The fate of a tiny office tucked between restaurants and shops in Washington DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood could have major repercussions for Palestinian-American relations. Inside of the brick-building is the headquarters for the Palestinian leadership’s official U.S. team, the PLO Mission.
Last weekend Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter to the Mission explaining that its ambassador and his slim staff had 90 days to shut down.
The letter followed restrictions on the Palestinians that Congress passed last year. Under the new terms, the office needs President Trump’s signature on a waiver every six months to override a 1987 law that calls the PLO a “terrorist organization.” The law makes it illegal for the Palestinians to conduct affairs in the U.S.
Trump signed the first waiver in the Spring, regarded at the time as a mere formality. But on November 17, 2017, he let the PLO’s operating credentials expire. (Much as Trump initially certified the Iran deal, and then decertified it this fall.) The day after, Tillerson put the PLO on notice.
“The result was the automatic triggering of the applicability of the law,” Nasser al-Qudwa, spokesperson for the ruling Palestinian party Fatah, said in the first lengthy statement issued to press from a Palestinian official since news broke of the closure. “I think both, the Palestinian side and the American administration, found themselves in a very difficult situation: what to do about this?”
“This is not to absolve the administration from responsibility,” he continued. “Absolutely not; actually it’s the opposite.”
Any attempt by the Trump administration to broker peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians could collapse if the office is indeed closed down, al-Qudwa explained. This follows several trips to the region by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and special envoy Jason Greenblatt in an effort to restart peace talks.
“[I]f we don’t find a different situation altogether for the functioning of the office, then it’s only natural that the bilateral work between the two sides will be affected. I don’t know to what extent exactly and I think it’s not decided yet. But there will be a serious repercussion – no doubt,” he said.
As to who is behind the closure, Al-Qudwa blamed both the White House and Congress for acquiescing to Israeli interest to undermine the PLO’s diplomatic front.
“The main problem we’re facing in the U.S. is Congress,” al-Qudwa continued. “It allowed itself to involve into a process of legislation in service of the Israeli interest. Thus creating a web of laws that are hostile to the Palestinian people, national interests, and by necessity to the PLO.”
“I doubt that the American people do understand this kind of situation: that their representatives spend quite good amount of time figuring out how to serve the strategic and tactical interests of Israel – and incorporating this into the law,” al-Qudwa’s statement said.
James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, said in a conference call to reporters yesterday that Congress was persuaded last year to add in the waiver requirement by the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer.
“Dermer was very active in pressing Congress to push this agenda forward,” Zogby said. Israeli officials were thereby hoping to sandbag Palestinian national aspirations, i.e. the creation of a Palestinian state through negotiations, by outlawing its leaders.
“There are Israelis who want to push us back to the pre-Oslo period where the PLO was banned,” Zogby added.
Zogby later told Mondoweiss, “It’s clear where the pressure came from, it was coming from Congress. There will be some options here, but the question is how the administration will get themselves out of this box.”
On Tuesday the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert created a cloud of confusion around if and when the Mission is closing when she walked back Tillerson’s notice to shut. “[T]here’s not a ton of information because some decisions are still in the process of being made right now,” she opened.
“Shutting down an office – that’s not what we are talking about today. There are some conversations underway,” Nauert said, adding that the State Department does not want the PLO to be kicked out of DC, despite the order, “I think we’d like for them to be able to keep it open.”
The PLO Mission in DC’s ambassador, Husam Zomlot, was called for comment but did not respond.
The Mission is not a Consulate, and its staff enjoys no diplomatic immunity. Its mandate is extremely limited, offering services to Palestinian ID holders residing in the U.S. and accepting paperwork for land sales.
“[I]t’s not allowed to pretend/ claim that it’s functioning on behalf of the Palestinian State/ State of Palestine – or even use the word Palestine for that matter,” al-Qudwa explained in his briefing.
In Ramallah, a senior PLO Official told Mondoweiss under guarantees of anonymity that the office has “received instructions to halt contact” with the U.S. The official explained that the PLO theorized the State Department is “playing” with legalities to close the PLO office as a way to “put pressure on us.”
Seemingly, the Palestinians do not have much to go on about what actions they can take to placate the Trump administration into reversing the closure. Al-Qudwa aptly noted, there are no negotiations with Israel on the table that they can agree to; Trump’s team has not presented the Palestinians with any plan or action to sign onto.
The little that is known about why Trump refused to sign the waiver is from Tillerson’s letter. He referenced a speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas the United Nations General Assembly raising the possibility of taking Israel to the The Hague on war crimes charges. Even so, the senior Palestinian official who spoke to Mondoweiss said, “But we always call upon the ICC to take action, this is not something new.” He concluded that the timing of the U.S.’s move is proof of the political blackmail at work.
“Going to the ICC is a right, but it seems the U.S. administration is more focused in punishing those who want to access justice while rewarding those committing violations and war crimes. Impunity will never be a tool to achieve a just and lasting peace,” the official continued.
“Frankly my advice to them is whether the U.S. closes their office or not, they are to proceed with their case full speed ahead,” Zogby said yesterday, relating that he already offered to share his work space with the PLO should Tillerson move forward to close the PLO office. “I would encourage the Palestinians to continue to pursue their case and let the international criminal court decide.”
“I think we need a public manifestation of support for them. Can we get Congress to undo the 1984 law?” Zogby speculated. “We’re pleading to the court of public opinion here.”
Some analysts have championed the potential PLO Mission closure as an overdue measure. The Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick, the most prominent of the supporters, described the PLO as off on a “long vacation from accountability” in an op-ed yesterday, citing among other offenses, the PLO’s support for boycotting Israel.
“The PLO consulate in Chicago is a major funder of the BDS campus group Students for Justice in Palestine,” Glick enumerated in her charge sheet. However, there is not now nor ever was a PLO Consulate or office in Chicago, and Mondoweiss found the alleged donor is a lawyer and public notary authorized to witness Palestinian legal affairs and is not an employee of the PLO.