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Trump administration orders closure of PLO office in Washington

National security adviser John Bolton said Sept. 10 those who cooperate with an International Criminal Court probe of U.S. actions would be punished. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Trump administration on Monday ordered the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, saying that the PLO “has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

The closure was announced by the State Department shortly before White House national security adviser John Bolton, in his first major policy speech, threatened U.S. punishment for individuals and countries that cooperate with the International Criminal Court, where the Palestinians have lodged complaints against Israel.

“The United States supports a direct and robust peace process,” Bolton said, “and we will not allow the ICC, or any other organization, to constrain Israel’s right to self-defense.”

The PLO is recognized by most of the world as the “legitimate representative” of Palestinians. Its office in Washington — while not recognized as an embassy, since there is no recognition of a Palestinian state — is one of the few Palestinian vehicles for communication with the levers of U.S. power. It has survived repeated political and legislative calls to shut it down, across decades of unsuccessful U.S. efforts to forge a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis.

But Monday’s order to shutter it within 30 days comes amid the Trump administration’s systematic chipping away at the core tenets of Palestinian aspirations for any negotiations and its ramping up of financial pressure on the Palestinian Authority that governs the West Bank.

Late last year, President Trump declared U.S. recognition of the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This year, the State Department canceled most U.S. aid funding to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Late last month, in a move that effectively dismissed any Palestinian right of return to contested land, the administration called for a redefinition of Palestinian refu­gee status and said the United States — long the largest individual donor — would no longer fund the U.N. refu­gee aid program. Israel rejects any “right of return” and considers the demand a main stumbling block to peace.

Last week, the administration said it would withdraw $25 million in support for six East Jerusalem hospitals that are primarily used by Palestinians. Largely church-run, they traditionally have served as the main providers of care for those referred for treatment not available in the West Bank and Gaza.

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The Palestinians say those measures are designed to lay the groundwork for a yet-to-be-revealed U.S. peace proposal that they charge is already rigged in Israel’s favor. Since the Jerusalem announcement, they have refused to meet with U.S. negotiators, led by White House senior aide and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.

In its statement justifying the PLO closure, the State Department said that far from cooperating, “the PLO has condemned a U.S. peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the U.S. government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise.” Although Trump has often declared “progress” in the secretive compiling of what Kushner and others have said will be a “comprehensive” plan, its release has repeatedly been delayed.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the measure the continuation of a policy of “collective punishment” by the administration. “These people have decided to stand on the wrong side of history by protecting war criminals and destroying the two-state solution,” he said.

The United States, he said, is not “part of the peace process” and does not even have the right to “sit in the room” during any negotiations. Erekat dismissed U.S. officials such as David Friedman, the ambassador to Israel, as a “group of settlers” pursuing a right-wing Israeli agenda.

Numerous Palestinian officials have said the United States can no longer be an “honest broker” for peace. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s executive committee, described Monday’s action as a form of “crude and vicious blackmail” and “clear proof of American collusion with Israel’s occupation.”

The White House has been “very upfront throughout the process and the fact that we want to see peace, we want to have those conversations, we want to help broker that deal,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “Certainly, we have a great deal of support with our friend and ally in Israel. But again, we are as committed today as we’ve ever been to the peace process.”

The announcement is likely to be widely welcomed by the Israeli government, which was on holiday Monday to mark Rosh Hashanah.

The administration first called for closing the office in November, after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on the ICC to investigate and prosecute Israel for alleged war crimes. It later backtracked, advising the Palestinian leadership to limit PLO activities in the United States to efforts to achieve peace with Israel.

Congress voted to prohibit any representation by the PLO during the Reagan administration, when it was considered a terrorist organization. President Ronald Reagan rejected the mandate, saying it violated the executive branch’s right to make foreign policy.

The office officially opened after the signing of the Oslo accords nearly 25 years ago, when the PLO and Israel mutually recognized each other and launched a peace process. Since then, Congress has repeatedly recommended its closure, and lawmakers are unlikely to object to the new measure.

Bolton’s reference to the PLO came at the end of a speech, delivered to the Federalist Society, that was largely devoted to the ICC, a body he has long criticized. His successful effort, as a senior State Department official during the George W. Bush administration, to “un-sign” U.S. participation in 2002, when the treaty went into effect, and to negotiate bilateral deals with more than 100 countries not to use it against the United States, “remains one of my proudest achievements,” he said.

A stand-alone tribunal to which more than 120 nations belong, it allows international prosecution for war crimes, crimes against humanity and what Bolton described as a vaguely defined charge of “aggression.” Although it is positioned as a court of “last resort” for those countries with nonfunctional judicial systems, many have argued that its very existence is a violation of national sovereignty. Nearly all of its indictments so far have been against Africans, leading some African nations to charge that it is a new form of co­lo­ni­al­ism.

In the speech, his first formal address since joining the administration in April, Bolton called the court “fundamentally illegitimate” and “an assault on the constitutional rights of the American people and the sovereignty of the United States.”

“Last fall,” he said, “our worst predictions about the ICC’s professed and overly broad prosecutorial powers were confirmed” when “the ICC prosecutor requested authorization to investigate alleged war crimes committed by U.S. service members and intelligence professionals during the war in Afghanistan.”

“Neither Afghanistan nor any other state party” to the treaty had requested the investigation, he said. “Literally any day now, the ICC may announce the start of a formal investigation against these American patriots.” He noted that many had signed on to protect the nation “in the wake of the 9/11 attacks,” whose anniversary falls on Tuesday.

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity before Bolton’s speech, said that his remarks were closely related to concern at the Pentagon and among intelligence agencies about potential U.S. liability to prosecution over actions in Afghanistan. While the assembly of what Bolton called “faraway bureaucrats and robed judges” has no power to act in this country, Americans could conceivably be arrested in countries that recognize its jurisdiction.

“If the court comes after us, Israel or other U.S. allies,” Bolton said, “we will not sit quietly.”

Retaliatory measures, he said, would include banning ICC judges and prosecutors from the United States, imposing sanctions on their funds in the U.S. financial system and prosecuting them in U.S. courts. “We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans,” he said.

Bolton also said the administration would strengthen existing agreements with other countries to shield U.S. personnel from international prosecution.

As for those nations that “cooperate with ICC investigations of the United States and its allies,” he said, “we will remember that cooperation when setting U.S. foreign assistance, military assistance and intelligence-sharing levels.”

Morris reported from Jerusalem. Missy Ryan, Anne Gearan and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.