Whose Middle East Policy Is It, Anyway?
The State Department contradicts Obama and previous presidents on the “right of return.”


Clifford D. May

If we set up an organization to provide health care, over time more people should get well. If we set up an organization to assist the poor, over time more people should earn a living. If we set up an organization to resettle refugees, over time more displaced persons should find permanent homes, acquire citizenship, and cease being refugees.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency was set up in the late 1940s after Palestinian Arab forces, backed by the armies of five Arab nations, rejected a U.N. partition plan — what we now call a two-state solution — and launched a war to destroy the fledgling State of Israel. Initially, UNRWA’s mission was to “reintegrate” Palestinian Arabs displaced during the fighting into the normal life of the Middle East.

That mission changed about 1960. In a paper soon to be published in The Middle East Quarterly, Steven J. Rosen, Washington director of the Middle East Forum, documents how UNRWA, for the past half-century, has sought not to diminish the Palestinian-refugee problem but to enlarge it — even while Israel was resettling hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab and other Muslim lands.

I first wrote about this a few weeks ago, noting Senator Mark Kirk’s plan to cut not a dollar of American support for UNRWA but simply to stimulate an honest discussion based on reliable data. He has now done that: Last week the Senate Appropriations Committee, on a unanimous and bipartisan basis, approved legislation requiring the State Department to tell Congress how many of the 5 million Palestinians currently receiving assistance from UNRWA were among the approximately 750,000 individuals displaced during the war against Israel, and how many are their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

A statement from Kirk’s office explained, “With U.S. taxpayers providing more than $4 billion to UNRWA since 1950, the watershed reporting requirement will help taxpayers better understand whether UNRWA truly remains a refugee assistance organization or has become a welfare agency for low-income residents of the Levant.”

Kirk’s legislation was strenuously opposed not just by UNRWA but also by the State Department. When it passed anyway, State communicated its displeasure in both a letter to the senators on the committee and a statement to Josh Rogin, a staff writer at Foreign Policy. By doing so, State dramatically shifted U.S. policy. Back in 1965, the U.S. government objected to UNRWA’s decision to award refugee status to the descendants of refugees. Now, State is saying it supports that decision and, what’s more, it sees no reason for Congress even to have access to basic information about those receiving American aid.

Rogin pointed out that the State Department’s views “appear to conflict with the United States Law on Derivative Refugee Status,” which specifically prohibits extending refugee status to grandchildren. In other words, a Palestinian could not seek admission to the U.S. as a refugee on the grounds that his grandfather was a refugee.