U.S. Threatens to Shutter PLO Office in Washington

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

November 29, 2017

The U.S. government has indicated that it is likely to shut down the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington, D.C. Palestinian leadership has reacted furiously to the news, threatening to cut off further communications with the Trump administration should it go through with the closure. The most recent stand-off comes as Mr. Trump prepares to unveil his long-promised plan for a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. There is a fear among observers, however, that the Trump plan is likely to heavily favor Israel, a prospect that many in the region would find unacceptable.

According to the Palestinian website Ma’an News, Arab leaders reached out to the Trump administration immediately after news of the possible shuttering of the PLO offices broke: “The Arab League has reportedly approached the United States government regarding its recent decision to punitively shut down the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington D.C, over the Palestinian leadership’s efforts to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court (ICC)…. While Trump has maintained on many occasions that, under his auspices, the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be solved, his administration has painted a rather unclear picture regarding Trump’s plans in the region, while a number of high-profile U.S. officials are known to be staunch supporters of Israel.”

The Jordan Times editorial staff characterized the move as “extortion,” designed to strong-arm the Palestinian to accept a peace deal that would be otherwise unpalatable: “And why does the U.S. Congress consider [it wrong to take] Israel to task over actions in Palestinian territories that the international community, including the UN, consider unlawful? Settlements — which gobble up Palestinian land, precluding the possibility of ever creating a contiguous state — have been considered an obstacle to peacemaking by many U.S. administrations. So what kind of ‘meaningful’ negotiations can Palestinians get into with Israel when the elephant in the room has to be avoided? The American threat is, as the PLO has said, nothing short of ‘extortion.’ This lopsided U.S. position could never lead to the much-touted deal the U.S. administration claims to want to reach, to the much-needed peace Palestinians dream of.”

Israel Hayom’s Yoni Hersch and others worry that, should the PLO go through with its threat to cut off ties with the United States, it would lead to significant difficulties for Washington’s efforts to rally Arab support against Iran: “Cutting off ties would carry great risks for the Palestinians. It could antagonize an administration they already suspect is biased toward Israel and put millions of dollars in critical U.S. aid in jeopardy. However, uncooperative Palestinians could result in embarrassment for the Trump administration ahead of an expected peace initiative, potentially preventing it from getting off the ground…. The Palestinian stance could also complicate U.S. efforts to promote a region-wide effort against Iran, involving cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab allies, as Arab countries might be reluctant to get too close to Israel in the absence of serious progress on the Palestinian conflict.”

The tit for tat between the United States and the Palestinian Authority takes place against efforts by the Trump administration to present a new framework for a possible Israel-Palestine peace agreement, one that, according to Arab News’ Osama Al-Sharif, is likely to heavily favor Israel: “Various U.S. and Palestinian sources have said that the threat to close the PLO office was meant to pressure President Mahmoud Abbas to accept engaging in unconditional negotiations with Israel…. Netanyahu has repeatedly argued for economic peace with the Palestinians without withdrawal from the West Bank, the return of refugees, dismantling settlements or giving up East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. The Trump plan will probably be in line with Netanyahu’s position…. Bowing to U.S. pressure — which is nothing more than blackmail — is tantamount to committing political suicide. Abbas would be better off disbanding the PA and falling on his proverbial sword than acquiescing to U.S. demands.”

Israeli observers, including Arutz Sheva’s Yoram Ettinger, have tried to downplay the importance of the Palestinian issue in terms of the relationship between the United States and its Arab allies in the region, opining that the Palestinian issue is “a red herring, which diverts attention away from the clear and present, lethal threats to all pro-U.S. Arab regimes…. The pro-U.S. Arabs consider Israel to be the most effective ‘life insurance agent’ in the region, due to its robust posture of deterrence, which would dissipate if Israel were to retreat from the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria to the 9-15 mile defenseless sliver along the Mediterranean…. For the U.S. to promote the establishment of a Palestinian state – in defiance of its well-documented track record – would resemble the fire department recruiting a notorious pyromaniac to extinguish fires.”

Meanwhile, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ben-Dror Yemini dismisses any possibility for a successful peace deal, considering what he asserts is Palestinian unwillingness to accept compromise: “I can say with a great amount of certainty that the new initiative won’t lead to an agreement…. Not because the plan will be so bad. Not because it won’t give them a state. They will say ‘no’ because it’s what they know how to say. So far, the only plan they have said ‘yes’ to is the Saudi-Arab initiative…. Meanwhile, every failed round of negotiations only strengthens Israel’s radical Right, which mocks the efforts to reach peace. The result isn’t a stalemate. The result is a further expansion of the settlement enterprise, and not just inside the major blocs but outside too. The Palestinians are seeking one big state. And the radical Right, which is represented in the government, is becoming their executive wing.”

It is, perhaps, because of such comments and positions that in a recent op-ed for The National, Jonathan Cook referred to talk about a possible Palestinian state as an ‘empty promise’ rather than a reality the Israelis are willing to contemplate: “After five decades of Israel clearing most of the Palestinian population from the same area, penning them up in cities, the reported Trump deal will offer no restitution. The most intractable issue, Jerusalem, will supposedly be kept off the table for now. But reports say Israel will be allowed to continue its military chokehold on the large agricultural spine of the West Bank, the Jordan Valley…. In these circumstances, bringing down the house of cards that is the Palestinian Authority may be the best option, even if it delights many in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet. It will leave a void, and one that will be filled by a new generation of Palestinians no longer distracted by empty promises of statehood.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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