Is the Arab-Israeli conflict really about economics? U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently claimed "People in Israel aren't waking up every day and wondering if tomorrow there will be peace because there is a sense of security and a sense of accomplishment and of prosperity."
This was echoed by New York Times reporter Ethan Bronner, who recently took Israelis to task for their economic success; they have "moved on" from the conflict with the Palestinians which still looms like an "iceberg" in front of their "Titanic."
Presumably the flip side to Israeli prosperity is Palestinian poverty. But this is a harder claim to make. After all, Palestinians are by far the world's largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid, having received more than $12 billion over the past 15 years. Through UNRWA the international community, meaning mostly the U.S. and the European Union, also provides another $500 million a year to support Palestinian health, education and welfare services.
But, as a new report from the World Bank notes, Western largesse has predictably bred Palestinian dependence and under-development rather than prosperity. For example, there is a huge construction and services bubble in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, but the rest of the West Bank economy remains under-developed. The public sector is the largest employer, and it includes Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails. Vast amounts of money continue to disappear into the bank accounts of the Palestinian Authority leadership and their cronies. How much of the over $12 billion has actually reached Palestinians is unknown, since Western donors prefer not to know.
Rising Palestinian unemployment and food costs are likely to have motivated Kerry's latest plan, announced at the World Economic Forum "to mobilize $4 billion of investment" in the West Bank, in areas including tourism, construction, light manufacturing, building materials and information technology. Unnamed experts predict the West Bank's GDP will rise by 50% in three years and unemployment will drop dramatically.
Who would invest $4 billion in the West Bank economy is a mystery. Arab states have bigger problems like fighting a proxy war with in Iran in Syria and propping up the collapsing Egyptian economy, which has received grants and loans from Gulf states like Qatar totaling $5 billion. A measure of Arab interest in the Palestinians is shown by the recent Saudi Arabian donation of $86 million to UNRWA for projects in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon.
But the Palestinians also made their opinion clear. Mohammad Mustafa, economic advisor to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas's said "The Palestinian leadership will not offer political concessions in exchange for economic benefits." The Palestinians reject economic investment and possibility of self-reliance because it would require a negotiated settlement. Instead they demand welfare.
UNRWA is particularly content to play along. Recently, Ann Dismorr, the director of the UNRWA in Lebanon, posed during a launch of German-funded projects in Lebanon with a map in which Israel did not exist and the entire area from Jordan to the Mediterranean was titled "Arab Palestine."
When criticized for this blatant endorsement of Palestinian rejectionism, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness indignantly stated "UNRWA categorically rejects accusations in the media that the Agency is 'erasing Israel from the map' because its officials and stakeholders stood next to a map which does not show Israel… The map in question is an embroidery depicting a pre-1948 map and therefore ante-dates the creation of the state of Israel." The presence of the Palestine Liberation Organization flag – both invented during the 1960s, suggests Gunness misunderstands the history of the region, or at least its flags.
Gunness's disingenuous answer is standard for UNRWA, which claims to support peace even as it is part of the Palestinian welfare system that supports rejectionism and encourages dependency. In another published response to recent criticism Gunness repeated yet again UNRWA's talking points on its mission. After denying that UNRWA personnel have been involved with terrorism, and that its facilities have been used by terrorists, Gunness states that "UNRWA will continue to advocate for the full protection of the human rights of Palestine refugees as required by UN resolutions and international law. We will continue to advocate for a resolution of their plight in the context of a just and lasting peace, agreed by the parties in consultation with the refugees, whose freely exercised and informed choices must be respected. It is the failure of the parties to reach such a peace that has led to the perpetuation of the refugee question, not UNRWA's continued service provision, without which hundreds of thousands of the most disadvantaged people in the Middle East would be deprived of essential services – a situation that would hardly advance regional stability. Meanwhile, we will continue with our empowering human development work in education, health, relief and social services, thus contributing to calm in the communities in which refugees live"
None of the missions UNRWA now claims for itself are found in UNRWA's original charter, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 393 (V) of December 2, 1950. This mandate stated simply "without prejudice to the provisions of paragraph 11 of General Assembly resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948, the reintegration of the refugees into the economic life of the Near East, either by repatriation or resettlement, is essential in preparation for the time when international assistance is no longer available, and for the realization of conditions of peace and stability in the area."
There was nothing about UNRWA 'advocating' for Palestinian refugees, who, according to the United Nations, have their own 'state' called Palestine. There was nothing about 'advocating' for any sort of resolution to the conflict, much less about UNRWA being part of a mechanism that solicits the refugees' agreement for a peace deal. And there is nothing about "empowering human development work." All these are mandates that UNRWA has assumed for itself. And by demanding that it have a part in 'consulting' with refugees about a settlement, UNRWA explicitly aligns itself with the rejectionist mainstream in Palestinian society.
Why UNRWA does this is obvious: its continued existence is at risk. Its almost 30,000 Palestinian employees, who perform tasks that rightfully belong to the Palestinian Authority, are paid for by the West. It has every incentive to enmesh itself deeper and deeper into Palestinian society and to become more of an obstacle to a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Why the West continues to pay for this, instead of turning the money over the Palestinian Authority with the demand that they step up to their responsibilities, is another problem.
Alexander Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.