Abbas said to refuse White House call as ties freeze over PLO mission closure

Palestinian leader demands US clarify DC office’s future before speaking to officials, according to Haaretz; Trump administration denies report

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas arrives before a state lunch with Spain's King Felipe and Queen Letizia (unseen) at the Royal Palace in Madrid, on November 20, 2017.  (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JUAN MEDINA)
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas arrives before a state lunch with Spain's King Felipe and Queen Letizia (unseen) at the Royal Palace in Madrid, on November 20, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JUAN MEDINA)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly refused to speak to White House officials over the phone this week, as Ramallah moved to freeze ties over a US threat to shutter a Palestinian mission in Washington.

The call was meant to coordinate an upcoming meeting, according to the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, citing a senior Palestinian official. The daily did not say when the aborted call took place.

On Tuesday,  Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said he had been instructed by Abbas to put ties with Washington on ice after the US State Department informed him that the Palestine Liberation Organization office in DC would be closed because the Palestinians had violated a 2015 US Congressional mandate.

“In practice by closing the office they are freezing all meetings and we are making that official,” Malki told AFP.

The move is likely to significantly handicap efforts by the administration of UD=S President Donald Trump to restart moribund peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

US President Donald Trump’s envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 25, 2017. (FLASH90)

According to the report, Abbas demanded that he get clarifications regarding the PLO embassy closure and legislation with clauses defining the PLO as a terror group, before he would speak to the Americans.

The White House denied the report.

“This is not accurate,” an administration official said without elaborating.

The report would seem to contradict White House spokesperson Heather Nauert, who said Tuesday that contacts between Washington and Ramallah were continuing.

“Conversations will be taking place,” she said. “We are in contact with Palestinian officials about the status of that PLO office in Washington, as well as having conversations with them about our larger efforts on the part of a lasting and comprehensive peace process.”

The Palestinian flag is seen above the offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington, DC, November 18, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

Over the weekend, the State Department informed Malki that the PLO’s DC office would be closed because the Palestinians had violated a US law that forbids their seeking to prosecute Israelis in the International Criminal Court.

The infringement ostensibly came when Abbas addressed the UN General Assembly this September and urged the ICC to “open an investigation and to prosecute Israeli officials for their involvement in settlement activities and aggressions against our people.”

“The secretary took a very technical and very specific look at this and determined that it was not in compliance,” Nauert said Tuesday. She added that the State Department and White House were in “close consultation about this.”

Trump now has 90 days to consider whether the Palestinians are in “direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

If Trump determines they are, the PLO can keep the office.

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki speaks during a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on August 11, 2015. (Flash90)

Earlier on Tuesday, Malki told the PA’s official radio station, the Voice of Palestine, that the US administration was reconsidering its decision to close down the PLO office due to the threat by the Palestinian leadership to freeze contacts.

Malki added that if the US wanted to review the decision to shut the office in DC, it would also have to review all the laws passed by Congress that treat the PLO as a terrorist organization and “disrespect relations between the two countries.”

In 1987, Congress outlawed any PLO presence on US soil due to the group’s terror activities at the time. In 1993, due to the Oslo peace process, Congress allowed for the PLO to open a mission in DC, as long as it stayed faithful to its commitments in the peace talks.

It was not immediately clear what meeting the White House was calling to coordinate, but US Vice President Mike Pence is slated to visit the region next month, including a stop in Bethlehem, where Abbas maintains a presidential palace.

PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat delivers a speech during the Mediterranean Dialogues (MED), a three-day conference on security in the Mediterranean region, on December 11, 2015 in Rome. (AFP PHOTO/ALBERTO PIZZOLI)

According to the Haaretz report, Abbas is considering sending top negotiator Saeb Erekat, currently in Washington recovering from a medical operation, or security chief Majed Faraj to meetings with US officials instead.

The report noted that Abbas was open to lower-level contacts between the countries continuing.

Eric Cortellessa and AFP contributed to this report .

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