President Abbas Orders to Freeze Contacts With Washington Over Threat to Close Palestinians' D.C. Office

Contacts with the Americans are only being conducted by lower level officials. A visit by U.S. Vice President Pence hasn't been called off

Trump and Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 23, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered Tuesday to freeze contacts with the United States in response to the Trump administration’s threat to shut down the Palestinian mission. The Trump administration notified the Palestinian Authority that unless it enters serious peace negotiations with Israel, the U.S. could shut down the Palestinian diplomatic delegation in Washington, D.C. within the next few months. 

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At this point, Abbas’ order appears to be more of a threat than a promise, but it is yet another sign of the mounting tension between the Palestinian Authority and the White House. The U.S. administration commented that talks with the Palestinians about their diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C. are continuing. 

Nabil Abu Rudeinah, a spokesman for Abbas who is accompanying him on an official visit to Madrid, said this will be a decisive period in relations between the United States and Palestinians. He said Abbas’ order is a direct response to recent measures by the United States. Despite the challenges involved, the Palestinians will remain faithful to their own national interests, he said.

Although Abbas’ instructions are being carried out by senior diplomats, day-to-day contacts and consultations with the Americans conducted by lower level officials will not cease, a senior Palestinian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is slated to visit Bethlehem in December. At this stage, the visit hasn’t been canceled.

While Abbas ordered a halt to contacts with the Trump administration, this does not mean that if senior American officials initiate a phone call with senior Palestinian officials they will refuse to accept the call, said the senior official.

“What is important for the Palestinians is to pass on the message and a clear position to the [U.S.] administration and not to cut of relations just to cut off relations. We also must not forget the balance of power in this case when we are talking about a superpower such as the United States,” he added.

That said, the Palestinians describe the Trump administration's hardline position as unprecedented and blamed them for creating a crisis of a magnitude that has not been seen in years.

"In meetings with President Trump, Abu Mazen [Abbas] received very reassuring messages. On the other hand, we are dealing with the type of move that casts doubt on the entire relationship. The question is how does the White House explains this gap between the messages of the president on the one hand and those of his administration on the other," another senior Palestinian official said, also on condition of anonymity.

The order allowing the PLO mission in Washington to remain open must be renewed every six months due the fact that the PLO is listed as a terror organization in the United States. According to the Palestinian official, the Palestinian Authority demands that the United States stop defining the PLO as a terror organization, and allow the offices to remain open without the need for the approval. “We need to bring this issue to an end once and for all because this is a decision that harms the entire Palestinian people,” he added. 

The U.S. State Department could act to close the mission through the same 1994 law that led to its establishment, which states that the mission will be closed if the Palestinians act against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

Earlier Tuesday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki told Voice of Palestine radio that the Trump administration was reconsidering its position on closing the Palestinian mission in Washington because of the Palestinian Authority's threats to freeze relations.