U.S. Warns Palestinians They Could Lose Washington Mission Over Abbas' Call to Investigate Israelis

The Trump administration to the Palestinians: Without entering serious peace negotiations with Israel, the U.S. could shut down Palestinian diplomatic delegation

FILE - In this May 23, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after making statements to the press in the West Bank City of Bethlehem. Palestinians are increasingly questioning their leadersג€™ strategy of reaching statehood through negotiations with Israel after more than two decades of failures. A majority believes that the ג€œtwo-state solutionג€ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer possible, despite pledges by President Donald Trump that he would try to broker a deal. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Evan Vucci/AP

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration has 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.

The message was relayed to the Palestinians by the U.S. State Department recently, but it did not include a firm timeline. It was first reported on Friday by the Associated Press.

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Palestinians that this decision was reached as a result of statements made by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel and prosecute actions by Israelis.

FILE- In this Oct. 30, 2017, file photo, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.  The Trump administration put the Palestinians on notice Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, that it will shut their office in Washington unless they've entered serious peace talks with Israel, U.S. officials said. Tillerson has determined that the Palestinians ran afoul of an obscure provision in a U.S. law that says the Palestine Liberation Organization's mission must close if the Palestinians try to get the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israelis for crimes against Palestinians. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The State Department said that the statements made by Abbas go against a U.S. law which stipulates that the Palestinian mission should be closed if the Palestinians try to take action against Israel at the ICC.

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The report by the AP made it clear, however, that this was not an immediate threat, and that the United States was still engaging the Palestinians in the hopes of renewing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The White House, the Israeli embassy and the PLO delegation did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

A State Department official told Haaretz on Friday night: "We are not cutting off relations with the PLO, nor do we intend to stop working with the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meeting with U.S. presidential adviser Jared Kushner in Ramallah, August 24, 2017.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

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"Our relations with the PLO and PA extend well beyond contacts with the PLO office in Washington. We remain focused on a comprehensive peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians that will resolve core issues between the parties. This measure should in no way be seen as a signal that the U.S. is backing off those efforts. Nor should it be exploited by those who seek to act as spoilers to distract from the imperative of reaching a peace agreement,” they said.

The same State Department official told Haaretz that the issue was mostly technical, stating that "under U.S. law, to waive statutory restrictions on the PLO and its Washington office, the Secretary [of State Tillerson] must certify the PLO has complied with conditions imposed by Congress.

"In December 2015, Congress introduced a new condition concerning certain Palestinian actions related to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The most recent certification period ended in November. We were unable to make a new certification, and have notified the PLO accordingly. The Secretary concluded that the factual record, in particular certain statements made by Palestinian leaders about the ICC, did not permit him to make the factual certification required by the statute."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly, September 20, 2017.
ANGELA WEISS/AFP

The official added, however, that "the same statute allows for a waiver of restrictions on the PLO in the U.S., including operation of its Washington office, if after 90 days the President determines the Palestinians have entered into direct, meaningful negotiations with Israel.  We are hopeful that this closure will be short-lived."

On Saturday, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said that the threats from Washington were an attempt to exert political pressure and attempt to create uncertainty among the Palestinian leadership.

According to al-Maliki, the Palestinian Authority would not give in to "extortion" regarding its diplomatic mission in Washington or the peace process with Israel. He said rather that a decision on the mission should be made in consultation between the State Department and the White House.

The PLO delegation has been operating in Washington, D.C. since 1994. The Trump administration, like previous Democratic and Republican administrations, has been in constant touch with the delegation, which is headed by Ambassador Hosam Zomlot, a close adviser to Abbas.

Zomlot recently published a video on his social media platforms about the importance of keeping the delegation active in Washington. The video included a joint picture of Zomlot and President Trump in the White House.