Palestinian Officials Decry PLO Office Closure, But Won’t Relent on Actions That Prompted It

By Patrick Goodenough | September 10, 2018 | 10:33 PM EDT

PLO offices in Washington D.C. (Screen capture: YouTube)

( – Palestinian officials condemned the Trump administration’s decision Monday to shut down the PLO office in Washington – although both of the reasons cited for the move are actions taken by the Palestinian leadership, which could reverse course if it chose to do so.

Instead, PLO officials made clear they would continue to not refuse to engage with the Trump administration and would continue to pursue Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert tied the closure to the PLO leadership’s refusal to engage with the U.S. government and its attempts to haul Israel before the tribunal in The Hague.

“[T]he PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel,” Nauert said in a statement. “To the contrary, PLO leadership has condemned a U.S. peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the U.S. government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise.”

The decision to shutter the office, she added, “is also consistent with administration and congressional concerns with Palestinian attempts to prompt an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court.”

The announcement came on the same day the administration warned the ICC that it would take actions against its officials if they proceed with investigations into alleged offenses by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, or act against Israel or other U.S. allies.

“The Trump administration will not keep the office open when the Palestinians refuse to take steps to start direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel,” National Security Advisor John Bolton said during an ICC-focused speech to the Federalist Society.

“The United States supports a direct and robust peace process, and we will not allow the ICC, or any other organization, to constrain Israel’s right to self-defense,” he said.

The “State of Palestine” joined the ICC in 2015, and two weeks later the court’s chief prosecutor opened a “preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine.”

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the U.N. General Assembly on September 20, 2017. 
(UN Photo/Cia Pak)

In a speech at the U.N. a year ago, Palestinian Authority and PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas said, “we have 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.”

Those words lent weight to U.S. lawmakers’ calls for the administration to act under U.S. legislation that targets the PLO office if it initiates or actively supports legal actions against Israelis at the ICC.

Monday’s announcement comes 24 years after President Clinton first allowed the PLO to open an office in Washington, shortly after the signing of the Oslo interim peace accords; and eight years after President Obama permitted the group to begin flying the Palestinian flag there and to change its name to PLO Delegation to the United States.

Allowing the mission to operate required periodic presidential waivers, since legislation passed back in 1987 bars the PLO from maintaining “an office, headquarters, premises, or other facilities or establishments within the jurisdiction of the United States.”

Congressional critics have frequently urged administrations to revoke the waiver, but to no avail until now. For instance, the Obama administration countered such a call in 2015 – when a group of GOP lawmakers pointed to Palestinian incitement of violence against Israelis – by saying closing the office “would be detrimental to our ongoing efforts to calm current tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, advance a two-state solution, and strengthen the U.S.-Palestinian partnership.”

‘Bullying and blackmailing’

Reacting to Monday’s news, the PLO office head, Husam Zomlot, called the closure “reckless” and claimed the administration was “blindly executing Israel’s ‘wish list.’”

Regarding the two reasons cited for the decision, Zomlot confirmed the Palestinian leadership does not plan to relent.

“We stand firm in our decision not to cooperate in this ongoing campaign to liquidate our rights and cause,” he said. “Our rights are not for sale and we will block any attempts at bullying and blackmailing us to forgo our legitimate and internationally endorsed rights.”

On the contrary, Zomlot said, “ we will step up our efforts to hold Israel accountable under international law.”

PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi called the office closure “crude and vicious blackmail” and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat also made clear the PLO would not back down.

“We reiterate that the rights of the Palestinian people are not for sale, that we will not succumb to U.S. threats and bullying and that we will continue our legitimate struggle for freedom, justice, and independence, including by all political and legal means possible,” he said in a statement.

Erekat said the closure was symbolic of President Trump’s “attacks against the international system as a whole, including the Paris convention, UNESCO and the Human Rights Council among others.”

Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord in mid-2017, and last October withdrew from UNESCO, citing “continuing anti-Israel bias” as well as mounting U.S. arrears and the need for reform. (The U.N.’s education and culture agency in 2011 was the first U.N. body to admit “the State of Palestine” as a full member.)

In June the administration exited the Human Rights Council, again pointing to its disproportionate condemnation of Israel as well as the presence of rights-abusing regimes in its ranks.

In a speech to PLO central council last January, Abbas had a message for U.S. lawmakers who were pressing for the PLO office to be shut: “To hell with you.”


Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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