Palestinians vow to suspend talks if the US closes their diplomatic office in Washington

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donald trump mahmoud abbas
President
Donald Trump shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud
Abbas after making statements to the press, Tuesday, May 23,
2017, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem.

Associated Press/Evan Vucci

  • The Trump administration said Friday that the
    Palestinians violated a legal provision saying the
    Palestine Liberation Organization cannot operate a Washington
    office if the Palestinians try to get the International
    Criminal Court to prosecute Israelis for crimes against
    Palestinians.
  • Palestinian officials said the US decision was “very
    unfortunate and unacceptable,” and that they would halt their
    communications with the Trump administration.
  • Under the law, Trump now has 90 days to consider
    whether the Palestinians are in “direct and meaningful
    negotiations with Israel.”

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Palestinians threatened on Saturday to
suspend all communication with the United States if the Trump
administration follows through with plans to close their
diplomatic office in Washington. The potential rupture in
relations threatens to undermine President Donald Trump’s bid for
Mideast peace — a mission he has handed his son-in-law, Jared
Kushner.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the US decision
was “very unfortunate and unacceptable,” and accused Washington
of bowing to pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu’s government “at a time when we are trying to cooperate
to achieve the ultimate deal.”

In a video statement on social media, Erekat said: “We will put
on hold all our communications with this American
administration.”

There was no immediate reaction from the Trump administration.
Netanyahu’s office said the closure was “a matter of US law.”

US officials had insisted before Erekat’s statement that the move
wasn’t aimed at increasing leverage over the Palestinians, but
merely the unavoidable consequence of US law.

Cutting off ties would carry great risks for the Palestinians. It
could antagonize an administration they already suspect is biased
toward Israel and cut put millions of dollars of critical US aid
in jeopardy.

However, unresponsive Palestinians would deal an embarrassing
blow to the Trump administration ahead of an expected peace
initiative and potentially prevent it from getting off the
ground. Their stance could also complicate US efforts to promote
a regionwide approach by bringing together Israel with Saudi
Arabia and other moderate Arab allies in a joint effort against
Iran. Arab countries might be reluctant to get too close to
Israel in the absence of serious progress on the Palestinian
issue.

The administration announced late Friday that the Palestinians
had run afoul of a legal provision that says the Palestine
Liberation Organization cannot operate a Washington office if the
Palestinians try to get the International Criminal Court to
prosecute Israelis for crimes against Palestinians.


Rex Tillerson
Rex
Tillerson.

Spencer Platt/Getty
Images


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson determined that the Palestinians
crossed that line in September, when Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas called on the court to investigate and prosecute
Israelis, according to State Department officials. They weren’t
authorized to publicly discuss the situation and spoke on
condition of anonymity.

It wasn’t clear when the office would close or whether the
Palestinians would have to clear out of the building entirely or
just close it to the public. Riad Malki, the Palestinian foreign
minister, said he was told by the Americans that US and State
Department legal teams would meet Monday to decide how the new
situation would affect the office, the functioning of diplomats
and contacts with the Palestinians.

“We will wait to hear back from them,” Malki said. After that,
the Palestinians will decide how to react.

Under the law, Trump now has 90 days to consider whether the
Palestinians are in “direct and meaningful negotiations with
Israel.” If Trump determines they are, then the mission can
reopen, officials said.

PLO official Hanan Ashrawi said the US was “disqualifying itself
as a peace broker in the region” by refusing to extend a waiver
from the law.

“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 US administration has yet to present any kind of peace
initiative,” she said in a statement.

The US said it wasn’t cutting off relations with the Palestinians
and remained focused on a comprehensive peace agreement between
Israelis and Palestinians. One of the US officials said in an
email that “this measure should in no way be seen as a signal
that the US is backing off those efforts.”

The Palestinians quickly dismissed that argument, with Malki
telling Palestine Radio that the Palestinian leadership “will not
accept any extortion or pressure.” Erekat contended the move was
the result of “the pressure being exerted on this administration
by the Netanyahu government.”

In response, the Israeli prime minister’s office said, “We
respect the decision and look forward to continuing to work with
the US to advance peace and security in the region.”

The Israelis and Palestinians are not engaged in active, direct
negotiations. But Trump’s team, led by Kushner in his role as
senior White House adviser, is working to broker a deal aimed at
settling the intractable conflict.


kushner netanyahu trump
Israel’s
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump
chat as White House senior advisor Jared Kushner is seen in
between them, during their meeting at the King David hotel in
Jerusalem May 22, 2017.

Thomson
Reuters


The Palestinians, publicly supportive of the US effort, are
nonetheless skeptical because Trump’s close ties to Israel
suggest whatever deal he proposes might be unfavorable to them.
The threat of losing their office in the American capital could
become one more pressure point as the Trump administration tries
to persuade the Palestinians to come to the table.

The PLO is the group that formally represents all Palestinians.
Although the US does not recognize Palestinian statehood, the PLO
maintains a “general delegation” office in Washington that
facilitates Palestinian officials’ interactions with the US
government.

The United States allowed the PLO to open a mission in Washington
in 1994. That required President Bill Clinton to waive a law that
said the Palestinians couldn’t have an office. In 2011, under the
Obama administration, the US started letting the Palestinians fly
their flag over the office, an upgrade to the status of their
mission that the Palestinians hailed as historic.

Israel opposes any Palestinian membership in U.N.-related
organizations until a peace deal has been reached.

The Trump administration has not disclosed details about its
effort to achieve an agreement that ostensibly would grant the
Palestinians an independent state in exchange for an end to its
conflict with the Israelis. Kushner and other top Trump aides
have been shuttling to the region to meet with Palestinians,
Israelis and officials from Arab nations.

The requirement about the mission closing stems from a
little-noticed provision in US law that says the US cannot allow
the Palestinians to have a Washington office if they back the
international court’s move to investigate or prosecute Israeli
nationals for alleged crimes against Palestinians.

Abbas said at the United Nations in September that the
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.”

The US president can let the Palestinians keep the office despite
the violation, only if certifying to Congress “that the
Palestinians have entered into direct and meaningful negotiations
with Israel.” The provision doesn’t explicitly define what would
constitute direct or meaningful negotiations.

___

Associated Press writers Josef Federman and Aron Heller in
Jerusalem contributed to this report.

___

Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at
http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP and Matthew Lee at

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