Palestinians threaten to cut ties with US as PLO mission in Washington faces closure | News | DW | 19.11.2017
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Palestinians threaten to cut ties with US as PLO mission in Washington faces closure

Palestinian officials have slammed plans by the Trump administration to shutter the PLO's mission in Washington DC. The rupture in relations could have major implications for the White House's Middle East policy.

Palestinian officials warned on Saturday that the US' unexpected threat to close the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) mission in Washington would hamper any hopes Washington has of brokering a Middle East peace deal.

In a video statement posted on social media, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Palestine "will put on hold all our communications with this American administration," adding that Washington's decision was "very unfortunate and unacceptable."

Erekat also accused US President Donald Trump and his administration of bowing to pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "at a time when we are trying to cooperate to achieve the ultimate deal."

On Friday, the US announced that it would not renew the PLO Washington office permit which was due to expire at midnight on Saturday. The State Department cited "certain statements made by Palestinian leaders" about the International Criminal Court's charges against Israeli nationals as the reason behind the non-renewal.

It now remains unclear whether the PLO offices will be forced to permanently shut or just be closed to the public. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said he had been told that the US and State Department legal teams would meet Monday to discuss how the new situation would affect the PLO office, as well as the functioning of diplomats and contacts with Palestinians.

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The PLO is the group formally representing all Palestinians. Although the US does not recognize Palestinian statehood, the PLO maintains a "general delegation" office in Washington to facilitate Palestinian officials' interactions with their US counterparts.

Why has the US threatened to shut down the PLO mission?

  • The White House claims that the Palestinians have broken a legal provision that states the PLO can only operate a Washington office provided the Palestinian government doesn't seek to influence the prosecution of Israelis before the International Criminal Court.
  • According to the Associated Press news agency, citing anonymous US State Department officials, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson determined that the Palestinians violated that provision in September.
  • Speaking at the United Nations in September, President Mahmoud Abbas said Palestinians had "called on the International Criminal Court to open an investigation and to prosecute Israeli officials for their involvement in settlement activities and aggressions against our people."

What's the risk to the Palestinians?

  • Palestinian backlash towards the US could potentially put millions of dollars in critical US aid in jeopardy.
  • The Palestinian government also fears that any measures that antagonize the US will move the Trump administration ever closer towards Israel. Given Trump and Netanyahu's close relationship, Palestinians already suspect US bias towards Israel and fear their interests could be undermined in any peace negotiations brokered by the current White House.

Are there any risks facing the Trump administration?

  • While Trump has boasted about his government's prospects of achieving an unprecedented peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, a rift with the Palestinians would hamper any sort of upcoming peace initiative before it even gets off the ground.
  • That would be a major embarrassment for the president's son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, who has been tasked with brokering a deal in the decades-long conflict.
  • Trump's vision for the Middle East is to bring together Israel, Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states as part of a region-wide joint effort against Iran. However, Arab countries have voiced reluctance towards deepening ties with Israel unless significant progress is made on the Palestinian issue.

PLO: US conditions 'superfluous'

According to the legal provision over the PLO's Washington mission, Trump, as sitting president, has 90 days to waive the decision should he find that the Palestinians are in "direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel." If Trump determines that they are, the mission could then reopen.

However, PLO official Hanan Ashrawi rejected these conditions as "superfluous" because "negotiations are nonexistent, and the current U.S. administration has yet to present any kind of peace initiative."

The United States first allowed the PLO to open a mission in Washington back in 1994, under President Bill Clinton. Then, in 2011, under the Obama administration, the US started letting the Palestinians fly their flag over the office. Palestinians hailed the move as historic and an upgrade to the status of their mission.

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