The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. ordered the Palestinian mission to close. Here’s why it matters.

The Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, D.C., this week. (Reuters) (KEVIN LAMARQUE/Reuters)

On Sunday evening, the U.S. government informed me that it would shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in the United States. From Ramallah, I convened a video conference with my staff in Washington. The directive was very clear: We had to close down completely in a month, ending our contacts with the United States and terminating the lease on our building.

The administration said they closed the office because we are not advancing peace. But this is just another way — after vetoing Palestinian motions at the United Nations, cutting aid to UNRWA and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — to execute the wish list of the Netanyahu-led Israeli government. We have asked repeatedly about the so-called ultimate peace plan (which, for nearly a year, the White House has hinted will arrive any day). We have always been ready to resume negotiations that are based on the two-state solution with East Jerusalem as our capital. It is the United States, not Palestine, that is no longer an honest peace broker.

On one level, the news did not surprise us. Still, it was a shocking blow. Because the United States does not recognize Palestine as a country, we do not have an embassy. So the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group that helped birth the Palestinian Authority decades ago, operates something akin to an embassy: a delegation officially representing the country and its people. We had stopped communicating with the U.S. government in December after the embassy move. Now we will have to stop basic functions — as when, for example, we coordinated Vice President Pence’s planned visit to Bethlehem, which he never made.

Beyond that, Palestinians and their government no longer have a voice that can speak officially on their behalf at think tanks, churches and other institutions of civil society. We will have to cease visits like the one I made to Princeton University a few months ago, where I spoke to students about U.S.-Palestinian relations, multilateralism and the path for peace. We will have to end the programs that simply opened our doors to the public and invited visitors to share our culture — like a movie night featuring Palestinian food and embroidery, or an evening of poetry readings to honor the poet Mahmoud Darwish.

The closure is devastating to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live in America. Like any other non-American in the United States, they could feel safer knowing that, far from home, they could have a resource to help them in a crisis — from relatively minor inconveniences, like losing their passports or getting stuck in an airport, to huge personal tragedies, like the death of a loved one. (Imagine yourself living abroad in a place with no U.S. Embassy.) We assisted people with tasks that ranged from helping navigate paperwork, like divorce, marriage and school certificates for use in Palestine, to assisting them with funeral arrangements and helping U.S. citizens navigate inheritance issues with their assets in Palestine.

Over the past few days, our telephone lines have been flooded with calls from the community. They’re confused and panicked, asking what will happen. People are asking what will happen to their paperwork, or how will they finish their documents, or whether they can expedite the process before the decision takes effect. The administration is not providing them with alternative arrangements. They will have no recourse. Ours was a close-knit office of 20 people; we considered one another family. When I told them the news, I could see over the screen that some of them had started to cry. Working at the diplomatic mission was not only a job for them. They were there because they were passionate about defending the Palestinian cause, promoting our culture and taking care of our people. They were inspired by their belief in the work that we did to foster better relations between Palestine and the United States.

We’re not confused here: Our quarrel is not with the people of the United States but with this presidential administration. Since 1987, despite the Oslo Accords, the United States has considered the PLO a terrorist organization. Our delegation hopes to return as partners on more equal footing, having built a relationship not based on blackmail or coercion, but real cooperation, as we work toward a better future for people in the Middle East.