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, U.S. officials said the Palestine Liberation Organization mission couldn’t stay open because the Palestinians had violated a provision in U.S. 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 U.S.-Palestinian relations that threatened to scuttle President Trump’s ambitious Mideast peace effort 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 United States 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 that even those restrictions will be lifted after 90 days if Washington determines that 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.
“We therefore are optimistic that at the end of this 90-day period, the political process may be sufficiently advanced that the president will be in a position to allow the PLO office to resume full operations,” Vasquez said.
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 U.N. 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 reopen 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 that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a strict interpretation of the law, determined that Abbas’s speech had crossed the legal line.
The chaos that ensued after the announcement, with U.S. officials unable for several days to explain whether 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. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused the administration 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.”
Vasquez said the original position had never been intended to create leverage or impose pressure. The State Department said that the administration is actively working to pursue lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.