MK Einat Wilf, AIPAC, and the “Kirk amendment” on UNRWA refugees

Posted: June 12, 2012 by Rex Brynen in Israel, peace process, right of return, UNRWA, US

Today’s issue of Haaretz (12 June 2012) has a good story on the recent Senate amendment to the US FY2013 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, which would require the State Department to report on how many UNRWA-registered refugees originated within Israel, and how many are descendants of that original group.

Known as the Kirk Amendment, after its sponsor, Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), considered one of Israel’s strongest supporters in Washington, the bill conceals within its 150-plus words a fierce battle between Republican legislators and the State Department over the United States’ relationship with UN institutions.

Every year the United States allocates $250 million to UNRWA, which provides food as well as health, education and employment services to millions of Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. For years Congressional representatives have been trying to reduce U.S. contributions to the agency, on the grounds that UNRWA was born in sin and that its policies are anti-Israeli.

What is not common knowledge in the Beltway is that the Kirk Amendment got its start in the Jerusalem office of MK Einat Wilf (Atzmaut ), who toiled for months, together with AIPAC lobbyists and Kirk’s staff, to promote the change.

The report highlights both Israel’s rather schizophrenic attitude towards UNRWA, and the slight changes in Israeli policy that have occurred under the Netanyahu government. On the one hand, officials at the Israeli Ministry of Defence were wary about any initiative that might reduce overall UNRWA funding:

Wilf met with senior Defense Ministry policy official Amos Gilad and explained that she sought to end the agency’s policy of giving refugee status to successive generations of Palestinian refugees. “UNRWA’s activities perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of solving it,” Wilf says.

In a letter he sent Wilf in January, Gilad set the boundaries for her initiative, writing that the UNRWA budget should not be harmed , and that “UNRWA plays an important role in aiding the Palestinian population.”

“One must prevent a circumstance which endangers the continued transfer of these [UNRWA] services, services that align with Israeli interests,” Gilad added.

On the other hand, there was some political encouragement from both the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister’s office:

After Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Ron Dermer, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign-policy adviser, gave their approval to Wilf’s efforts, she returned to AIPAC staffers and also approached Steven J. Rosen, a former foreign policy director for the organization who now works for a Washington think tank, to get things rolling on Capitol Hill.

Reaction in the Arab world to the move has been very negative, but somewhat exaggerated. Certainly the move is intended to weaken refugee claims by implying that most UNRWA-registered refugees aren’t really refugees at all. However, at this point it doesn’t challenge UNRWA funding, nor could the US easily get UNRWA to alter its eligibility rules—power over the UNRWA mandate, after all, resides at the UN General Assembly. How US senators do or do not want to count refugees would certainly have no practical effect on any future refugee negotiations, which aren’t likely to happen any time soon in any case. Indeed, as I’ve argued before, the move could even backfire by resulting in a much strong UN endorsement of refugee rights.

That being said, the episode does point to several important sets of trends and issues that need to be thought about more thoroughly:

  • What are the implications for UNRWA, and for refugees, of prolonged statement in the “peace process”? Can UNRWA indeed continue to muddle through by providing the current level and types of services to an ever-expanding number of registrants?
  • Does UNRWA need to shift to a more asymmetric mode of service delivery? Should greater priority be given the stateless, marginalized refugees in Lebanon (for example), and even less to those (citizen, tax-paying) refugees in Jordan? If so, should this been done on the basis of need, status, or some combination of the two?
  • Has Israeli policy shifted on UNRWA, and if so what might be the implications of this?
  • Is there need for a more frank, and realistic, discussion of the “right of return”?
  • How do attacks upon UNRWA as a perpetuator of conflict inhibit its ability to deliver services? What are their operational implications for fund-raising, perceptions of neutrality, and so forth?

These are all thorny issues indeed, and well worth some quiet and thoughtful discussion. (Any refugee workshop organizers out there, take note!)

  1. Oliver Currie says:

    Thank you, Rex, this is an interesting piece and useful to have in freely accessible blog, since the Haaretz article is subscription only.

    This bill is essentially a PR exercise and I think it would be helpful to put it more in context. Pro-Israeli, anti-Peace views typically attack Palestinian attempts to strengthen their position viz-a-viz Israel and the international community – for example the Palestinian bid for statehood in the UN and the BDS campaign – as “deligimitising Israel”. We could equally describe this bill as an attempt to deligimitise the Palestinian refugees both as “Palestinian” and as “refugees” – as “Palestinian” by implying that they do not belong to Palestine but to the other countries, in particular the Arab countries, where they now reside, and as “refugees” by implying that they have not suffered any loss or material or psychological loss and as such are not entitled to any aid. Although the bill apparently focuses on a specific group of Palestinian refugees, I suspect that there is a wider PR goal behind of trying to deny Israeli any responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem and argue that the Palestinian refugees do not have any valid claim against Israel.

    You should mention, as you also failed to do in your blog on the right of return to which you give a link in the present blog, is that descendants of Palestinians expelled from Israel (and the West Bank and Gaza) have also suffered physical loss and the deprivation of fundamental rights at the hands of Israel,in that property which they should have inherited in Israel has been confiscated and given to Jewish Israelis and in that their freedom of movement has been severely curtailed. Whether or not it is realistic for these descendants of Palestinians expelled from Israel to return to Israel, they should not be expected simply to “give up” their right of return. Their loss should be officially recognised and they should be fully compensated for it either financially, by Israel ceding land specifically for such refugees to live in which would become part of new Palestinian State or by allowing them to live in Israel as Israeli citizens.

    The irony is that even if the US were to reduce aid to UNRWA on this pretext, it would still continue to spend much larger sums on military assistance to Israel which is used oppress the Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza even more.

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