding to programs that support Palestinians. Exactly a week later (8/31), the U.S. State Department announced that the U.S would be cutting all funding for UNRWA, which serves Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. The then spokesperson for the State Department, and now nominee for U.S. ambassador to the UN, Heather Nauert said that UNRWA “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years.” The core of the U.S. assault on UNRWA was stipulated by then U.S. ambassador to the UN Haley when she stated, “We will be a donor if it [UNRWA] reforms what it does [. . .] if they actually change the number of refugees to an accurate account, we will look back at partnering them.” One of the core issues in the conflict between Israel and Palestine is the right of return an issue that the U.S. wants to reassess. From statements by U.S. officials it is clear that the U.S. increasingly questions the right of return for those Palestinians who are descendants of the 1947–1948 refugees.  

                Shortly after the U.S. announced that it would end funding for UNRWA and other Palestinian related projects, it declared (9/8) that funding for Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem would be cut by $25 million. On 14 September, in what by then had become a weekly assault on the Palestinian economy, it was reported that funding for USAID programs for Palestinians would be frozen for 2018. As a result USAID closed its operations in the West Bank and Gaza by the end of November. The agency also dismissed 60 percent of its staff in the West Bank and Gaza due to the policy decision. Furthermore, the Trump administration announced on 10 September that it would close the PLO office in Washington, which has served as the diplomatic link between the U.S. and the Palestinian leadership in the U.S. In a statement spokesperson Nauert said that the decision was made because “the PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.” The head of the Palestinian delegation to the U.S. responded that “such a reckless act confirms that the administration is blindly executing Israel’s ‘wish list’ which starts with shutting down Palestinian diplomatic representation in the US.” In what seems to be an attempt to bolster Israel’s claim on East Jerusalem, the Trump administration decided (10/18) to merge the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem with the new embassy in West Jerusalem. U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo said that the decision was made for the sake of efficiency and should not be seen as a signal of change for the U.S. policy on Jerusalem. The merger in practice means that the consulate, which will remain in East Jerusalem physically, will lose its relative autonomy from the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and will be under Ambassador Freidman’s control.   

                It was not just the executive branch of the U.S. government that sought to diminish Palestinian autonomy and rights, the U.S. Congress also enacted and proposed legislation that would limit and outlaw support of Palestinians and proponents of a boycott of Israel. On 3 October, President Trump signed the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, also known as ATCA. The new law will allow American citizens to sue foreign entities such as the PA if they receive money from the United States. The law, which would take effect on 1 February 2019, would also require the Jerusalem offices of USAID to close. A seemingly unforeseen consequence of ATCA is that the PA would reject aid for the already unpopular security cooperation with Israel, ending or reducing the security cooperation with Israel. Given that the security cooperation is widely popular in Israel and supported by the Trump administration, the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the PA Eric Wendt was dispatched to Congress to find a fix to the law before in went into effect. By the end of 2018 an amendment to the law had not been agreed upon by Congress. In December, as the U.S Congress was seeking to finalize a spending bill that would keep the U.S. government open, it was reported that some senators were trying to get the Israel Anti-Boycott Act included as part of the spending bill. The proposal would criminalize American companies and organizations that participate in boycotts of Israel with penalties up to $1 million. The bill drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the New York Times editorial board, and senators Bernie Sanders and Dianne Feinstein, among many others, as it would infringe free speech. As Congress failed to reach agreement on the spending bill that included $5 billion for President Trump’s wall on the U.S. southern border and thus caused a partial shutdown of the U.S. government, the future of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act was unknown by the end of 2018. On the state level a federal court blocked (9/27) an Arizona anti-Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions law that required state officials to create a blacklist of companies and organizations that were in support of boycotting Israel in order to ban them from getting state contracts. The challenge to the state law was filed by the ACLU. The ACLU also filed (12/19) a legal challenge against a Texas law that had gotten 4 contractors fired for boycotting Israel or the Israeli settlements on the West Bank.    

                In an interview with the Washington Post, President Trump said (11/27) that Israel was the reason that the U.S. was still involved in the Middle East. He argued, “oil is becoming less and less of a reason because we’re producing more oil now than we’ve ever produced. So, you know, all of a sudden it gets to a point where you don’t have to stay there.” Later in December, President Trump announced (12/19) he was pulling the U.S. troops out of Syria, prompting U.S. secretary of defense Jim Mattis to resign (12/20). After President Trump’s announcement, when asked about the decision’s impact on Israel President Trump said, “we give Israel $4.5 billion [. . .] Israel will be very good.” Ambassador Haley also presented (12/6) a resolution against Hamas to the UN General Assembly which was voted down (see United Nations). At midnight on December 31 the U.S. and Israel officially quit the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO. The decision was announced in October 2017 and the Trump administration cited anti-Israel bias as the reason for its withdrawal. In a similar disengagement with international institutions and citing the same reasons, U.S national security advisor John Bolton said (10/3) that the U.S. would review all international agreements that could bring the U.S. to the International Court of Justice and would put sanctions on the International Criminal Court (9/10).    

                In what was seen as another attempt to silence activists speaking out against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, Marc Lamont Hill was castigated after a speech at the UN (11/28) for the commemoration of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. In his speech Hill called for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea.” Which Hill after accusations of anti-Semitism had to explain “was not a call to destroy anything or anyone. It was a call for justice, both in Israel and in the West Bank/Gaza.” However, it was quickly interpreted as being anti-Semitic. CNN was swift to fire Hill who was employed as a contributor, and many pro-Israel individuals called for his firing at Temple University. Hill’s statement at the UN and the new class of Israel-sceptic congressional members voted into the House of Representatives in November sparked new debate over the U.S. discourse on Israel where anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are often conflated.   

                The documentary The Lobby made by Al-Jazeera in 2017 and then censored by the Qatari government was leaked by the Electronic Intifada in November. Qatar is said to have censored the documentary after pressure from the Israel lobby in the U.S. which is its target. Many damaging statements by members of the pro-Israel lobby were revealed in the documentary including direct links between the Israeli government and pro-Israel “think tanks,” how the controversial Canary Mission is funded and run, how the lobby uses astroturfing against activists for Palestine, and how members of the lobby think “anti-Semitism as a smear is not what is used to be” arguing that creating imaginary links between militants and activist for Palestine is a future tactic. The documentary can be seen on the Electronic Intifada’s website.