State Department orders Palestinians to close Washington office in frustration over stalled peace talks
In the latest effort to pressure the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, the State Department announced Monday that it has ordered the Palestinian leadership to close the office that serves as its de facto embassy in Washington.
The punishment comes days after the Trump administration said it would cut off more than $300 million in funding for the United Nations agency that provides humanitarian assistance to more than 5 million Palestinians who have scattered across the Middle East since the creation of Israel.
The State Department blamed Palestinian leaders for the tensions, which have left the White House with nothing to show for months of diplomacy with Israel and the Gulf Arab states in an effort to forge what President Trump once called the “ultimate deal.”
Leaders of the Palestinian Authority have accused the Trump administration of acting in bad faith by hewing to a sharply pro-Israel line rather than acting as an honest broker for peace. Their refusal to even talk to Trump’s envoys has created growing frustration in the White House.
The Palestine Liberation Organization “has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel” and should close its office in Washington, Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
“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,” she added.
The White House insisted it is not retreating from its attempts to establish a comprehensive peace plan. “We are as committed today as we ever have been to the peace process,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.
The effort has been led by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, and Jason Greenblatt, a former executive vice president at the Trump Organization. They have made repeated visits to the region.
Palestinian leaders have refused to meet with them since President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel last December and moved the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv, reversing decades of U.S. policy. The Palestinians claim part of the holy city as their capital of an eventual independent nation.
Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador in Washington, was not expelled in the State Department order, but he said Monday that he was not surprised that he was told to shut the office.
“Such a reckless act confirms that the administration is blindly executing Israel’s ‘wish list,’ which starts with shutting down Palestinian diplomatic representation in the U.S.,” he said.
The office is a relatively small operation with limited functions, located in a red-brick building on Wisconsin Avenue in northwest Washington. It flies the red, black, green and white Palestinian flag.
It is allowed to operate only if the president signs a waiver every six months. The last waiver expired in November, and the office has functioned in limbo ever since.
The Palestinians also have a delegation at the United Nations in New York, which in late 2012 upgraded Palestine to the status of “non-member observer state.” Around two-thirds of the U.N. members recognize the State of Palestine.
Zomlot was briefly recalled by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after Trump announced his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem last year.
Last month, Zomlot condemned Trump’s decision to cut most aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA assists millions of registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
The administration has demanded that UNRWA redefine who is a refugee, since it now assists millions of descendants of the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948.
Also Monday, National Security Advisor John Bolton threatened harsh punishment if the International Criminal Court attempts to act against the United States or Israel.
Speaking to the Federalist Society, a conservative Washington think tank, Bolton described the ICC, which prosecutes crimes against humanity such as genocide, as “ineffective, unaccountable and, indeed, outright dangerous.”
Palestinian officials have said they intend to take Israel to the ICC for what they see as war crimes in Israel’s attack on protesters in the Gaza Strip.
Bolton said the ICC, which is based in The Hague, routinely attempts to violate the sovereignty of nations. He warned of a possible new case in which the court’s prosecutors would investigate alleged torture and other abuse of Afghans by U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan.
It was no coincidence, he said, that he spoke the day before the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and a war that is now America’s longest.
“If the court comes after us, Israel or other U.S. allies, we will not sit quietly,” Bolton said.
He warned that the Trump administration would bar ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the United States, freeze their U.S. assets, and consider cutting financial and military aid to any country that supports the court.
The United States is one of only a handful of countries, including Israel, Iraq, China and Yemen, that are not party to the 2002 treaty establishing the court.
It has begun prosecution of Sudan’s President Omar Bashir and is the likely forum for punishing military officials in Myanmar accused of the murder and rape of thousands of minority Muslim Rohingya. It is the successor to the war crimes courts formed after brutal conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
U.S. conservatives have long urged Washington to refuse to recognize ICC jurisdiction over American citizens.
Human rights activists quickly condemned Bolton’s criticism as a “callous disregard” for victims of the world’s atrocities.
“Any U.S. action to scuttle ICC inquiries on Afghanistan and Palestine would demonstrate that the administration was more concerned with coddling serial rights abusers … than supporting impartial justice,” said Elizabeth Evenson, a senior official at the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
The decision to close the Palestinians’ office in Washington, which was applauded by Bolton’s audience, sparked anger elsewhere.
Diana Buttu, a former legal advisor to the Palestinian Authority, said the Trump administration is punishing Palestinians while refusing to criticize Israel’s construction of Jewish settlements in land claimed by the Palestinians, which is considered illegal under international law.
“Palestinians are getting all the sticks and Israel all the carrots,” Buttu said in a telephone interview from the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter
2:50 p.m.: This story was updated with National Security Advisor John Bolton’s comments.
This story first posted at 10:25 a.m.
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