Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been meeting with senior US officials based out of the embassy in Jerusalem in recent months, despite ordering his own diplomats not to do so, officials in Washington and Ramallah have confirmed to The Times of Israel.
The shift in policy began shortly after the Biden administration announced that it would reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, which historically served as a de facto mission to the Palestinians. Diplomats in the office worked closely with Palestinian counterparts until former president Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the flashpoint city five months later.
The PA severed ties with the Trump administration, which went on to shutter its Jerusalem consulate. While the State Department described the move as an efficiency measure, it was seen by many as effectively downgrading relations with the Palestinians; diplomats who work with the PA were placed under the aegis of the US Embassy to Israel as part of a department known as the Palestinian Affairs Unit.
But diplomats in the unit have been limited in their work as Palestinian officials have been barred from meeting with them for the past two years.
Washington and Ramallah have renewed contact since US President Joe Biden took office, but the directive regarding the US Embassy in Jerusalem, which Abbas branded a “settlement outpost,” has remained in place, and US officials in the unit have had little official contact with Ramallah-based counterparts. Instead, senior Palestinian officials liaised with the Biden administration via Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, who is based in Washington, according to PA officials.
The inability to engage the Palestinians from Jerusalem frustrated US officials during the May Gaza war, one official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel, acknowledging criticism that Washington was slower to act as the violence broke out.
Days after the war, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the region and notified then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas that Biden would be moving forward with his campaign promise to reopen the Jerusalem consulate.
In addition, Blinken dispatched the former head of that mission, Michael Ratney, to Jerusalem to serve as charge d’affaires of the embassy until a full-time ambassador arrives. Ratney has longstanding ties with senior members of the PA and leveraged those relations to urge Abbas to end his boycott of the US embassy, an official familiar with the matter said.
Since May, Abbas has met privately in Ramallah with Ratney and Palestinian Affairs Unit Chief George Noll several times to discuss the advancement of US-Palestinian bilateral ties, US and Palestinian officials confirmed to The Times of Israel.
Ratney and Noll also accompanied Amr in visits with Abbas and PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah this week.
“Abbas recognizes that the Biden administration is serious about improving relations and while he’d like to see the consulate opened yesterday, he’s taking a more practical approach,” an official familiar with the matter explained. “He recognizes that he still needs the US at this moment.”
Abbas is trying to drag the PA out of a financial crisis intensified by the pandemic and is facing growing criticism both at home and abroad over his indefinite delay of the first parliamentary election in 15 years in addition to his security forces’ crackdown on civilian protesters earlier this summer.
Abbas’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the matter, but a Palestinian official speaking on condition of anonymity downplayed the until-now unreported development.
PAU Chief George Noll visited Ramallah again! He went to @Zawyeh_Gallery, checked out an "Access for Adults" class at the @AMIDEAST_WB, and George even learned how to cook the famous Palestinian dish, "grape leaves"! pic.twitter.com/c7KfV7Aqlv
— US Palestinian Affairs Unit (@USPalAffairs) September 2, 2021
“Even if there have been some meetings at the presidency level, no one at the [lower levels] engages with this mission. Our contacts with the US right now are completely different from our contacts with any other country with offices here,” the Palestinian official said.
They pointed to an event the Palestinian Affairs Unit held in Ramallah earlier this month, which wasn’t attended by a single Palestinian official.
“The presence of a Palestinian Affairs Unit under the Embassy to Israel is a sign of how a group of people who were supporters of settlement and annexation tried to downgrade the status of the Palestinian people, and if the US is not going to have a separate diplomatic mission for Palestine, it’s going to be very difficult to engage with them,” the official said.
“This is not a boycott of the American administration. We meet with Americans all [of the time], and are invested in improving our relations with them. It’s about this one unit. If we had instructions to [change coarse], we would do so.”
The US Embassy in Jerusalem did not respond to repeated requests for comment.