The Trump administration backtracked Friday on its decision to order the Palestinians’ office in Washington to close, instead saying it would merely impose limitations on the office that it expected would be lifted after 90 days.
Last week, US officials said the Palestine Liberation Organization mission couldn’t stay open because the Palestinians had violated a provision in US law requiring the office to close if the Palestinians try to get the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israelis.
The move triggered a major rift in US-Palestinian relations that threatened to scuttle President Donald Trump’s ambitious effort to broker Mideast peace before it ever got off the ground.
Yet the United States delayed shuttering the office for a week while saying it was working out the details with the Palestinians, before abruptly reversing course late Friday, as many Americans were enjoying a long Thanksgiving Day weekend.
State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said the US had “advised the PLO Office to limit its activities to those related to achieving a lasting, comprehensive peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
Vasquez said even those restrictions will be lifted after 90 days if the US determines the Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in serious peace talks.
The White House, in an effort led by Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, has been preparing a comprehensive peace plan to present to both sides in the coming months, the Associated Press reported.
The reversal marked a serious departure from the administration’s interpretation of the law only a week earlier. Officials had said then that, one way or another, the office had to close because Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a UN speech in September, had called on the ICC to investigate and prosecute Israelis.
That same law, though, says that the president can let the office re-open after 90 days despite an ICC push if serious Israeli-Palestinian talks are underway.
There were no indications that the Trump administration had initially moved to close the office as part of a premeditated strategy to strengthen its hand in eventual peace talks.
Instead, officials explained the move by saying Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a strict interpretation of the law, determined that Abbas’ speech had crossed the legal line.
The chaos that ensued after the announcement, with the US unable for several days to explain if the office was truly closing and when, indicated it had caught much of the government off-guard.
Still, the move led the Palestinians to issue an angry response last weekend threatening to suspend all communication with the US.
Additionally, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused the US of bowing to pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government “at a time when we are trying to cooperate to achieve the ultimate deal.”
The United States allowed the PLO, the group that formally represents all Palestinians, to open a mission in Washington in 1994. That required President Bill Clinton to waive a law that said the Palestinians couldn’t have an office.
In 2011, under the Obama administration, the US started letting the Palestinians fly their flag over the office, an upgrade to the status of their mission that the Palestinians hailed as historic.
Israel opposes any Palestinian membership in UN-related organizations until a peace deal has been reached.
The Israelis and Palestinians are not engaged in active, direct negotiations. But Trump’s team, led by Kushner, is working to broker a deal aimed at settling the intractable conflict.