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U.S. to close Palestinian office in Washington, citing lack of progress on peace process with Israel

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 has ordered the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington because the PLO “has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel,” the State Department said Monday.

The decision follows an extended period of estrangement between the Palestinian Authority government on the West Bank and the administration, which has already canceled most U.S. aid to Palestinians and recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Those moves earlier this year provoked Palestinian withdrawal from talks over a still-to-be-released U.S. plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“PLO leadership 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,” the statement said. The office has been instructed to close no later than Oct. 10.

Palestinian refugee students were back at school Sept. 3 as the United Nations relief agency reopened schools in camps, despite the United States funding cut. (Video: Reuters)

Palestinian officials vowed to fight what they called bullying tactics and “collective punishment” of the Palestinian people.

“These people have decided to stand on the wrong side of history by protecting war criminals and destroying the two-state solution,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “I told them if you are worried about courts, you should stop aiding and abetting crimes.”

In announcing the closure, the State Department said it was “consistent with” concerns about Palestinian calls for an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court. Neither the United States nor Israel recognizes the ICC, and existing U.S. legislation calls for closure of the PLO office following any Palestinian move to use it against Israel.

Palestinians slam ‘vicious blackmail’ as U.S. orders closure of their Washington office

The latest move against the Palestinians comes as the administration Monday threatened to punish individuals who cooperate with the ICC in a potential investigation of U.S. wartime actions in Afghanistan, according to people familiar with the decision.

During a rare address to the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for an international Middle East peace conference to be convened by the middle of this year and slammed the Trump administration for its recognition last December of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. (Video: Reuters)

White House national security adviser John Bolton, in remarks prepared for delivery in a lunchtime speech to the Federalist Society, a conservative and libertarian policy group, outlined threats of sanctions and a ban on travel to the United States for people involved in the attempted prosecution of Americans before the international court.

Bolton is a longtime opponent of the court, on grounds that it violates national sovereignty. Saying the court was “fundamentally illegitimate,” he called it “an assault on the constitutional rights of the American people and the sovereignty of the United States.”

His speech, titled “Protecting American Constitutionalism and Sovereignty From International Threats,” is Bolton’s first formal address since joining the administration in April.

The measures Bolton laid out include banning ICC judges and prosecutors from the United States, imposing sanctions on their funds in the U.S. financial system and prosecution in U.S. courts. “We will do the same for any company or state that assists an ICC investigation of Americans,” he said, according to the prepared remarks. He also proposed measures including strengthening existing agreements with other countries to shield U.S. personnel from international prosecution.

As for any other countries 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.”

Bolton’s announcement is closely related to concern at the Pentagon and among intelligence agencies about potential U.S. liability to prosecution at the court over actions in Afghanistan, said a senior administration official who was familiar with aspects of the forthcoming announcement.

The ICC investigation of U.S. wartime actions represents exactly the kind of infringement on U.S. sovereignty that Bolton and other opponents of the court have long warned about, the official and others said.

“It’s a much more real policy matter now because of the potential liability in Afghanistan,” the official said, adding that other nations have similar concerns.

The Trump administration has questioned whether the ICC has jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute U.S. citizens for actions in Afghanistan, because Afghan, U.S. and U.S. military law all could apply in different situations, the official said.

The new broadside against the ICC follows steps by the administration challenging international cooperation in other areas. This year, the administration has withdrawn from the U.N. human rights body and threatened to pull out of the World Trade Organization, in addition to halting U.S. funding for the U.N. body that aids Palestinian refugees.

Bolton’s speech comes two weeks before President Trump will attend the U.N. General Assembly, where he will address other world leaders. U.S. officials have said Trump will focus on U.S. claims about the threat posed by Iran and will reiterate his opposition to the international nuclear deal with Tehran. Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in May.

Trump’s opposition to the Iran deal is related to a wider suspicion of international agreements and organizations such as the ICC.

Three successive U.S. administrations, of both political parties, have rejected the full jurisdiction of the international court over American citizens, although U.S. cooperation with the court expanded significantly under the Obama administration.

The United States has never ratified the 2002 international treaty that established the court, which is based in The Hague.

Stephen Pomper, who worked on issues related to the ICC in the Obama administration, said an attempt to weaken the court would exacerbate strains between the United States and allies in Europe and elsewhere who were supporters of the court.

“It’s going to create friction that’s not necessary, and it’s going to create the impression the United States is a bully and a hegemon,” said Pomper, who now is U.S. program director at the International Crisis Group.

Bolton was part of an effort during the George W. Bush administration to formalize U.S. resistance to the court, including through legislation prohibiting U.S. support and efforts to pressure other countries into agreements not to surrender U.S. citizens to the body.

Bolton’s opposition has intensified as ICC judges evaluate a request from prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who last fall asked for permission to formally investigate alleged crimes committed during the Afghan war. That could include actions by U.S. military or intelligence personnel in the detention of terrorism suspects.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal in November, Bolton said the investigation added urgency to the need to keep the United States and its citizens out of the court’s reach.

“America’s long-term security depends on refusing to recognize an iota of legitimacy” of the court, he wrote.

David Bosco, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies, said the judges were likely to approve Bensouda’s request.

The court is also considering a request from Palestinian authorities to probe alleged crimes committed in Palestinian territories, a step that could result in attempts to prosecute Israeli officials.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a speech at the United Nations last year, called on the ICC to investigate and prosecute Israeli citizens for alleged crimes against Palestinians.

In response, the Trump administration had moved in November to close the Palestinian diplomatic office but quickly backtracked and allowed the office to remain open with temporary restrictions.

That office serves as a de facto embassy, staffed by an ambassador, to represent Palestinian interests to the U.S. government.

The Trump administration contends that the Palestinians violated U.S. law by seeking prosecution of Israel at the ICC. The administration’s initial decision to close the office caused a breach with Abbas that widened in December when Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and move its embassy there.

The Trump administration has not publicly committed to support a separate sovereign Palestine alongside Israel, which was the goal of previous administrations. But like previous U.S. administrations, the Trump White House considers Palestinian efforts to seek statehood recognition through international organizations to be illegitimate.

The Bush and Obama administrations sought negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to reach that two-state goal. The Trump administration has drafted a detailed proposal to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but has not released it or publicly discussed how it would address Palestinian statehood.

Bosco said punitive moves would “mark a return to a kind of cold war between Washington and The Hague.”

But a move against the ICC is likely to generate less outcry from Congress than those against other international bodies, because politicians of both parties generally oppose attempts to subject Americans, particularly service members, to international prosecution.

The ICC has been subject to international criticism for other reasons, including that it has moved slowly to convict and has focused mainly on crimes occurring in Africa.

Julie Tate and Carol Morello in Washington and Loveday Morris in Jerusalem contributed to this report.