Capitol Hill in Washington was rocked late last month when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an amendment requiring the State Department, for the first time, to do a “count” of Palestinian refugees.
The amendment required the State Department to specify how many of the five million Palestinians who receive aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency are refugees who were personally displaced from their homes in 1948, and how many are descendants of those refugees.
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.
Last September, as the Palestinians prepared their unilateral bid at the UN, Wilf met with representatives of the pro-Israel lobby in Israel. “I asked them why they weren’t doing anything about UNRWA,” Wilf says, adding: “The answer I got was that figures in the Israeli government had blocked such moves in the past.”
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 initiate, 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.
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.
In April Wilf and Rosen met with Kirk’s deputy chief of staff, Richard Goldberg. Kirk is recovering from a stroke he suffered a few months ago, and Goldberg is promoting the senator’s legislative efforts.
After a preliminary draft of the bill was worded, AIPAC officials went on board in an attempt to pass it, holding meeting with many of the senators on the appropriations committee in an attempt to sway them into supporting the legislation.
However, opposing the move were State Department officials, who went as far as sending a harshly worded letter to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations Patrick Leahy.
In the letter, the State Department indicated that the United States recognized the refugee status of 5 million Palestinians, and accepts UNRWA’s definition of refugee descendents as refugees themselves.
While the State Department’s opposition succeeded in altering the bill, it did not bring about its cancellation, with the legislation eventually passed in the panel.
The amendment serves as a precedent since it represents the first time that a Senate committee sets demands to the American administration concerning UNRWA’s through legislation, even if it’s only the demand to report.
Responding to the report, Wilf said that her position was that “settlement building and the continued status of Palestinian refugees are both obstacles to peace.”
“I have nothing against the descendents of refugees and I’m not asking them to give up of their dream of returning, but if we want a two-state solution, UNRAW can’t continue to aid an inflation of refugees,” she added, saying: “It ends up harming peace.”