Palestinians freeze all US contacts over threat to shutter PLO office in DC
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Palestinians freeze all US contacts over threat to shutter PLO office in DC

Move comes amid intense efforts by Washington to bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table

PA President Mahmoud Abbas (center), arrives with the Arab League's Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby (left), and Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki (right) to attend a meeting of Arab foreign ministers at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, on Sunday, September 7, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas (center), arrives with the Arab League's Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby (left), and Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki (right) to attend a meeting of Arab foreign ministers at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, on Sunday, September 7, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Hassan Ammar)

The Palestinians have frozen all contacts with the United States after it decided to close their representative office in Washington, officials said on Tuesday.

“In practice by closing the office they are freezing all meetings and we are making that official,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki told AFP.

A spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization confirmed that it had received instructions from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “regarding closing down all communication lines with the Americans.”

The Palestinian move comes as the Trump administration seeks to broker the long-out-of-reach Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

US President Donald Trump reaches to shake Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski)

Speaking in the Spanish Parliament today, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinians were “committed to a historic peace deal [with Israel] under the auspices of President Trump.”

Over the weekend the US State Department informed Malki that the PLO office in DC would be closed because the Palestinians had violated a 2015 US Congressional mandate.

A US State Department official cited “certain statements made by Palestinian leaders” about the International Criminal Court as the violation.

In December 2015, Congress introduced a new provision into the annual State and Foreign Operations Bill, mandating that the PLO mission in Washington be shut if the Palestinians initiate or support an International Criminal Court investigation against Israelis.

In his 2017 address to the United Nations General Assembly, Abbas seemed to have violated that clause:

“We have also called on the International Criminal Court, as is our right, to open an investigation and to prosecute Israeli officials” over Israeli settlement activity, he said.

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

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.

In 1997, Congress made it easier for the president to waive sanctions against the PLO: The president would only have to say the waiver was in the US’s national security interest without providing addition explanation. Still, a waiver would have to be signed every six months.

That was the case until 2011, when the Palestinians joined UNESCO and declared they wanted full membership status in the UN.

In response, Congress introduced a new provision into the annual State and Foreign Operations Bill, mandating that if the Palestinians obtained full membership status in the United Nations outside of an agreement with Israel, the president would be unable to waive sanctions against the PLO, unless “the Palestinians have entered into direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

The “national security interest” excuse would no longer suffice.

After the Palestinians joined the ICC in 2015, Congress passed a similar provision into the December 2015 foreign ops bill.

The provision calls for the waiver to be revoked should the Palestinians “initiate an International Criminal Court (ICC) judicially authorized investigation, or actively support such an investigation” against Israel.

This Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 photo shows the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization. On Saturday, Palestinians threatened to suspend all communication with the United States if the Trump administration follows through with plans to close their diplomatic office in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The US consulate in Jerusalem declined to comment on Tuesday, instead referring back to a statement on Saturday that said it was hopeful any “closure will be short-lived.”

“We are not cutting off relations with the PLO,” that statement said.

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,” according to 2015 law– in which case he can waive the requirement to shutter the office.

However, the US, by its own admission, is still working on a way to bring the two sides back to the table for the first time since peace talks fell apart in 2014, and there is no timeline yet for the process to bear fruit, the State Department has said.

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