After months of speculation over what steps the Trump administration would take against the Palestinian Liberation Organization Diplomatic Mission in Washington, the U.S. State Department finally announced in recent weeks that it has given Palestinian representative Husam Zomlot and his staff a month to pack their bags.
The U.S. State Department said the PLO office “has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”
Zomlot published a statement on the mission’s website saying, “We condemn in the strongest terms, the U.S. administration’s decision to close the Palestinian mission to the U.S. However, we are not surprised.”
While the decision to shutter the embassy may have enraged the Palestinians, it is unclear how effective the mission has been towards the peace process.
Gabriel Glickman, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, told JNS that “there’s no denying U.S. relations with the PLO have taken a turn for the worse. While relations started off warm at the beginning of the Trump administration, with Abbas referring to Trump as a ‘dear friend,’ the PLO mounted a diplomatic pressure campaign against Trump in the wake of the Jerusalem decision.
“But it is important to remember that the PLO office in Washington has always been symbolic. It was symbolic of the PLO’s recognition of Washington’s central role in the peace process, as well as Washington’s recognition of the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinians. So its closure is symbolic, too. In fact, over the years, senior leaders in Ramallah have chosen to sidestep that office and deal directly with Washington. And they probably will continue to do that.”
PLO Mission ‘violates U.S. law’
In addition to its symbolism, prominent U.S. lawmakers have also questioned the legality of the PLO Mission.
For years, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has pushed to close the mission. This past June, Cruz, together with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Jeff Sessions in which they asserted that “the PLO office in the United States has existed and exists today in violation of U.S. law,” and urged the administration to begin taking the necessary steps and instituting the necessary legal action to close the PLO office.
In December 1987, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987. Section 1002 of that act provided that “Congress determines that the PLO and its affiliates are a terrorist organization and a threat to the interests of the United States, its allies, and to international law and should not benefit from operating in the United States.” Section 1003 actually prohibits the PLO from establishing any presence in America.
Thus, in essence, the PLO Mission has been operating illegally since 1987. Subsequent administrations, however, allowed it to stay open anyway for political and diplomatic reasons as long as the Palestinians did not pursue legal action against Israel in international courts and as long as they showed good faith in pursuing a solution to their conflict with Israel.
In November 2017, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas violated that longstanding unspoken rule when he asked the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute Israelis. Then, in December, he cut off ties with the administration after Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced he would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations told JNS, “I would close the PLO office and allow the PA—which is the recipient of US aid, and with which USAID works—to open an office. So I think Senator Cruz and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen are right.”
‘Palestinians have frozen out the Americans’
According to senior GOP officials who spoke to JNS on condition of anonymity, “there is tremendous pressure to keep the mission open. Then there’s the law to close it.”
However, “the Palestinians have frozen out the Americans,” the officials said. “The only way the PLO Mission was kept open politically [and] not legally was to maintain the connection with the Palestinians. There are some exemptions [to the law], like if they engage Israel or refrain from going to the international courts. But they blew that.
“The last good excuse for pretending to keep it open is no longer true. It was a convergence of the political dynamics. There is no good reason to keep it open.”
“The Palestinians aren’t talking to U.S. officials right now,” they observed. “Their strategy is—and it is so blatant that even European officials have spoken about it—that they want to wait out the Trump administration.”
The officials asserted, “The PLO is actually an organization that undermines American interests. As far as Congress and the American people are concerned, the Palestinian Mission in Washington is bad for America.”