The ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians could soon claim a new, unexpected victim: the global fight against Ebola and other pandemics.
A looming international controversy—created, in part, by American laws—threatens to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars to the World Health Organization, already reeling from the effects of the recent Ebola pandemic.
In the mid-1990s, Congress passed a series of measures that would defund any United Nations agency that admitted the Palestinian Liberation Organization as a member, in a move to disincentivize unilateral Palestinian action.
But with a peace deal with Israel nowhere in sight, the Palestinians have incentives to look for other avenues to boost their international standing, including the United Nations.
And while the international standing of the Palestinians has nothing to do with Ebola, or the next pandemic that could threaten global health, American laws have handcuffed U.S. foreign policy to Palestinian actions.
The World Health Assembly meets next month, and if the Palestinians make a successful bid for membership, the United States would have no choice but to withdraw funding for the global health initiatives it currently funds.
“Lives are unquestionably on the line,” said Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign, which is dedicated to fostering the U.S.-U.N. relationship. “That would cut off all American funding to the organization, which really would severely limit our ability to cooperate with the organization… and protect Americans from pandemics.”
Last month Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pledged that there would be no Palestinian state under his tenure. (He later walked back the remarks.) Hawkish lawmakers in the U.S. have agreed: Republican Senator Tom Cotton has said it is “a statement of fact” that there is unlikely to be a Palestinian state anytime soon; probable GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio echoed this sentiment, saying the “conditions do not exist for a peace deal.”
“In light of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statements… I think the Palestinians are not terribly optimistic about the peace process is going to go anywhere, and therefore they may seek additional U.N. memberships, including the World Health Organization,” Yeo said.
The World Health Organization has already suffered from a budget crisis in recent years, including the layoffs of more than 300 technical staff in 2011, according to a CSIS report (PDF).
American contributions to the World Health Organization amounted to $290 million in 2013, according to the Better World Foundation, citing State Department figures. Among other programs, it goes toward the agency’s work in global disease surveillance, detection, and response.
Democratic Representative Keith Ellison has been pressing for reform of the American laws for several years, ever since Palestine joined the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a member state and the U.S. was forced to cut off funding. He said that he had prepared legislative language that he is ready to introduce, but was waiting to get buy-in from congressional leadership first.
“This bill is simply punishing the Palestinians for seeking out membership in the U.N. organizations… It’s time to push forward and at least ensure that the president has waiver authority” to continue funding critical agencies, Ellison told The Daily Beast.
The White House declined to comment on whether they were working with Congress on reforming the law to create waivers that would allow them to continue funding critical agencies like the World Health Organization, but then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2012 that she would welcome a waiver.
Ellison continued, “We’re going to introduce the bill or the policy is going to be changed… I would have thought that this issue was resolved long [ago].”
The chief representative of the PLO delegation to the United States, Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, declined to comment on whether a bid to the World Health Organization was in the cards.
“Palestine has the right to seek membership in international treaties, conventions, organizations, and U.N. bodies. The decision to join these organizations and the timing to do so are political decisions reserved for the Palestinian leadership to make,” he said.
Even the threat of such an outcome creates an unhelpful “wildcard” for the World Health Organization, already on its heels due to the devastation of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which killed thousands in West Africa and caused widespread fear in the United States, argued J. Stephen Morrison, the director of CSIS’s Global Health Policy Center.
If a Palestinian bid for membership were to occur, and U.S. laws not changed, “it would blow a hole in the WHO in a time when it’s already in terrible shape,” Morrison said. “We’re living in a globalized world, in which these outbreaks don’t stick behind borders. They move… Americans, when faced with situations like that, realize full well that for situations like this you have to go to the source.”
“This legislation needs to be rescinded. It is a legislative anachronism,” argued Lara Friedman, director of policy of Americans for Peace Now. “It dates from 1990, when the PLO was a designated terrorist organization, and even mentioning the possibility of a designated Palestinian state was beyond the pale. The PLO has not been a designated terrorist organization since [the early 1990s], and since 2002, it has been U.S. policy—and technically, the policy of Israel—that we are working for a Palestinian state. Neither of those two conditions hold anymore. We are shackled by a law that is a relic of another era.”
But other see it differently. The status quo is necessary, Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, to prevent the Palestinians from an attempt at unilateral statehood.
“If the Palestinians apply for membership in the WHO, then the WHO must understand the repercussions of its decision.” Ros-Lehtinen told The Daily Beast. “If the WHO opts to help the Palestinians in their scheme for unilateral statehood while delegitimizing Israel, then President Obama must fully enforce existing U.S. law and cease all funding for the WHO.”
In March the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to go even further: giving Congress the power to cut U.S. funding to the U.N. or other international organizations that take “unfair or discriminatory action against Israel.” This legislation followed White House hints, after Netanyahu’s election, that it might no longer protect in the U.N. as it once had. The legislation has not passed into law, but the vote drew a fierce condemnation from the PLO ambassador.
“Pledging to suspend funding to the United Nations if it supports a Palestinian state is a strange, self-defeating behavior that is incompatible with responsible politics,” responded Areikat at the time. “While these members claim to protect and preserve U.S. interests with their actions, defunding the United Nations and other international organizations would only weaken any impact the United States may have in international affairs, and particularly in regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
The WHO is in a unique position to share and receive health information from countries all across the world, especially smaller countries that don’t have as much stature on the global stage. “Countries will listen to WHO when they talk about about quarantine. Countries will listen to WHO when they talk about a pandemic virus and the origin of it,” Yeo said.
“The scope and intensity of global health challenges ensures that no single country or agency can work alone to meet them,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control added.
A cutoff of American funds to the World Health Organization could have effects beyond just the agency’s global health programs. The WHO and CDC have collaborated frequently on public health issues since the 1960s, but this could be disrupted in the event of a Palestinian bid for WHO membership (neither has a position on the political matter of Palestinian U.N. membership, or the appropriateness of the law, the two organizations stressed).
Collaborations between the regional WHO Americas office and the CDC has contributed to “elimination of prominent diseases in the region, such as polio and measles, and the identification and containment of new diseases, from new strains of influenzas to Ebola,” said Dr. Isabella Danel, deputy director of the regional office of the WHO for the Americas.
But now, those collaborations may suddenly be called into question.