The Closure of the PLO Office in Washington: The “Ultimate Deal” Exposed

Once again, the Palestinians are asked to engage in fictional peace negotiations with Israel while being stripped of any semblance of influence over their national affairs and aspirations. On Thursday, November 16, the Trump Administration informed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that its office in Washington, DC, is ordered closed because the Palestinians have asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) “to investigate illegal Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.” The office, known officially as The General Delegation of the PLO to the United States and established in 1994, may be reopened after 90 days if President Donald Trump certifies that the Palestinians have decided to enter into “direct, meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

Not much is actually known about any purported negotiation process––since the Israeli government has rejected all talk of peace during the previous Obama Administration––nor is there any indication of the substance of negotiations into which the Palestinians are asked to enter. Nabil Shaath, foreign policy advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, declared1 on November 18 that “American justification for the closure of the PLO office in Washington aims at pressuring the Palestinians to abide by a peace process that we do not know and do not realize what it is all about.”

In response to the closure order, the Palestinian Authority has suspended all contacts with American officials at all levels. PLO General Secretary Saeb Erekat considered the American threat a response to pressure from the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu as the Palestinians participate in reaching what President Trump has called the “ultimate deal.” President Abbas expressed his surprise by the action, saying that it is an “unprecedented step” in Palestinian-American relations and has “dangerous consequences.”

PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi characterized the action by Washington as tantamount to the United States “disqualifying itself as a peace broker.” “It is ironic,” she added, “that the U.S. is taking steps to punish the victim (the occupied) and not the perpetrator of the crime (the occupier).” The PLO official and former negotiator added, “Conditioning the renewal of the waiver on the Palestinians’ sticking to ‘direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel’ is actually superfluous since negotiations are nonexistent, and the current U.S. administration has yet to present any kind of peace initiative.”

Coming as an institutional response by the executive branch to a congressional mandate to close the office if the Palestinians resort to the ICC, the administration’s action is nevertheless a serious development that may sound the death knell for any attempts to revive a dormant peace process. What makes the decision even stranger is its suddenness, as the Palestinian Authority was not contacted before November 15 about any deadline stipulated in congressional legislation. Neither did it come as a result of any Palestinian action regarding the ICC. If this legislation was in response to Palestinian action regarding the court, no such action was initiated. In his speech at the United Nations last September, President Abbas merely 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….” But no specific cases were actually filed.

As things stand today, the administration’s ability to rescind its order for closure may be limited by the near-total embrace of the Israeli government’s position on anything concerning the Palestinians, both in the administration and in Congress. Nevertheless, aborting any contact with the Palestinians will at the very least deprive the president, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Trump’s emissary Jason Greenblatt of an essential element—a Palestinian voice—for the success of what they are convinced would be an achievement like no other. If there is anything the president cares about, it is gaining a win that can give him the opportunity to gloat about his effectiveness as a great dealmaker and negotiator. Considering the vastly unequal degrees of Palestinian and Israeli influence in Washington, however, Trump will surely be deprived of this opportunity.

From its side, Israel kept itself outside the fray, although few doubt that it is totally uninvolved, if for no other reason than having outsized influence in the corridors of Congress. Prime Minister Netanyahu declared the PLO-State Department issue “a matter of U.S. law” and continued to affirm Israel’s supposed commitment “to work with the U.S. to advance peace and security in the region.” Whatever the outcome of the current affair, only Israel’s right-wing government will benefit from severing relations between the United States and the Palestinian Authority; such an action extricates Israel from having to enter serious negotiations with the PLO.

Further, American pressure on the Palestinians is being accompanied by Saudi Arabian pressure on President Abbas to accept a new peace plan by the Trump Administration. Abbas unexpectedly visited Riyadh on November 6 reportedly to accept such a plan or resign, according to Israeli media. While no one knows the nature of this plan, it is hard to know how Abbas responded—but no one should be under any illusion that he has many cards to use to resist it. Although Hamas has dissolved its governing administrative committee in the Gaza Strip and relinquished control over the Rafah crossing with Egypt, the Palestinian reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas is still in its infancy and requires major concessions on both sides. Abbas’s Palestinian Authority is dependent on Arab, particularly Saudi Arabian, and European largesse; and it now has the added responsibility of funding the Gaza Strip and paying the salaries of its bloated bureaucracy there. Palestinian political institutions such as the Palestine National Council, the Palestinian presidency, and the different organs of the PLO need serious overhauls.

Still, it is hard to fathom that Abbas would relinquish the last vestiges of legitimacy as the representative of the Palestinian cause and people and accept a plan that does not guarantee the lowest common denominator for the Palestinians: an independent state in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital. Short of this, Palestine would only be another version of a Bantustan where Palestinians reside as day laborers for Israeli construction projects, mostly in settlements on occupied Palestinian lands. That is a sure recipe for continued conflict and instability in a volatile region.

Looking forward, as Palestinians continue to seek internal reconciliation and compromise, they may have their own conditions to resume relations with the United States––despite intimations by State Department officials that the closure will not affect bilateral cooperation. They have always had qualms about the US position—across administrations, including the Obama Administration––regarding American “blackmail” about funding, security coordination, designation of the PLO as a terrorist organization, and conditions on cooperating with Hamas, among other issues. All administrations have also used opposition in Congress as an excuse for not pushing forward reasonable peace initiatives or for refraining from pressuring Israel to make concessions. Now that they are potentially losing their diplomatic foothold in Washington, Palestinians may finally decide that what the United States is doing by closing the PLO office is withdrawing willy-nilly from the negotiating process and thus unwittingly abdicating its leadership role in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Khalil E. Jahshan is the Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

1 Source is in Arabic.