Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President Barack Obama
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President Barack Obama Photo by Archive
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The U.S. announced this week that it would upgrade its diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority by granting its mission in Washington - which is actually a PLO mission - the same status it enjoys in most European countries: that of a PLO "general delegation."

This is still a lower status than an embassy and does not give them any diplomatic privileges or immunities  - a status the PA mission does have in many African and Asian countries, as well as some European and South American states. But it is a major step above what the PA has had until now.

Prior to this decision, the PA mission in Washington was at a very low level from the point of view of protocol: It was not even allowed to fly the PLO flag at the entrance to its offices.

"This decision reflects our confidence that through direct negotiations, we can help achieve a two-state solution with an independent and viable Palestine living side by side with Israel," said White House spokesman Thomas Vietor. "We should begin preparing for that outcome now, as we continue to work with the Palestinian people on behalf of a better future."

The PA has been seeking an upgrade in diplomatic relations ever since U.S. President Barack Obama took office last year. But after 18 months without progress, it received a letter from the State Department on Tuesday announcing that the U.S. had agreed. The letter was sent to Maen Areikat, who heads the PLO mission in Washington.

The Americans began seriously considering the upgrade two weeks ago as one of several steps it intends to take in an effort to entice Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into direct talks with Israel. A week ago, American officials contacted both the Israeli embassy in Washington and the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem to see whether Israel would object to the upgrade, a senior Israeli official said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded that he had no objections.

A senior Palestinian official confirmed the upgrade, and stressed that this is more than a symbolic step. "This move will enable PLO officials and Palestinian diplomats to operate in Washington in an official and orderly manner," he said.

The U.S. has also promised that if the PA does agree to direct talks, the construction freeze in the settlements will continue, and "not one house will be built," Abbas said this week.

Abbas made this claim three days ago, in an address to his Fatah movement's Revolutionary Council. But since the media were barred from that meeting, it became known only Thursday, when the PA published it on its official website, Wafa.

In his speech to the council, Abbas said he has not yet received sufficiently clear answers from the Americans about other issues that he wants settled before the talks begin, and is therefore not yet willing to agree to them. While Obama sent him a message that contained very positive statements on the subject of borders, he said, they were "not positive enough."

Abbas said he would submit a definite response to Washington's request for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks on July 28, but his basic position is that direct talks will be possible only if sufficient progress is first made on the issues of borders and security during the indirect talks now being conducted with American mediation.

PA officials said this week that the PA has asked Israel for answers on several specific points relating to these issues, and will not agree to direct talks unless the replies are satisfactory. But so far, they said, Israel has not responded.

The PA's insistence on a complete settlement freeze stems from the fear that its image will suffer severely if it agrees to direct talks without one. It also fears that Israel is not really serious about the talks, and would therefore rather wait until September, when the 10-month freeze on settlement construction expires, to see whether Israel extends it.

If so, the PA might view that as a sign of good faith on Netanyahu's part. White House spokesman Thomas Vietor said, "This decision reflects our confidence that through direct negotiations, we can help achieve a two-state solution with an independent and viable Palestine living side by side with Israel. We should begin preparing for that outcome now, as we continue to work with the Palestinian people on behalf of a better future."

Israel's defense establishment, meanwhile, has advised the government to allow the Palestinian Authority to import 50 Russian-made armored vehicles - something Israel has been refusing to do for five years now.

Russia first proposed giving the vehicles, which are armored only against light weapons, to the PA security services more than five years ago, in an effort to strengthen the rule of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. In March 2008, toward the end of Ehud Olmert's term as prime minister, Israel finally informed the Russians that it would approve the deal - but only if the number was halved to 25 and the vehicles were altered so that it would be impossible to mount a machine gun on them.

The PA agreed to these restrictions, saying it needed the vehicles to maintain law and order and deter Hamas. But in practice, the deal never went through, because Jerusalem got cold feet after the decision provoked a storm of criticism from the right wing, which accused it of repeating the mistakes of the Oslo era - when weapons Israel gave the PA were later turned on Israeli soldiers and civilians.

In the meantime, the Russians sent 50 of the vehicles to Jordan, where PA security personnel were trained in their use as part of a wider American-led training program aimed at upgrading the PA's security capabilities. Recently, the PA again began asking that the vehicles be allowed in, raising the issue with both Israel and the United States.

Both the Israel Defense Forces' Central Command and the coordinator of government activities in the territories have recommended that the government accede to this request, in light of the impressive improvement in security cooperation between Israel and the PA. A security official told Haaretz that as long as the vehicles cannot mount machine guns, they pose no danger to Israeli forces.

But it seems likely that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will seek to link this gesture to the effort to persuade the PA to move from indirect to direct diplomatic negotiations.