WASHINGTON (JTA) – In 1987, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that declared there would never be an office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on U.S. soil. Then-president Ronald Reagan agreed and signed the law.
Seven years later the law was still on the books. But that year the PLO opened an office in Washington – with the blessing of Congress and president Bill Clinton.
Since then, a PLO office has remained in the U.S. capital, navigating a persistent anomaly: The 1987 law officially bans the existence of a PLO office, but it remains open as long as the Palestinians abide by certain conditions.
Now, however, the PLO may have violated some of those conditions – consequently, its D.C. office may close.
Late Friday, the Trump administration announced that the PLO cannot operate a Washington office because it tried to get the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israelis for crimes against Palestinians.
Confused? You’re not alone. Here’s an explanation of the law and what’s happening.
The law is clear, but Congress has been lenient.
The Foundation for Middle East Peace has helpfully posted a timeline of the relevant laws.
Most saliently, the ‘87 legislation renders it “unlawful” to establish an office with funds provided by the PLO or any of its constituent groups.
Reagan, like many presidents before and since, did not love the infringement on his executive privilege of making foreign policy. But in his signing statement, he said the PLO was not a suitable negotiating partner.
“I have no intention of establishing diplomatic relations with the PLO,” Reagan said, so he signed the law.
Within a year or so, however, Reagan recognized the PLO as a suitable negotiating partner – conveniently in the lame duck period following the election of his vice-president, George H. W. Bush, as president.
That recognition, although rescinded by Bush within months, was one of the predicates for the Madrid peace process launched by Bush in 1991. Those talks led to the 1993 Oslo accords between the PLO and Israel, which led to the opening in 1994 of the office.
Congress, in a series of laws starting in 1993, granted exemptions to its ban on a PLO office. It gave two reasons: sustaining the peace process and, later, reserving a matter of U.S. national security.
Congress cracked down after the PLO sought unilateral statehood.
Congress retaliated following efforts by the PLO to obtain statehood recognition outside the parameters of an agreement with Israel. Those applications followed the collapse of the Oslo process and then the 2007-08 Annapolis talks.
There’s a tit-for-tat dynamic to the events: Palestine obtained UNESCO recognition in 2011; Congress passed a law the same year saying that any subsequent entry into a UN body would mean shuttering the office. Palestine obtained recognition in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2015 – the ICC is not a UN body, PLO officials noted. So, the same year, Congress passed a measure saying the office can stay open if the Palestinians did not advance actions against Israel at the court.
The office seems to be open – for now.
According to the letter of the 2015 law, the office should not stay open if the law has indeed been violated (more on that in a moment). The office must immediately shut down and not reopen for at least 90 days – and then only if the president certifies to Congress that “the Palestinians have entered into direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”
The office’s top officials are not answering emails or returning calls, but it’s not closed – a receptionist took a request for an interview on Tuesday morning.
So let’s call the U.S. State Department, which initiated the process.
“We are working through the modalities of the closure process,” a State Department spokeswoman told JTA on Monday in an email after a reporter tried to speak with a human.
What modalities? What are modalities? What process? Does the process start with the closure of the office or end with it? Welcome to Washington-speak.
Are government officials meeting with the PLO representative, Husam Zomlot?
“We have nothing to announce regarding meetings at this time,” the spokeswoman said.
Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator who is in the Washington area recovering from a lung transplant, said in a video that the ICC was the trigger for the closure announcement. Except the most critical Palestinian actions regarding the court – joining and requesting an inquiry into alleged Israeli crimes – took place before the relevant law was passed.
Much blame or credit is going around, depending on your perspective.
It’s Mahmoud Abbas’ doing.
This is what the Palestinian Authority president and PLO chair said in September at the UN General Assembly: “We have called on the International Criminal Court to open an investigation and to prosecute Israeli officials for their involvement in settlement activities and aggressions against our people, and we will continue to pursue our accessions to international conventions, protocols and organizations.”
The 2015 law says “any action with respect to the ICC that is intended to influence a determination by the ICC to initiate a judicially authorized investigation, or to actively support such an investigation, that subjects Israeli nationals to an investigation for alleged crimes against Palestinians” would trigger closing the office.
Was the Abbas speech an “action” that was “intended to influence” the court? Or was he describing actions the Palestinians had already taken before the law was passed?
It’s Ron Dermer’s doing.
Palestinian officials told the Al-Monitor news site that Israel’s ambassador to the United States, who has close relations with the Trump administration, has been behind the effort.
“This is the pressure being exerted on this [administration] by the Netanyahu government at a time when we are trying to cooperate to achieve the ‘ultimate deal,’” Erekat said, using the term U.S. President Donald Trump has used to describe a Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Israelis are not taking credit, although they seem pleased.
“This is about an American law,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office told Ynet. “We appreciate the decision and expect to continue our work with the United States advancing peace and security in the region.”
It’s the White House’s doing.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and top adviser on the Middle East, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s top envoy to the talks, want to jump-start the peace process, according to this theory. The Palestinians will have to commit to peace talks with Israel, so goes this theory, if they want to get back their Washington office.
“It sure looks like this is being used as a tactic to force [the Palestinians] to the negotiating table on terms determined by the United States, Saudis and Israelis,” said Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
The problems with this theory: The action was initiated by the State Department and it’s not clear whether Greenblatt and Kushner were in the loop. Plus, the two – especially Greenblatt – have gone out of their way to cultivate the Palestinian Authority leadership, hoping to reinstall it in the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas terrorist group currently runs things. Kushner and Greenblatt made a well-publicized visit to Erekat’s bedside just weeks ago. Why undercut the Palestinians now?
It’s Rex Tillerson’s doing.
He is the U.S. secretary of state, after all, albeit one accruing a reputation for ineffectualness. But he’s as invested as Kushner in cultivating good will in the region. What would Tillerson’s game be here?
It’s Obama’s doing.
President Barack Obama could have shut down the PLO office when Erekat repeatedly urged an ICC investigation of alleged Israeli war crimes during the 2014 Gaza War. Instead, Obama punted to the next administration.
“This is the first time the Palestinians have made such a move with the Trump administration in charge,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “And it looks like they’re applying the law instead of punting on it.”
What happens to the peace process?
What peace process? Schanzer said any process was all but moribund anyway.
“What I question right now is whether the PLO is engaging in any serious negotiations thereby necessitating a presence in Washington,” he said. “The PLO embassy has served to engage in a public relations effort that primarily demonizes the Israelis and shirks diplomatic efforts.”
Trump administration officials in recent days have been leaking like sieves about plans to relaunch the peace process as soon as next year. The Palestinians until now have been game – Zomlot, the PLO envoy to Washington, has been effusive in his outreach to Jewish groups, the media and American politicians about Trump’s “ultimate deal.” They have put on hold bids to join international agencies.
Nuh-uh, the Palestinians now say. Closing the office “is unprecedented in the history of U.S.-Palestinian relations, which could have serious consequences on the peace process and U.S.-Arab relations, as well as serves as a blow to peacemaking efforts,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, Abbas’ spokesman, said over the weekend.
When will we know for sure?
The PLO office is hosting a Christmas party early next month. Does anyone show up? Stay tuned.