Palestinians warn they will freeze ties if US shuts Washington office

Netanyahu says he respects US move; US acting because PA is seeking legal action against Israel at ICC

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and US President Donald Trump shake hands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and US President Donald Trump shake hands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

The Palestinians on Saturday warned they would freeze ties with the US if it shuts the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington DC for reportedly running afoul of a US law by calling for Israelis to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.

In a video posted on Twitter, senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said that Palestinian officials would “put on hold all communication with this administration” if the office is officially shuttered. “This is very unfortunate.”

Palestinian chief negotiator and secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Saeb Erekat, speaks during a press conference in the West Bank city of Jericho on February 15, 2017. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

He said the move was the result of pressure by Netanyahu on the Trump administration.

The PA leadership is set to meet in the coming days to discuss its response.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied this, but praised the US move.

“We respect the decision and look forward to continuing our work with the United States to promote peace and security in the region,” Netanyahu said in a statement released by his office.

Netanyahu indicated the move by the US State Department had nothing to do with Israel, saying “its an American law.”

Earlier on Saturday, a PLO official said the State Department refused to renew operating permission for its office in Washington for the first time since the 1980s.

The PLO, which the international community sees as representing all Palestinians, must have its permission to operate its premises in the American capital renewed every six months.

“The Palestinian Authority received a letter from the State Department two days ago saying that the Secretary of State had not found enough reasons to keep the office open,” Palestinian Authority foreign minister Riyad al-Malki told AFP.

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

“This has not happened in the past, and we have demanded clarifications from the State Department and the White House,” he said. “They told us that there would be a meeting of senior legal experts on Monday. Then they would give a clear answer.”

He said he had written to the US administration calling the move “unacceptable, an escalatory step and a political decision that threatens to end the US role in the peace process.”

A US State Department official cited “certain statements made by Palestinian leaders” about the International Criminal Court as the reason behind the non-renewal.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ latest speech at the UN General Assembly, in which he suggested taking the issue of Israeli settlements to the ICC, may have been behind the US stance.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had refused to certify on Friday that the Palestinians are complying with a 2015 Congressional mandate, which induces penalties if the PA pursues the prosecution of Israelis at the ICC.

The specific penalization, according to a provision in a US law passed in December 2015, is the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission to the United States, located in Washington, DC.

“We were unable to make a new certification, and have notified the PLO accordingly,” a State Department official told The Times of Israel on Friday evening. “The secretary concluded that the factual record, in particular certain statements made by Palestinian leaders about the ICC, did not permit him to make the factual certification required by the statute.”

In 2015 Congress introduced a provision that Palestinians may not try to wield influence over the ICC concerning investigations into Israeli nationals.

The declaration does not automatically mean the mission will close. US President Donald Trump now has a 90-day window to decide whether “the Palestinians have entered into direct, meaningful negotiations with Israel” — in which case he can waive the requirement to shutter the office.

The notice comes as Trump seeks bargaining chips in his bid to broker the long out-of-reach Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

The official said Washington is hopeful any “closure will be short-lived,” emphasizing that “we are not cutting off relations with the PLO, nor do we intend to stop working with the Palestinian Authority.”

“This measure should in no way be seen as a signal that the US is backing off those efforts.”

The presence of the office is conditional on permission from the US Secretary of State, renewable every six months.

The latest six-month period finished two days ago.



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