White House South side and gardens.
(photo credit: ZACH RUDISIN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
WASHINGTON – The Trump administration insists it was legally obligated to warn Palestinian officials that their offices in Washington would close unless they enter serious peace talks with Israel.
Senior US and PLO leaders continue to discuss the fate of the Georgetown office complex, which according to a 2015 law passed by Congress must be shuttered if the Palestinians call on the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israelis and fail to enter a serious diplomatic effort.
Palestinian officials warned that closure of their offices – not considered an embassy because the US does not recognize “Palestine” as a state – would force the PLO to suspend relations with Washington completely.
Palestinian Authority officials said in recent days that talks with US diplomats in Jerusalem have ceased. But the State Department insists that discussions are ongoing at a high level, and its decision on the PLO office was driven by legal, not strategic, determinations.
“The secretary concluded that the factual record, in particular certain statements made by Palestinian leaders about the ICC – I’m referring to comments that were made at the United Nations – did not permit the secretary to make a factual certification that was required by that statute,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said on Tuesday, referring to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech before the UN General Assembly in September in which he called for the ICC prosecution of Israelis.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “took a very technical look at this and determined that they were basically – the PLO had not complied with the conditions that were set by Congress,” Nauert said. “We are in contact with them about the status of the PLO office in Washington [and] having conversations with them about our larger efforts on the part of a lasting and comprehensive peace process.”
Abbas made similar calls for ICC action in past speeches before the UN General Assembly. But in 2015, Congress strengthened existing laws targeting PLO actions in international bodies as a response to its move to join the ICC as a member state.
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Nauert said the decision was made “in close consultation” with the White House. But several administration officials said the determination originated with the State Department’s legal team.
They insisted that the move was not driven by strategic calculations, amid questions in Ramallah and Jerusalem as to whether US President Donald Trump is hoping to exert leverage over the PA to coax them back to the negotiating table.
An intensive effort to jump-start peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians is being led out of the White House by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt. Both have prioritized building trust with the two parties in recent months ahead of a planned peace initiative, and they have not signaled an interest in strong-arming either side to the table. Briefing reporters, Nauert suggested that some strategy might be at work. But she also pleaded ignorance regarding the strategy behind the move, if indeed it exists.
“I’m not the strategist here, so there are other people who were involved in making some of those decisions,” Nauert said. “I know I think we’d like for them to be able to keep it open. So that’s why I say let’s not make things black and white at this point.”
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