There is no such thing as a selfless act. To few issues does this oft-repeated truism better apply than to the question of international aid. From World Bank structural adjustment loans, to the billions channelled by the US to client regimes like the former dictatorship of Housni Mubarak in Egypt, aid is almost always conditional, political, and in most cases serves as another tool of influence in the statesman’s armoury.
The push by US Congress members opposed to a Palestinian bid for statehood to freeze $200 million in humanitarian aid destined for the Palestinian Authority (PA) is an example of how this aid tap can be simply turned on and off by rich and powerful states. Aid is being used in an attempt to wield influence and express displeasure at the Palestinians’ audacity to dare exercise a choice not in line with that of the US. America has wielded its financial might in a brazen attempt to push the Palestine statehood question off the agenda, lest that fated day come when the US might actually be forced to use its veto in the Security Council – a situation that the US administration would want to avoid at all costs.
Ever since the historic handshake on the White House lawn that formalised the Oslo Accords in September 1993 and the start of the so-called ‘Peace Process’, aid has been a central feature of the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. Both the Israeli and Palestinian administrations have benefited from Western (and in the Palestinian case, also Arab) largesse, making the West Bank and Gaza Strip the recipient of one of the highest and longest sustained per capita aid disbursements in the world.
However, it has been a case of money doled out in return for political stalemate and the acquiescence of the PA to a fundamentally flawed and ill-intentioned peace process; a formula of ambling, protracted, bilateral negotiations between two unequal interlocutors, which all but sidestepped and deferred the major questions of refugees, settlements and final borders. Meanwhile successive Israeli administrations have been able to establish facts on the ground in the form of increased settlements, expansion of the Separation Wall, and continued Palestinian dispossession. In an all too familiar vein, the last direct peace negotiations collapsed a year ago after Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, refused to extend a limited moratorium on building Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to return to the negotiating table only if settlement building is stopped. Netanyahu’s announcement in mid-October of plans to build 2,610 apartments in Givat Hamatos in East Jerusalem hardly bode well then for a resumption of talks.
It is against this backdrop of faltering prospects for a negotiated solution that President Abbas took his bid for Palestinian statehood to the United Nations. This bid reflects a move away from this pattern of events where fruitless talks provide the cover for Israel to continue its expansionist policies – even if the PA’s bid lends hope on mainly a symbolic level only. No one seriously considers that Palestinian membership to the United Nations will immediately change the daily reality of life under occupation, however, Abbas and the PA’s bold gesture reflects a new mood and a desire to wrest events out of their counter-productive post-Oslo cycle. Indeed, this new direction is worrisome enough for Israel and its allies, so much so as to cause Israeli-leaning circles in the US administration to lead the frantic diplomatic charges against the PA that we are currently witnessing.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning in early October to UNESCO’s governing body, “to think again before proceeding with that vote”, should UNESCO not want to see its US funding cut, is one such example of this barely concealed and shamefaced attempt to isolate the PA. As the events over the past days have shown, this was no empty threat as UNESCO’s decision to admit Palestine as a permanent member on Monday was followed by an immediate US decision to withold its funds from the Agency, along with an Israeli decision to further rachet up settlement building. Use of the aid weapon is however, not something new to this conflict. In 2007 following Hamas’s rise to power in the Gaza Strip, the international donor community immediately suspended aid to the PA in a bid to ‘punish’ Hamas – and in consequence the Palestinian people – for an outcome that the West did not want. Equally revealing is the type of aid that is cut in this political game. While aid continues to flow to Gaza, it is primarily humanitarian in nature, a form of assistance that largely bypasses state structures; the barely-veiled hope is that this will weaken Hamas. This is in contrast to developmental and capacity building aid, which if directed well can be used in support of state-building.
The latest aid freeze to the PA follows a similar logic and includes money usually directed to USAID or channelled through the World Bank, sustaining programmes aimed at building the capacity of the private sector or the domestic investment environment. Targetting aid that strengthens the institutions of the nascent state is a clear indication of the punitive nature of Congress’ actions, which if it continues, would help put a spanner in the works for the fledgling Palestinian state – even if a little less dependency would be a beneficial thing for the PA in the long run.
Despite President Barack Obama’s attempts to lobby Congress to unblock this aid, he continues to stand by the Israeli line that seeking statehood via a UN vote cannot be a substitute for a negotiated peace treaty. Obama’s adherence to this tired line after almost two decades of failed negotiations, and at the expense of the Palestinian presence on their land, has clearly shown that the US is not and never has been the honest broker that it claims to be. There has been speculation of a UN Security Council vote on the Palestinian statehood bid as early as 11 November. It is said that “money talks”. We will wait until that day to find out just how much.
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