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Biden Builds Back Obama’s Middle East

Column: And makes a mockery of his democracy agenda

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• April 9, 2021 5:00 am

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That didn't take long. One week after piously and erroneously repudiating the Commission on Unalienable Rights established by his predecessor Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed the hollow selectivity of this administration's commitment to human rights and democratic reform.

On April 7, Blinken said he was "pleased to announce" the reinstatement of tens of millions of dollars in aid to the West Bank and Gaza and of some $150 million to support the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). "All assistance will be provided consistent with U.S. law," Blinken added.

Easier said than done. The Taylor Force Act, signed into law in 2018, withholds aid from the Palestinian Authority until the State Department certifies that the ruling party of the West Bank has terminated payments to family members of terrorists. It hasn't. That was one reason the Trump administration slashed the aid in the first place. Nor is there evidence that suddenly the Palestinians have curtailed the so-called pay-to-slay schemes that incentivize the murder of civilians and the perpetuation of conflict. On the contrary: They bristle at the idea of changing their corrupt and self-destructive ways.

A second law from 2018, the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, holds beneficiaries of foreign assistance legally and financially responsible for terrorism committed against U.S. citizens. This notion—that the Palestinian Authority might actually have to pay a price for its incitement to anti-Semitic violence—so terrified the leadership in the West Bank that it sent a letter to the Trump administration in February 2019 renouncing U.S. aid. I must have missed the make-up note postmarked Ramallah.

UNRWA long ago abandoned its original mission for anti-Israel activism. According to Pompeo, there are fewer than 200,000 Palestinian Arabs who remain displaced by the 1948 war. Rather than work to resettle this dwindling population, UNRWA devotes its resources to the delegitimization of Israel and to the perpetuation of a mythic "right of return" that obstructs peace. UNRWA also operates in the Gaza Strip, where its facilities were used by Hamas operatives and other terrorists during the 2014 war with Israel.

"Obviously, there are areas where we would like to see reform," State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a recent briefing. That's the understatement of the year. But what hope is there for reform of UNRWA when the Biden administration rewards it for doing nothing?

A conceit of President Joe Biden's foreign policy is that involvement in corrupt multilateral institutions somehow gives the United States an opportunity to improve them. "By resuming this assistance today, not only do we have that dialogue, but we have a seat at the table," Price said. "We can help drive UNRWA in the ways that we think it is in our interest and consistent with our values to do." That was also his argument for rejoining the World Health Organization and the U.N. Human Rights Council. He has little to show for it. The results so far: A propagandistic and misleading investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, and four anti-Israel resolutions. Having a seat at the table doesn't matter when everyone ignores you.

What was particularly galling about Blinken's announcement was its disconnect from the nature of Palestinian governance. Here is an administration that says the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism will define the 21st century. Here is an administration that prides itself on its support for human rights. And here is an administration that says it will be able to prevent millions in taxpayer funds from directly benefiting the Palestinian Authority, and thereby breaking U.S. law, by taking into account:

the intended primary beneficiary or end user of the assistance; whether the PA is the direct recipient of the assistance, of course; whether the assistance involves payments of Palestinian Authority creditors; the extent of ownership or control the PA exerts over an entity or an individual that is the primary beneficiary or end user of the assistance; and whether the assistance or, in some cases, the services provided directly replace assistance or services that the PA would otherwise provide.

Good luck. The renewed assistance, remember, will be circulated in a polity whose president is in the 16th year of a 4-year term, whose official corruption is legendary, whose 2.7 million subjects are policed by no less than six internal security forces, and whose entry in the 2020 State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices reads as follows:

reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, torture, and arbitrary detention by authorities; holding political prisoners and detainees; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including harassment of nongovernmental organizations; restrictions on political participation, as the Palestinian Authority has not held a national election since 2006; acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; violence and threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; anti-Semitism in school textbooks; violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and reports of forced child labor.

The entry for Hamas is no better.

For all of his "transformative" ambitions at home, Biden's Middle East policy is remarkably backward-looking and uninspired. By denying aid to the Palestinians and UNRWA, the Trump administration recognized that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had become a counterproductive sideshow, and that U.S. aid wasn't contributing to the resolution of conflict, but incentivizing it. The more urgent problem is Iran, which is why Trump was able to broker the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Morocco.

Now Biden has pivoted away from the anti-Iran coalition and toward the pro-Iran deal European allies. He's distanced himself from Israel and moved toward the Palestinians. He's rebuked the Saudis and coaxed the Houthis. He is trying to reconstruct, ever so slowly, Barack Obama's Middle East. But he hasn't really explained why this time will be different. After all: When you reward bad behavior, you get more of it. And that is exactly what Biden is doing.