Marking new low in ties, Abbas recalls Palestinian envoy from US

After chilly stint in Washington, Husam Zomlot will be back in Ramallah Wednesday as Palestinians fume over embassy transfer to Jerusalem

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Husam Zomlot, the PLO envoy to Washington, speaks to reporters in Washington, DC, Aug. 17, 2017. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)
Husam Zomlot, the PLO envoy to Washington, speaks to reporters in Washington, DC, Aug. 17, 2017. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

Citing the US embassy move to Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recalled the Palestinian envoy to Washington Tuesday, marking a new low in already frayed ties between Ramallah and the White House.

A statement from the Palestinian Foreign Ministry announcing the decision stated that Husam Zomlot will arrive back in the West Bank on Wednesday.

It did not say how long Zomlot, the most senior Palestinian official in Washington, would be withdrawn for.

“When [the US] opened their embassy in Jerusalem there was a need for a decision from our side and this was our decision,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said.

The Palestinians have reacted furiously to US President Donald Trump’s December announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving his country’s embassy there from Tel Aviv.

The Palestinians had frozen contacts with US officials over peace efforts, saying the move exposed Washington’s pro-Israel bias and rejecting it as a mediator, but had left Zomlot in place until now.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat dismissed Washington Tuesday as “no longer a partner and a broker.”

“We will not sit with them,” Erekat said. “They have become part of the problem not part of the solution, a big part of the problem. Trump’s administration is the biggest problem.”

On Monday, Abbas responded to the US embassy inauguration in Jerusalem by calling it “a new settlement outpost, just like the Israeli settlements,” and an “assault on our sovereignty, an assault on our established rights,” according to a translation from Al-Jazeera.

“Palestine is for the Palestinians and is not, as the Jews claim, the land of their ancestors,” he said, echoing comments he made in several recent speeches, including an address earlier this month that was widely denounced as anti-Semitic.

The new US embassy is housed in the compound that was previously the US consulate in Arnona, at the southern edge of Jerusalem. The compound straddles the pre-1967 armistice border known as the Green Line.

Palestinians want the eastern part of Jerusalem as their future capital. Until Monday, all countries had refused to place embassies in Jerusalem, saying the status of the city needed to be resolved first.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the official opening ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The date of Monday’s embassy opening also angered Palestinians, coming the day before they commemorate the Nakba, or “catastrophe” — the uprooting of hundreds of thousands who fled or were expelled during the 1948 Israeli Independence War.

The Israeli government welcomed the embassy move, which coincided with the 70th anniversary of the country’s establishment.

The event was overshadowed by mass protests along the Gaza border in which Israeli fire killed 60 Palestinians.

The IDF has maintained that Monday’s demonstration, and those that preceded it, was not a popular uprising, but was instead a Hamas-led military operation to carry out attacks on IDF soldiers and potentially Israeli civilians under the cover of innocent protests. The IDF had said Sunday that Hamas planned to send armed terrorists through any breach in the fence to “massacre” Israelis.

The Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups acknowledged Tuesday that 13 operatives from their organizations were among the fatalities Monday. Israel said at least 24 of the dead were members of terror groups.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry statement did not refer to the deaths, only the embassy move.

Zomlot’s 14 month stint in Washington took place during one of the most chilly periods of US-Palestinian relations.

While the PLO envoy told reporters just weeks before his March 2017 arrival that Trump seemed “committed” and “serious” about helping Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace deal, relations never really took off from there.

Palestinians carry an injured man who was shot by Israeli troops during a deadly protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, on May 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

In June, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced that she would block any appointment of a Palestinian official to a senior role at the UN because Washington “does not recognize Palestine” as an independent state.

In November, the Trump administration announced it was shutting him and his operation down because Abbas, in a speech at the UN, had violated an American law by calling for Israelis to be prosecuted in international court.

After a public backlash, the Trump administration reversed course. It said the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission could stay open, but scaled back: Only activities advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would be allowed. The US instructed the Palestinians against making new long-term commitments like signing leases or employee contracts.

The next month, the White House recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced the upcoming embassy move — a decision which Zomlot described as a stab in the back of the Palestinians.

In March, Trump also signed into law the Taylor Force Act, legislation that would cut US aid to the Palestinian Authority if it does not cease its program of making social welfare payments to the families of Palestinian terrorists.

AFP and AP contributed to this report.

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