Whether or not the Trump administration’s announcement on Rosh Hashanah that it was closing the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington, D.C., its de facto embassy, was orchestrated for dramatic effect, it was certainly perceived as symbolic of the administration’s recent actions underlining its defense and support of Israel and consequent rebuke of the PLO.
The move, announced on Sept. 10, came on the heels of the administration’s slashing more than $200 million in humanitarian and development funds in the West Bank and Gaza, ceasing payments for Palestinian refugee social services through the United Nations agency UNRWA and stopping monetary support to six hospitals in the East Jerusalem Hospital Network. Those actions, and Trump’s moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in May, certainly didn’t bring with it many Palestinian hearts and minds.
But playing hardball is the administration’s tactic to get the PLO to come to the table for serious peace negotiations with Israel.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in the Rosh Hashanah announcement that “the PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel. 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.”
“This decision is also consistent with administration and Congressional concerns with Palestinian attempts to prompt an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court,” Nauert said, referencing the administration’s objections to what it says is an anti-Israel bias on the court.
Both the administration and the PLO say they have been working toward a viable peace process, although neither have forwarded concrete plans. Trump’s lead man for Middle East peace is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is Jewish. Nauert said the move would not stall U.S. efforts in the region for “a lasting and comprehensive peace” and that “direct negotiations between the two parties are the only way forward.”
Meanwhile, the leader of the PLO General Delegation to the United States, Ambassador Husam Zomlot, said the closure illustrates the Trump administration’s bias toward Israel and underlines the PLO’s mission of holding Israel accountable in the International Criminal Court for what it says are human rights violations and crimes against Palestinians.
“We will step up our efforts to hold Israel accountable under international law, continue building international alliances for peace, double our efforts to reach out to the American people as we witness the transformational change in American public opinion in support of the Palestinian cause and our legitimate rights,” he said.
Reaction to the announcement of the closure, which is to take place within 30 days, was swift from all corners, including praise from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lauded the Trump administration and upbraided Palestinians as refusing “to enter negotiations with Israel, while attacking it “with false claims in international forums.”
Support for the closure also came from The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose Sept. 11 statement said the action is in line with legislation that mandated the PLO mission close if it moved against Israel in the ICC.
“The PLO itself triggered the law’s required closing of the office by pursuing efforts at the International Criminal Court to isolate and delegitimize Israel,” the AIPAC statement said. “For years, the PLO has placed obstacles in the path of peace and has now refused to enter negotiations with the Israelis or meet with American officials. We urge the Palestinian leadership to return to the negotiating table with the Israelis and cease its efforts to delegitimize Israel in international forums.”
Also applauding the announcement, the National Council of Young Israel said the administration “made the right move” in closing the mission and cutting Palestinian aid, sending a message to the PLO that its “recurring role as an antagonist to Israel and an impediment to peace will have real ramifications.”
“It is fitting that the decision to close the PLO Mission was made on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, when we are judged for our actions and G-d determines our fate for the year ahead.”
“We urge the Palestinian leadership to return to the negotiating table with the Israelis and cease its efforts to delegitimize Israel in international forums.” — AIPAC statement
But others said the continued censure and reduction of support for Palestinians would only serve to further inflame already existing tensions and snuff out any real prospects for peace or a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinian authorities.
“The Trump administration’s attack on Israel’s Palestinian partner for peace negotiations, the Palestine Liberation Organization, is an attack on the framework for peace that the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have created in the past quarter century,” said an Americans for Peace Now statement. “This framework was sustained with the blessing of the international community and the active support of past U.S. administrations, Democratic and Republican, even under right-wing Israeli governments. This framework envisioned a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security.”
APN said the Trump administration has never endorsed this vision, and is now “actively working to bring about its demise,” and called on Trump’s foreign policy team and on Congress “to reverse this disastrous trend and preserve any remaining chance for viable peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.”
J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami called the closure a Trump administration “gift” to those opposed to a two-state solution.
“This latest salvo against peace came as American Jews, who overwhelmingly support a two-state solution, were observing Rosh Hashanah in their homes and communities,” Ben-Ami said. “One by one, this administration is kicking the legs out from under any possible negotiating table. No one benefits from this sabotage other than those who oppose a just and lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians. The record makes clear that any ‘peace’ proposal coming from this administration is nothing more than a sham. No serious person who cares about the security and dignity of Israelis and Palestinians will buy it.”
And on top of the pullback of social services and humanitarian aid funding, the Israel Policy Forum said the move, following nearly 30 years of bipartisan American policy on peace and aid in the region, sets a dangerous precedent.
“Future administrations may view the Trump White House’s actions as license to either further support an Israeli far right agenda or to tack completely in the opposite direction. The extreme steps being taken by the Trump administration serve not only to upend Israeli-Palestinian relations, they also place the long-term strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship at risk.”
For Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, whether the administration would or could walk back its funding cuts or reopen the PLO office is a question mark.
“It’s hard to tell. The Trump administration seems determined to punish and humiliate the Palestinians and their leadership,” Nir said. “Trump and his aides did not indicate what needs to happen for them to reverse their measures.”
For what it would take for the PLO to walk back its claims against Israel in the ICC, Nir harks back to the Obama administration.
“It was reported that under President Obama, there was an understanding, brokered by Secretary Kerry, that Palestinians would put their international efforts on hold pending diplomatic efforts to relaunch the peace process,” Nir said. “I think it’s safe to assume that once the Palestinians see a credible diplomatic process with a two-state solution on the horizon, they would halt their international initiatives.”
“The Trump administration seems determined to punish and humiliate the Palestinians and their leadership.” — Ori Nir, Americans for Peace Now
But overall, Nir noted that the Trump administration’s track record on a thoughtful and genuine Middle East peace effort doesn’t bode well for the future.
“Based on what we’ve seen from Trump and his team so far, what they will offer — if they eventually put an offer on the table — will be a non-starter, dead-on-arrival plan,” he said.