U.S. Says PLO Office Must Close After Palestinians Call To Prosecute Israel

Nov 18, 2017
Originally published on November 18, 2017 7:15 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And one more story with international implications. The U.S. State Department says the Palestinian diplomatic mission in the U.S. must close. A State Department official says the move is in response to Palestinian leadership calling on the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israel. NPR's Daniel Estrin is with us from Southern Israel to tell us more. Daniel, thanks so much for joining us.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Sure.

MARTIN: So what does this office do, and what is the State Department's reasoning behind the decision to close it?

ESTRIN: Well, the Palestinians, you know, don't have a state yet, so it's not an embassy per se, but it's a diplomatic mission that functions very similarly to an embassy. And every six months, the secretary of state has to determine if this diplomatic mission can remain open because Congress imposed restrictions a couple of years ago that the Palestinian office cannot operate in the U.S. if the Palestinians push for Israeli prosecution at the International Criminal Court.

And, in fact, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said this September at the U.N., quote, "we have called on the International Criminal Court to open an investigation and to prosecute Israeli officials" for settlement activities, for what he called aggressions against our people. So Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Palestinians they don't comply with the law, and their office must be closed.

MARTIN: Is there any precedent for this? And how is the Palestinian leadership reacting to this?

ESTRIN: The U.S. has not done this before. And the Palestinians say they're surprised and they're confused. The Palestinian foreign affairs minister, Riyad al-Maliki, says the White House told Palestinian officials the White House doesn't support this move by the secretary of state. Palestinian official Saeb Erekat says he thinks this is Israeli pressure on the Trump administration, and he threatened that the Palestinians would cut off ties with the U.S., with the Trump administration, if it indeed closes this diplomatic office.

MARTIN: And what about Israel? What's Israel's position on this?

ESTRIN: Well, officials in the prime minister's office are not saying much other than this is a matter of U.S. law and they respect the decision and will work with the U.S. to advance peace and security.

MARTIN: Along those lines, does this move have implications for the Trump administration's efforts to restart peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

ESTRIN: So there is this catch to the closure of the Palestinian office in D.C. because according to U.S. law, the president - President Trump - may allow this office to reopen within 90 days if he determines that the Palestinians are engaged in peace negotiations with the Israelis. Now, there are no negotiations happening now. The U.S. is expected to present a plan for how those peace negotiations can happen. Within a few months, they're supposed to present that plan.

So, you know, the U.S. does not want to alienate the Palestinians right now. The U.S. needs them onboard. And that's why the State Department is framing this closure of their office as a technical move. This certainly does not inspire more Palestinian confidence in the Trump administration leading those peace efforts. And we will see if it makes average Palestinians even more skeptical than they are now that new peace talks with Israel will really go anywhere.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin. Daniel, thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.